CN D Magazine

#4 nov 23

Ballets And Opera Houses (2): Who Holds the Purse Strings?

Isabelle Calabre

In CN  D Magazine's June 2023 issue, the first instalment of this two-part investigation delineated how opera houses exert a hierarchical domination over the ballet ensembles they oversee (read the piece here).  But this enduring tutelage is not merely a matter of administrative status. In financial terms, the division of the artistic budget between dance and opera remains disproportionate, generally to the detriment of dance. While greater power over their own budget is central to making ballet companies the equal of their lyric counterparts, there is very little clarity in that area.

Is it all about money? Mony at least means power, starting with artistic agency. In the complicated relationship between ballet companies and opera houses, financial matters are front and center. In fact, according to Brigitte Lefèvre, who was director of dance at the Paris Opera for 19 years, money is “the real issue” – an issue that has not escaped the attention of the public bodies tasked with overseeing these institutions. “A major effort is underway with the ballet companies that are integrated into opera houses or designated as National Choreographic Centers, by way of regular conversations, to work towards more adjustments and reaffirm the place of dance,” says Laurent Vinauger, who is in charge of dance at the French Ministry of Culture.

Today, the amount of financial leeway a ballet director has within an opera house is left to the discretion of the general director, who is always from the opera world, and whose mission includes steering the overall budget envelope for all artistic fields. In this context, before claiming control over the dance budget, it is necessary to know what it even is. Ballet directors don't typically attend their opera house's board meetings in France: at the Lyon Opera Ballet, neither Julie Guibert nor her predecessor Yorgos Loukos sat on the board. Similarly, Bruno Bouché, the artistic director of the Ballet de l'Opéra du Rhin, isn't invited to the Opéra du Rhin's community board. (Julie Guibert points out that not having control over her budget “never bothered” her, because she had “a very good relationship with her general manager.”) That's despite the fact that as many emphasize, ballet productions are more popular than opera, and do a better job of bringing in diverse audiences. “Even if at times ballet directors aren't given all relevant information due to administrative roadblocks, it's up to them to work on this issue and not give up,” Vinauger says.

Still, the current state of affairs does not favor a clear-cut split between the ballet's budget on the one hand, and the opera's on the other: “A report along these lines was previously submitted to Roselyne Bachelot [then Minister of Culture],” Vinauger says, “but it involves transferring responsibility for personnel to each entity. It would make no sense from a financial point of view, and would jeopardize the institutions in question.” The proposal was subsequently abandoned. Instead, the solution might lie in a process that would set out in writing the responsibilities of all parties.

In the meantime, many scenarios coexist. At the helm of the Avignon Ballet until July 2024, Emilio Calcagno says that he has “no idea” what his annual budget is: “I pitch my programming, and they tell me whether it's doable or not.” He laments the lack of financial investment from the Ministry, “which wants to keep an eye on things but doesn't give any money.” In Bordeaux, ballet director Éric Quilleré doesn't have control over his budget either, “but I'm given limits, a framework, and I know that if I exceed them my proposals will be rejected” (with a few exceptions, as for Angelin Preljocaj's Mythologies, where “we were able to work something out,” he says). Quilleré sees some advantages to this situation: “It forces us to talk, to share artistic choices, and it allows one man's project to become a joint project.” His general manager, Emmanuel Hondré, concurs: “We evaluate projects without any hierarchical relationship, but rather by comparing points of view, according to their number and the self-financing rate that results from the income to performance ratio. Since dance productions don't incur deficits as large as opera productions, we reserve a share of the opera house's subsidies or revenue to the projected deficit.” And on a “project-by-project” basis, he says, the programming committee (which also includes the choir and orchestra leaders, as well as the production, technical and administrative directors) meets to “decide on the best course of action, in the event of a large deficit, and add a few dates to bring extra money in.” A mutually beneficial “dialectic,” Hondré says, for which he strongly “advocates.”

West Side Story (Musical Direction David Charles Abell / Staging Barrie Kosky, Otto Pichler) at the OnR, with the participation of the OnR Ballet © Klara Beck

Bruno Bouché, whose contract at the Opéra du Rhin requires him to submit his provisional programming for approval, also emphasizes the quality of his exchanges with the institution's director, Alain Perreau. “I've never had a program rejected,” he says, before mentioning joint projects that saw the opera and ballet sides “complementing each other,” such as a production of West Side Story in 2022. In Nice, general administrator Flavien Moglia says he knows exactly what his budget is for dance: “It's been at the same level for years and hasn't gone down, which is already something.” He does, however, sometimes hold discussions to obtain additional performances for some of the ballet repertoire's classics, which are very popular with the audience. At the Capitole in Toulouse, general director Christophe Ghristi speaks of a “standard overall budget for dance, within which we try to get back on our feet from one year to the next.” The “right method,” he says, is for the ballet director (Beate Vollack in Toulouse since September) to “have their budget in mind and adapt their programming to it, with room for negotiation.” He is adamant that he “generally approves” the proposals submitted to him, “with a few adjustments to take into account financial or material constraints,” and also emphasizes the “joy” of seeing ballet and opera come together for a production, as with Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles this fall.

Judging by this overview, it's clear that opera and dance houses need to be considered as a whole, and their artistic, technical, administrative and financial resources combined as effectively as possible. Julie Guibert even suggests “making dance the driving force behind programming” and appointing opera directors not only on the basis of their musical skills, but also according to “the place they give to dance within a collective project.” A wish boldly echoed by Éric Quilleré in Bordeaux: “Why shouldn't dance leaders feel legitimate enough to apply for the position of general director? It shocks me that it is not yet the case, and I hope that one day it will change!”

Isabelle Calabre is a journalist specializing in culture and dance, who works with several print and online magazines. She has written for a number of theaters and festivals and is the author of several books on hip-hop as well as the YA book Je danse à l’Opéra (éd. Parigramme). Additionally, since 2018, she has conducted research on West Indian and Guyanese quadrilles (Creole social dances). In 2020, she was awarded funding from the Centre national de la danse for that project.