Jean-Louis Grinda in conversation with Rivka Jacobson

Jean-Louis Grinda is the director of the Opera House in Monte Carlo. His boss is Caroline, Princess of Hanover, he explains with a smile and hastens to add that she is an excellent boss as she genuinely cares for culture and does a great deal to promote the arts.

Princess Caroline awards the conductor Nathalie Stutzmann the Medal of the Order of Cultural Merit of Monaco (part of the programme “Heroes from the Shadows” supported by Monte Carlo Opera House (2015). Photographer: Alain Hanel

Monte Carlo Opera House and the world-famous Casino are under one roof. It was first confusing as the large entrance hall accommodates the doors to both. On your left is a large sign ‘No photography’, and the door that leads to the casino; on your right, a more modest door leads to the Opera’s Headquarters and the Opera House itself. The building was arranged thus because the takings of the casino helped finance the opera. Being aware of that marriage of locations, one realises that enterprise in different guises and forms fuels the arts. Today the SBN, the association of casinos and hotels, four hotels in Monte Carlo, support culture – ballet, opera and the orchestra.

Jean-Louis Grinda has just directed Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor for Monte Carlo, a production that explores the character and problems of Lucia, a woman, in the context of a society where her status gives her the confidence equal to a man. Until that is, her brother, desperate to save the family from financial ruin manipulates and tricks her into submission by arranging a marriage for her against her will.

Lucia at the New National Theatre Tokyo. Image by Masahiko Terashi

Mr Grinda and I met at his office, where a large window overlooks the Opera House grounds. His desk, heaving with papers, opera programmes and books, is also adorned with some family pictures, a befitting reminder of the balance that must be exercised in every demanding post.

I was born into theatre’, he says. His family has been involved in theatre since 1862. He remarks with a slight chuckle that he is the first member in a long family tradition that cannot sing. His father was a baritone and later director of different opera houses, including this one. His mother was a ballerina and then, as ‘she had a very beautiful voice’ she sang in operettas and musicals. ‘She retired from stage at the age of 78’, he adds with an affectionate laugh.

Guy Grinda in La bohême 1950 – Opéra de Monte-Carlo

His inability to sing together with his passion for opera meant that he could apply his knowledge and his love of the art form to direct and manage others to perform. ‘I had to study something to help me to advance my career in the opera world’. Economics seemed the appropriate field. You cannot separate the successful running of an opera house from its need for cash. Economics was a choice that proved to be wise as the young Grinda, age 21, had his first post with the Opera House in Avignon. He never looked back with anger or disappointment. Every stage of his career paved the way to the current position, which he has held for the past 12 years – the Director of the Opera House in Monte Carlo. His talent, background, diligence and ambition kept him with his feet on the ground, yet with both realistic dreams and the sheer practicality of an individual who is genuinely passionate about opera and culture.

Jean-Louis Grinda with Mstislav Rostropovitch 1982

Mr Grinda has clear views on opera in a wide social context ‘Opera is not an exclusive club and it is a mistake to think of it as such’ he says, pointing to the growing appeal across the globe – China, Japan, Korea, Australia America South America and all over Europe. ‘Never before have we produced such different operas in the world’.

As to how to attract young people he explains with utter conviction ‘The challenge of attracting young people to see, enjoy and appreciate opera is a work in progress. The target is to simplify things. You have to help young people understand opera. Opera is a strange art; there are so many impressions and emotions it triggers. The main attraction is pleasure’.

Producing an opera is an expensive business and Jean-Louis Grinda loves the process and the end result. He finds it absurd that anyone should apologise for spending large sums of money on producing opera, which is a labour-intensive and highly collaborative art. ‘That is superfluous and utterly unnecessary’, he explains. ‘The only justification of opera is to produce something beautiful, extreme, dangerous with great impression, strength and a lot of different moods. But I don’t need to justify my money. The argument that you are opening the door for Opera is stupid – the door has been open for 400 years’.

RJ: How do we make opera affordable for the young and for those who are not too well off?

JL Grinda: Opera is not for rich people. It is not a question of money, but of education. He points out that tickets for a reasonable price – 20 to 30 euros are on offer at Monte Carlo Opera House as in other opera houses.

Grinda’s views are decided and clear. For culture to blossom in any country, the political echelon has to have a cultural vision. This lies heavily on the shoulders of the elected politicians. Politics determines what culture is for a country. To vote for people who are going to help culture and develop it is important. If the politicians don’t want to help, opera will be finished. It is a question of civilisation and human beings. ‘It is not usual to have this point of view, but I believe it. I have had this view for a long time. My grandfather and his father were in this business and my grandfather was told opera was finished one hundred years ago. After two terrible wars, opera continues in Germany, England, France, and also in America and in Argentina. After these wars, we have the best singers ever heard. We need this.’

RJ: Opera, as we know it, thrives in the Western world. Can you explain why we do not hear of black African opera composers? Is it a question of cultural sophistication? Or simply lack of training?

JL Grinda : Both. If you consider Japan, China and Korea, they love opera and Shakespeare because they learn. It is not their culture, it is adopted. In Africa you have no chance to do that today because you have no means, no theatres or orchestras or conservatoires; maybe, in South Africa only. There is a little bit in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia. In Egypt, you have a very big opera house because it has tradition, like in Istanbul. It is difficult if you know the film Fitzcarraldo in Amazonia (Werner Herzog’s 1982 adventure drama film based on a true story), a strange guy, a little bit mad, but very rich, decides to produce an opera in a new theatre that he built. It is a beautiful film.

Klaus Kinski in Fitzcarraldo, as a dreamer who plans to build an opera house in Iquitos, in the Peruvian Amazon

At the moment the conditions are not right in Africa yet. India is a different problem. It is totally closed. They have money and theatres, but they are not interested in western opera for the moment. I don’t know why. Maybe it is a reaction against the British? They make a lot of movies but not Opera. There have been a few attempts to introduce Opera but the politicians are not interested at all. And, of course, there is a tradition of their own very different kinds of music, dance and culture.

During the reign of HSH Prince of Monaco, the National Day is held on 19 November, Saint-Rainier day. The day starts with a Te Deum in the Monaco Cathedral,  attended by the Grimaldi family and invited guests. The official festivities culminate at the Opera House with guests, invited by the Palace. This year the opera performs Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. With all the traditions and ceremonies, it is a whole-day event, from nine in the morning until midnight. Everyone is invited to the Cathedral and the opera. Ambassadors from England, America, France are invited. It is an important moment for Monaco because everyone gathers in front of the Palace to see the Prince and family.

I pointed out that prior to the opera performance the audience stands up for the national anthem. It seems extraordinary.

JL Grinda explains that ‘on the 19th we always play the national anthem’ so he decided ‘that before every performance this week the national anthem is played because it is the same show and the spectators are there to appreciate the opera and also the national celebration. It is a beautiful tradition’.

I wondered why the opera Lucia di Lammermoor was chosen to open the season and to crown the National Day festivities.

JL Grinda explains that ‘it is a beautiful opera on a big stage and it was a coproduction with Tokyo, which helps us with the costs. Each season I try to find a new title, which is difficult after ten years. We did Puccini and Wagner. You can’t produce shows that are too long. I need to charm the ears and the eyes.’ He says with a smile.

The production of Lucia di Lammermoor was a triumph. Singers, orchestra and Maestro Abbado were faultless. This production has travelled extensively. There was some directorial tweaking in different countries to meet diverse cultures.

In Japan, I am told, Lucia, superbly performed by Olga Peretyatko, after murdering the man she was tricked into marrying, appears on stage with his ‘head’ on a spear. In Monte Carlo, she merely had a bloody spear. Similarly, in June 2019, when it was performed in Valencia, at the very end, when Lucia dies, her full body is taken out of the grave. One might say, something of a Christ-like figure (RJ’s comment)

Ismael Jordi as Sir Edgardo Ravenswood (Photography: Alain Hanel )

There were some powerful dramatic touches in what is known as the mad scene. Lucia takes off her veil and rolls it into a baby figure that she then cradles in her arms. Her dream to marry her lover and bear his children melts into the oblivion she has drifted into.

Olga Peretyatko is also a great artist and interpreter. She is always looking for something new. I give her some ideas and directions and she also brings her own ideas. She is a huge personality, very clever and strong. She never needs to hide behind excuses. She solves problems immediately. She believes in what she is producing on stage. She is honest with the audience, with me and also with herself,’ he says of the leading singer in this production.

Lucia (Olga Peretyatko) cradles her veil as if a baby. (Photographer: Alain Hanel)

Discussing Monte Carlo’s Opera House, Mr Grinda points out:

The most important thing I did here in the past years was to establish a new orchestra. It is such an amazing success around the world. We are invited to the Salzburg Festival and we tour Europe. We are touring in two days. We have a lot of projects. Opera Monte Carlo is a small house, but we have three seasons, our seasons inside the hall in Monaco, a second season touring in Europe, and then the third season is taking our production further around the world. For instance, this season we were in Helsinki, San Francisco, Valencia, and Hong Kong. It is a huge job to organise it. The theatres rent our productions. For such a small Opera House, we are now fully developed.’

The Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra, in the Cour d’Hon­neur at the Prince’s Palace.

I mentioned to him that I, on behalf of, would love to outreach to local schools, workshops for young students/pupils in Monte Carlo, exploring the art of reviewing the performing arts – drama, dance and opera, and interviewing playwrights and directors. He warmly welcomed the idea. He pointed out that they have an international university in Monaco and a French high school pointing out that he happy to help implement my idea.

I suggested that the top best three reviews will be published on website and the reviewers would be awarded a certificate together with a pair of tickets to see some of the season performances, to be given to them on the 19th November before the Opera performance.

JL Grinda reassured me that ‘the Palace actively supports the arts. Princess Caroline is the president of the Board, and is totally involved. “She knows a lot about the arts, music and movies. She is a fantastic person. We are very lucky to have her. In France, they have Macron and he is a theatre lover. When he was young, he was an actor.

I was very much inspired by my very brief visit to Monte Carlo.

I came here with some strong preconceived ideas of the place. I left with a sobering awareness that wealth and culture can flourish under one roof and even support each other. The co-existence of what seems polarised worlds can almost organically fuse with mutual respect for independence and contribution to a better society.