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Jean-Louis Grinda: “Opera is not just a passion. It is the love of my life”

©Gilles Leimdorfer - Interlinks image

Sharing memories and projects, the current director of the Monte-Carlo Opera, who will leave his post in a few months, spoke to us about a career that is full of challenges and emotions.

We met Jean-Louis Grinda in his office, just next to the superb Salle Garnier. From January 2023, after fifteen years of dedicated service, he will hand over his position as director of the Monte Carlo Opera to the Italian singer Cecilia Bartoli. An appropriate moment for the Monegasque director to look back on a life of music and artistic creation.

Jean-Louis Grinda and Cecilia Bartoli – © Marco Borrelli

Jean-Louis Grinda did not originally seem destined for a musical career however: “I began by studying economics and law at university. Even though my studies were going very well, I wanted to give them up to work as an unpaid intern at the Avignon Opera.”

A decision that can be explained by an impressive family history in the artistic field.  “I was born into an operatic family: it was the soundtrack of my childhood, so to speak. My father was a baritone, and he was an opera director for much of his life. My mother started out as a ballet dancer, then she started singing. The first family member in a long and unbroken line of singers, dates back to 1860! I am the only one who has never sung, but I am a director: we’re all involved in the arts in some way.”

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A father of four, Jean-Louis Grinda is keen to encourage his children to do what they want to do in life. But the arts are never far off it would seem, with an older son who plays the guitar, a second who plays the piano and two daughters who are harpists.

After that first internship at the Avignon Opera, at the age of 21, Jean-Louis Grinda became artistic secretary of the structure in 1982, before occupying the same position at the Chorégies d’Orange. “In 1984, I became production director at the Ministry of Culture, then I was appointed director of the Grand Théâtre in Reims. So I’ve been in management positions for forty years, which gives away my age”, he jokes.

He became director of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège in 1996, and left the post ten years later to take over as director of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo in 2007. At the same time, he has also been the director of the Chorégies d’Orange since 2018. A rich and busy career, combined with his activities as National Councillor, in the Union Monégasque political group, since 2013.

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Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Culturel in Monaco, Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in France and Chevalier de l’Ordre de Léopold in Belgium, Jean-Louis Grinda is also President of the Commission which monitors the Constitutional Reserve Fund and the Modernisation of Public Accounts, on the National Council.

While many of us would think long and hard about accepting such a large number of responsibilities, hesitation is rarely an option for Jean-Louis Grinda: I like to seize opportunities when they arise. And as fear is not usually part of my repertoire, I tend to jump in, head first! That’s how I started out as a stage director, actually. It took me three minutes in a taxi in Paris to make the decision, even though I was already a director”, he tells us.

Promoting Monte-Carlo Opera internationally

And when asked about his greatest challenge in Monte Carlo, it is hard to choose: “Every season, every show is a challenge. But the biggest achievement is undoubtedly the creation of Les Musiciens du Prince (the Prince’s Musicians) in 2016. Nobody does that. I don’t think there has been a single opera director in the world, for decades, who has created a new orchestra with such dazzling and immediate success, both internationally and financially. I saw Cecilia Bartoli in 2015 and we talked about it. The Sovereign, Princess Caroline and the Government accepted immediately: everyone really grasped the opportunity.”

Cecilia Bartoli and the Musiciens du Prince – © 2020 – Alain Hanel – OMC

“I flatter myself to think that the Monte Carlo Opera has grown under my direction, not only because of the Musiciens du Prince, but also our performances. All our shows tour a lot, and are performed in many places. For example, as we speak, my assistant is in Hong Kong for La Traviata rehearsals. We have shows playing in Australia, the United States, Germany, England, Italy, despite having a very small team.”

And after fifteen years contributing to the international cultural influence of the Monte-Carlo Opera and, by extension, of the Principality, Jean-Louis Grinda has lost count of the good memories. One in particular comes to mind, however: “Three years ago I was in Naples, staging my production of the Tales of Hoffmann. At the same time, Cecilia Bartoli and the Prince’s Musicians were giving their first ever concert in Naples, at the Teatro San Carlo. In the middle of my rehearsals, the stage was cleared for the Musicians and Bartoli, and we watched the concert. The theatre was full. Cecilia gave a concert that went on forever, she sang wonderfully.

For the very first time, Cecilia Bartoli sang at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples with the Prince’s Musicians – © 2019 – Francesco Squeglia

At the end, she did at least six or seven encores, singing Neapolitan songs, with the Neapolitan accent, words and phrasing. And when she finished one of her songs, at the end of the applause, a small voice from on high said: “Cecilia, continua a farci sognare”, which means “Cecilia, keep us dreaming.”  It’s one of the most memorable phrases in my career: it was my orchestra, “my” artist, and when you hear that, you think “this is what we work for.” We work for people, who come in search of emotions.”

Theatres should be run by artists: only an artist knows how over the top you can allow yourself to go

Emotions, strong or otherwise, are what Jean-Louis Grinda has always wanted to convey in his productions. The director is particularly fond of his version of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff, a comic opera that he describes as “one of his hits” , or Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mzens , which he did not stage, but did present in Monte Carlo. “I endeavoured to provide operas that had never been performed before and I really enjoyed introducing the public to all these works,” he says.

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Today, Jean-Louis Grinda is looking to the future. After fifteen years of productions, the director has decided to hand over to Cecilia Bartoli: “No one asked me to, but I chose to leave the Monte-Carlo Opera. I thought that after fifteen years they’d seen enough of me. You cannot hijack an institution. It’s healthy that this House is taking a new path.”

The only advice Iwould give Cecilia is: be yourself and don’t pay me any mind. Cecilia is a brilliantly intelligent woman with a real vision for the Monte Carlo Opera. I believe theatres should be run by artists: only an artist knows how over the top you can allow yourself to go. An administrator will always think about the budgetary and reasonable aspect. But I don’t know of a single member of the audience who has walked into a theatre and said “I’m here because the books are balanced.” We go because it’s interesting.”

Al Capone, Carmen.. Many projects in the pipeline

Although the Monte-Carlo page is slowly being turned, for Jean-Louis Grinda being inactive is not an option. As well as his position as director of the Festival des Chorégies d’Orange, which he intends to keep for some time, he shared with us his future projects, this time as a stage director: “I am swamped. I’m currently working on a musical for January in Paris with Roberto Alagna, Bruno Pelletier and Anggun about Al Capone, we have 90 performances lined up at the Folies Bergères. Then I’m doing Carmen  in Spain in the spring. I’m very happy, because I like to do things that are different.”

© 2016 – Alain Hanel – OMC

Musicals, operettas, operas… Jean-Louis Grinda likes to branch out and give free rein to his creativity. Even though opera remains  ‘the love of his life’ : ‘I wouldn’t say it is a passion, because passion can fade. It is a deep love of artists and audiences. You work for the audience and when you love opera, it is the art form that best lifts you out of reality. No one speaks in rhyme and song in real life. You are carried away for two or three hours, into another emotional dimension. Opera is not just a distraction, like a television programme. It’s something else: you feel an emotional power that is inaccessible in everyday life.”

Opera is like football: it’s for fans

And after 40 years in this emotionally charged environment, Jean-Louis Grinda is convinced that opera is an art form that appeals to the younger generations:  “If that weren’t the case, opera would have died out long ago, along with the audience. Opera is an art form that is four centuries old, and yet there have never been as many performances in the world as there are today. There is opera in China, Korea, Japan, South Africa, Australia, South America. There is a kind of worldwide interest in opera.”

And for him, whatever preconceived notions and clichés may say, opera is not, and should not be, reserved for a certain category of population: “Opera is like football: it’s for fans. People are capable of travelling miles to see their team or a big game and pay a lot of money for their seats, by making sacrifices in other areas of their lives. Theatres have always been filled with people from extremely different social backgrounds: wealthy people, big bosses, shopkeepers, employees or people from humble backgrounds, who are fans, just like football.

Look at Paris: PSG has 850,000 spectators and the Paris Opera (Bastille and Garnier) also has 850,000 spectators. Exactly the same. But we need appeal, singers who people are interested in, stars. As with all the arts, you need headliners, even though a cast of lesser-known artists can be excellent. You just have to find a balance.”

And so, with a head full of memories and projects, Jean-Louis Grinda finishes writing his Monte-Carlo Opera chapter, giving way to a new dynamic for the institution which, under the aegis of Cecilia Bartoli, announces a new season that is full of creativity and promise.