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Audacity pays as Belgium’s little opera defies austerity

BRUSSELS (AFP) ― Defying hard times in Europe, the Brussels opera house is filling seats by offering bold and innovative shows despite a tight budget, shrinking subsidies and a smaller workforce.

“In a period of crisis, audacity pays off,” Peter de Caluwe, the 48-year-old head of La Monnaie opera house (“The Mint” in English), told AFP.

“Austerity is not a word that scares us,” de Caluwe said. “It forces us to be daring and show imagination.”

Opera lovers are flocking to La Monnaie to hear classics by Verdi and Mozart but also more obscure works such as Romanian composer George Enescu’s “Oedipus” or “The Huguenots” by Germany’s Giacomo Meyerbeer.

“The public is passionate, curious and loyal,” de Caluwe said.

The risks taken by La Monnaie have been applauded as well by international critics, who named it “Opera House of the Year” in 2011 ― a rare feat for a theatre outside the German-speaking world.

The German opera magazine Opernwelt, which created the award, praised La Monnaie’s “formula for success,” saying it has a done a good job of blending “opulent good taste and French-like sensitivity with German intellectual work.”

De Caluwe and his team strive to make La Monnaie “a symbol of European unity” in Brussels, “the most southern of northern Europe’s cities.”

La Monnaie, an old-looking theatre with eight columns at the heart of Europe’s capital, lacks the means enjoyed by more famous and grandiose theatres in Munich, Milan, Paris or London.

The opera house only seats 1,140 people and its stage is too small while its budget of 45 million euros ($59 million), including 32 million just to keep the place running, gives the theatre little room to manoeuvre.

Despite its relatively small size, it has attracted some big names of opera: it was once headed by Gerard Mortier, who went on to lead the Paris and Madrid houses, while the late Swiss choreographer Maurice Bejart oversaw ballets there.

“Even though we are relatively well protected, the (government) endowment is not rising while our expenses are growing,” said de Caluwe, whose opera house receives roughly 32 million euros in federal subsidies.

“We are forced to watch every cent we spend,” he said, adding that opera managers have become “business executives.”

“The situation has really changed in a just a few years. We have abandoned a certain luxury, although this image remains in the public opinion or in political circles.”

The opera has a staff of 420 compared to 500 in 2005, while the choir is down from 50 voices to 40.

The artistic budget depends on ticket sales, around 6.5 million euros, and revenue from sponsors totaling 2.6 million euros per year.

“We have sought to limit ticket price increases as much as possible while maintaining our open policy towards schools or prisons,” he said. “In 2011, 48,000 young people benefited from our programmes.”

The Flemish director is part of a new generation of opera house bosses who promote co-productions with other theatres in order to share costs.

For instance, La Monnaie shared the 500,000-euro bill with theatres in Barcelona, London, Buenos Aires and Oslo to produce the complex 1970s opera “Le Grand Macabre” by Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti.

“Contrary to what politicians say, culture is not too expensive,” de Caluwe said, calling for an end to “this taboo which prospers in times of crisis.”
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