Monday, July 2, 2012



Summer means Opera in Aix-en-Provence. Six operas are performed here during the month of July (two world premières), and this year Master Classes for Voice, Chamber Music, and Direction (mise-en-scène) are held three times a week from mid June throughout July as part of the opera program. Also this month, the town of Orange presents two operas as well as Mozart's Requiem, all staged in front of the majestic backdrop of the Roman wall of the Théâtre Antique.

Opera in Orange

It's heaven for those who like opera, but for those who don't there are many other musical offerings in the area, such as Les Nuits d'Istres with the great Jessye Norman who will sing jazz, blues and gospel, and artists such as Gilberto Gil and George Benson.

In Marseilles "Jazz from the Five Continents" presents saxophonist Sonny Rollins, the band Earth Wind and Fire, and more. The Roman arena of Nîmes hosts Bob Dylan and Elton John, as well as the English group Radiohead, and the tiny island of Gaou just off the Riviera coast features Sting, Gossip (remember the fat girl at the Cannes Film Festival?) and Ben Harper.

Piano festival in La Roque d'Anthéron

This year, the international piano festival in La Roque d'Anthéron will pay tribute to one of its favorite and more frequent performers, pianist Brigitte Engerer, who was expected to play again this year but who died on June 23, 2012 at the age of 59.


Music lovers are particularly well served with summer festivities in Provence, but the most popular of all events may well be the annual Theatre Festival in Avignon (*) where during the sole month of July more than 1000 plays are produced in venues ranging from the vast courtyard of the Papal Palace to little makeshift theatres for some 30 spectators.

Palais des Papes, Avignon
Here you are likely to see big stars − most recently Jeanne Moreau and Juliette Binoche − in the major theatres at night, but also plenty of young talent during the daytime "Off" festival who may become tomorrow's big names. This year's Associate Artist is actor-director Simon McBurney, the first Englishman so honored, who will open the season at the Palais des Papes with The Master and Margarita based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov.

To give you a little taste of these festivals, here's a chapter from my book Taking Root in Provence:


The Opera Festival in Aix-en-Provence is the local highlight of the year, and as opera lovers we consider ourselves fortunate to be living here. The fun starts in early June when about three dozen young musicians arrive from all over the world for Master Classes—an honor they have won in an international competition. These master classes are open to the public and are a wonderful opportunity to see up close the hard work and the difficulty of the art of singing, cello playing, violin, piano, etc. Some of our past masters have included Isaac Stern for violin, Teresa Berganza for voice, and Pierre Boulez for percussion and conducting, but every year brings an interesting new crop. Some of the young singers may perform in the chorus of the operas to be performed in July, but all will give recitals and concerts in one or more of the lovely squares and courtyards in the old center of Aix in the evenings. A €15 “passport” gives access to all master classes and concerts during the month of June as well as to some dress rehearsals.
            The serious excitement starts in July with the opening of the Opera Festival. Six operas are performed throughout the month in four different locations, and the city literally fills up with opera lovers. Hotels are full, as are restaurants and the terraces along the Cours Mirabeau—the Champs Elysées of Aix-en-Provence.
            With a bit of luck you run into stars, but you don’t need any luck to see famous faces in line at the various venues. I have made it a habit to have dinner at one of the two outdoor restaurants on the Place de l’Archeveché before the opera. With my tickets safely in my pocket, I can take my time to eat and watch the crowd gathering while I savor my dessert. I am sure to see current or former government ministers, well-known newscasters and other famous faces of politics and television, and even Gérard Depardieu with Carole Bouquet. Most of them have summer houses in the area and the air snaps with air kisses as they find each other and thrill at seeing and being seen.
            Opera tickets go on sale in early February, and living steps away from the box office you might think that getting tickets is a cinch for us. Well, not quite. There are  a limited number of inexpensive, subsidized tickets that sell out fast, and in hopes of getting any of these you have to get up early. Very early (*). When Oscar got in line at 3:30 in the morning (the box office opens at 10:00 AM) he was number sixty-five in the queue, and when I replaced him at 7:00 AM the line curled around the block. I recognized a number of stalwarts from previous years and found the same convivial atmosphere of shared hardship in anticipation of our reward. Some people sat on little stools wrapped in blankets, others in heavy coats with woolen scarves halfway up their faces stamped their feet to keep warm, some read, others chatted. Snippets of family life floated on the still night air, and once in a while some lucky “liner” would be relieved by a mate and allowed to go home and to bed.
            Surprisingly, people seem to be getting up earlier every year and this time there were two couples who had camped out all night with folding chairs and sleeping bags to be first in line the next morning. Perhaps not unusual for a rock concert but this is a crowd of retirees with many a grandmother among them. Tough little grandmothers who will wait stoically in the February night for seven to eight hours so that they can get tickets for themselves or a beloved grandchild at the affordable price of €28 (approx. $40). For those of us who buy everything, i.e., all six operas, these inexpensive tickets are manna from heaven.
            Around 9:00 AM “breakfast” appeared in the form of trays of croissants and hot coffee, tea and orange juice, offered free of charge by the Office de l’Opéra to the chilled ticket line. It thawed the frozen crowd and sparked a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation. The end was in sight, the prize within reach, and the ordeal almost over. Another long night had been offered to the opera gods who would soon reward our devotion. Murmurs of “See you next year” were beginning to be heard and all of us bound for a night by our shared passion for opera were soon to disperse for another year. Perchance to meet again at one of the performances, where with a knowing wink we would proudly pat the “cheap” ticket in our pocket before finding our places among the expensive Orchestra seats. We can’t suppress a secret feeling of superiority over all those who paid full price, before we sit down to enjoy Wagner’s Walkyrie with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic (no less), or Mozart, Monteverdi, or Janacek. Forgotten the long wait in the chilly night. What long wait?!

(*) Today some tickets are sold by telephone and Internet.

(*) To read the chapter about the Off Festival in Avignon featured in Taking Root in Provence, click here.


  1. So much to enjoy! Can't wait to join you soon in Aix...

  2. It's a fantastic sounding music festival, both from your account in Taking Root, but also from this reminder! Enjoy the music, and brushing shoulders with the well knowns!