Exclusive interview with Parisian star Natalie Dessay

  • 5 novembre 2018
  • Les exclus de Theatre in Paris
  • Rupert Comer

A Q&A session with Natalie Dessay, star of the Parisian theatre scene

After thirty years as a soprano performing in opera houses the world over, French singer Natalie Dessay decided to turn to her first love, acting. She is now starring in Legend of a Life, a new production of a lesser-known play by the legendary Austrian author Stefan Zweig. Playing in Paris’ Théâtre Montparnasse, the show is conveniently accompanied by surtitles in English and so is enjoyed by Parisians and tourists alike. Theatre in Paris sat down with Madame Dessay to talk the play, opera, and everything in between....


Theatre in Paris: What drew you to the play Legend of a Life by Stefan Zweig?

Natalie Dessay: Well the director came to me with the script. I love Stefan Zweig, and loved the fact it wasn’t a very well known work. Zweig is really appreciated in France. Everyone thinks they know him but in reality they don’t. We forget that he was also a playwright.

TIP: Is this your first time working with this director (Christophe Lidon)?

ND: Yes, [my costar] Macha Méril introduced me to him so it’s thanks to her that I’m here today, and I’m so happy with the whole cast. The troupe is so lovely and enthusiastic, it’s been a real pleasure to perform with them.

TIP: How would you describe the play?

ND: The play deals with several themes. You have the family conflict and the struggle for the son to make a name for himself while his father was such an icon, and being dead he’s an untouchable icon. It’s not easy for the son to find his place, certainly not as a theatrical writer, walking in the steps of his father. [...] There is also the theme of secrets, something that poisons a lot of families. The secret hurts the son and everyone else in the play. Even those who wish to keep the secret don’t realise that they themselves are trapped by it [...]. And so you have this question about transparency, should you reveal everything about a personality once they are dead? Or should you try to maintain the legend built around them to try and inspire people? It’s an important question. Nowadays everyone is talking about transparency at all costs...

TIP: Transparency in private and public life?

ND: Yes and it’s like a sort of dictatorship to want to know everything about people. Who’s sleeping with who? And why? And when? And how many times? Personally I don’t think we need to know about everything people do in their private lives. If they are an artist, for example, it’s enough to just have access to their work.

TIP: Should we separate the artist’s life from their work?

ND: Actually I was discussing this the other day with someone, who told me yes and no. For example, what if there is someone who is an important cultural figure and an example to many people? And what if this person refused to reveal that they were homosexual, even though this revelation might give a lot of courage to people struggling to come out themselves? Perhaps in this case it is worth revealing this aspect of their private life. But that’s another question, should we do that or not? I still don’t know myself.

TIP: What is the value of putting on an unknown work such as this one?

ND: I think that Zweig is such a great author. Even though we don’t necessarily consider him as a great dramatic author, it is worth getting to know his theatre to reveal another aspect of his literature, an aspect relatively unknown until now. It may not be Shakespeare but that’s not the point. It’s still a wonderful play with wonderful characters, so it’s worth it. If the play was really rubbish, I doubt we would have put it on.

TIP: Do you think that the play can be compared to Zweig’s novellas and biographies?

ND: No, not at all. It’s entirely its own thing.

TIP: Zweig’s work often touches upon psychology, how did you interpret the mentality of your character?

ND: We don’t talk about psychology in theatre, you can’t work like that. Actors don’t work with psychology. Never. We work with our bodies, in an almost animalistic way. That means we read the script and see what happens. But we don’t start saying things like: “He wanted to say that there because when he was five his mum told him this, and so he felt hurt [...]”. Not at all. If we start working like that in theatre then we’re lost, it just doesn’t exist.

TIP: After an impressive career as an opera singer, why did you decide to become an actress?

ND: Because originally I wanted to be an actress, and I began singing in order to become one, in order to perform. I’ve been telling myself this for thirty years. So I began by studying theatre, and afterwards I studied singing. I then became an opera singer so that I could act, while singing of course. But acting is my real passion, being an actress is what really interests me.

TIP: Do you prefer performing in an intimate theatre like Théâtre Montparnasse as opposed to a big opera hall?

ND: Yes, definitely.

TIP: What’s the difference?

ND: Everything is different. The connection with the spectator, for example. You don’t have the orchestra pit separating you from the audience. You don’t have to yell to be heard over the sound of the musicians. And you can finally act, you can be more genuine, more subtle, and more intimate.

TIP: You’ve performed all over the world, so I’m sure you have a lot of experience with both small and big venues.

ND: Yes definitely, but what I really didn’t like about opera were the huge opera houses. I never liked them and never will. You have to shout to be heard and nobody can see your face. In fact, you can’t really act at all, you’re too constrained by the music and the physical act of singing.

TIP: Do you think a lot of people share this opinion?

ND: Yes I suppose, but then singers aren’t actors. They perform their role, of course, but that has nothing to do with reading your lines and really delving deep into the emotions of the character. If you try and do this when singing then you won’t be singing anymore. It’s a completely different field of work.

TIP: Do you have a favourite venue?

ND: I’m not sure, that depends. I like venues that have lovely acoustics, if I’m going to be singing then I want really nice acoustics, especially when it’s without a microphone. [...] The Vienna State Opera has beautiful acoustics [...] and I love the Palais Garnier but not really because of the acoustics, because of Marc Chagall’s beautiful frescoes on the ceiling.

TIP: Whether it be opera or theatre, what was your favourite role to perform?

ND: I don’t really have a favourite role, it’s more productions that I adore. For example, there was Sivadier’s production of La Traviata, or Laurent Pelly’s productions of La Fille du Régiment and Orpheus in the Underworld, and Robert Carsen’s The Tales of Hoffmann.

TIP: And what makes one production better than another? Is it the team?

ND: Well it’s the team but also the stage director, what they get us to do, the environment they create for us to perform in. Whether it’s really delving into the details or whether they just tell you to get on at stage right and leave at stage left.

TIP: So its about being proud of the production?

ND: Yes, it’s about doing real work, real acting as much as possible, at least with opera. Having really good staging is also very important.

TIP: The use of surtitles is quite common in the opera world, but would you like to see more plays with surtitles?

ND: Personally I think that would be brilliant. [...] It’s not that common yet at the theatre.

TIP: That’s exactly what we’re trying to change!

ND: And it’s a bit easier with opera because there isn’t a lot of text, the music is slow and so the text is slow, it’s doable. But when you have text rushing by very quickly, how do you deal with that?

TIP: Well it’s important to cut into digestible portions, you can’t just show an entirely literal translation.

ND: Definitely, you can’t translate everything of course. But I think more surtitles at the theatre would be a brilliant thing, and that would also allow more foreign troupes to come and perform.


Legend of a Life is playing at Théâtre Montparnasse until January 11, 2019. The show is performed in French with English surtitles.

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