Dudamel vows to stamp his DNA on Paris Opera

Paris (AFP) –


Gustavo Dudamel, bringing a gust of flamboyant celebrity to the Paris Opera as its new musical director, told AFP he wants to break down the walls of the fabled institution in search of new audiences.

The 40-year-old Venezuelan is one of the youngest ever to take up the baton at the 350-year-old institution, but has already developed a huge international reputation with his impassioned performances.

The inspiration for Amazon TV show "Mozart in the Jungle" about a similarly wild-haired prodigy, he has been head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 2009 and one of the most in-demand conductors around the world.

His name was top of the list when the Paris Opera's director-general Alexander Neef asked his musicians who should succeed Swiss musical director Philippe Jordan.

Dudamel had performed there only once, directing La Boheme by Puccini in 2017, but it was a moment that stuck.

"It was marvellous. I remember it like it was yesterday," Dudamel told AFP in an interview at the Palais Garnier ahead of his official nomination on Friday.

"It was magic. There was a connection, a mutual respect, a desire to do things well."

- 'New chapter' -

With France still in the midst of a heavy third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, it remains unclear how things will look when he takes over in August, but he plans for a fresh start in more ways than one.

"It will be the start of a major new chapter, not just post-pandemic, but to start connecting to new audiences," he said.

Dudamel is the star product of "El Sistema", Venezuela's state-run musical education project, and he has been highly active in promoting musical education around the world.

One of the greatest joys of joining the Paris Opera, he said, was that it offered "an example, a vision for young people who dream not only of music but to develop themselves through the arts."

He said he plans to work closely with the Opera's Academy, formed in 2015 to promote talented young singers, musicians and other theatre workers.

"It's very important that I bring my DNA and that I share it with a place that has tradition, excellence and the possibility of further development," he said.

While he remains cautious about sharing too much of his plans, he spoke about wanting to take his work beyond the walls of the opera house and into disadvantaged areas.

"Classical music is closed off in its buildings. As artistic institutions, we must think of ways to make people identify with us. Often, we wait for them to come to us. We need to go to them," he said.

Dudamel faces a busy schedule, since he already splits his time between LA and his home with Spanish actor Maria Valverde in Madrid.

But far from being a handicap, he says the double role with LA brings "stability" and "a balance between two families".

- 'Transformation' -

He arrives at a time when the Opera is in deep discussions around diversity and whether some of its familiar stagings now look anachronistic.

"We are in a period of reflection about justice, rights, and I think it's a very important discussion," he told AFP. "We need to listen to our times, but transformation must involve finding a balance and not a sort of radicalisation."

Dudamel has felt his share of controversy, particularly regarding events in his home country.

Many Venezuelans have reproached him for his silence on the increasingly authoritarian turn of their government, though the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2017 finally caused him to speak out against the violence.

"The situation has caused me a lot of pain. It's difficult, complex but I've never doubted that we will get out of it. We shouldn't throw oil on the fire.

"The most important thing is that I serve my country," he said.