Bernard Uzan, a native of France, is a graduate of the University of Paris where he earned doctorates in literature, theatrical studies, and philosophy. He began his career appearing throughout many prominent theaters throughout Europe as an actor and director. Along with his work as an actor and director, he was Professor of Literature, Acting, and Directing at Wellesley and Middlebury Colleges. From 1988 to 2002, Uzan served as General and Artistic Director for L’Opera de Montreal and in 2011 he started Uzan International Artists with his daughter, Vanessa Uzan.
We spoke with Barber of Seville Director Bernard Uzan to learn more about his remarkable background and talents coming to the Opera Grand Rapids stage.
Tell me about your extensive career as an Actor, Stage Director, Librettist, Educator, and many more accomplishments I’m not naming.
I started to be an actor and a director a long time ago. I had my debut as an actor in 1964. I was 20 years old. I was in Paris, and I did a lot of theatre plays at that time, and lots of voiceovers of actors of American films. I did “The Graduate,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” and many others. Then, in 1971 in Paris, I was asked to go to Middlebury College to teach theatre because I was a Professor of Literature teaching students aged 25 to 40 who were pursuing their Masters and PhDs. There, we did a play, and the French counsel came to see the play and he asked me why I didn’t have a theatre company there, and why I don’t try it. In the fall of 1971, I started a French theatre company in Boston. We ended up touring all over the country for 10 years doing 90 to 100 performances a year in French.
In 1981, Sarah Caldwell was producing “Faust” with Neil Shicoff, Samuel Ramey, and Diana Soviero with the original dialogue. She knew me as a theatre director and asked if I wanted to direct the dialogue, but I had never been to an opera in my life. I went, and three days later she was not feeling good, and so she asked me to direct the entire opera. A lot of people came to see it, so I had a lot of contracts the following year because of it. I stopped the theatre because I had no time anymore, and I just did opera. Even five years later, in ‘86 or ’87, I was asked to become general director of Tulsa Opera, and a year later I was asked to become general director of Opéra de Montréal. I stayed in Montréal for 14 years.
Congratulations on your recent award for Lifetime Achievement from the Giulio Gari Foundation. How does it feel to win this award?
That’s a funny story I’m going to tell you. The same week I received this announcement for the lifetime achievement award, I knew the television series “Mozart in the Jungle” was looking for actors. I decided to audition, and I hadn’t been an actor for a long time. They gave me the part. I am in it, and I am part of the Emmy nomination for best “scene stealer.” I am achieved, and in the same week I go to an audition 44 years after my life as an actor. So, it was an extraordinary week. It was a great lesson of humility to go to the audition again. And the lifetime achievement is always a great honor.
Tell me about the company that you established when you first immigrated to the States.
When I was in Boston, I created this company French Theater in Boston. Then, it developed very fast into French Theater in America. Two of my friends came from France to be part of the company. I had three to four living in Boston of French origin, or they were French teachers, so the French was absolutely impeccable and we were touring Molière, for example, all the time. We had a little van and a truck with sets going from city to city.
Once we did a play on a Saturday afternoon on Long Island, and we drove practically nine hours overnight to do a matinee on Sunday in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But, remember, I was 28 at the time, so that was possible. I was a director, I was driving the car, I was the administrator, I was picking up the programs at the end of the play so we didn’t spend too much money.
You’ve been involved with over 400 productions throughout your extensive career. What’s your favorite opera?
I don’t have a favorite. I think every time you direct an opera, even if you have done it very often, you have to find a way to be new in your approach and to be young again in the experience. So, I don’t have a favorite.
“(The) Rake’s Progress” I’ve never done and I hope I can do that before I’m in my grave. I wish I could direct “Lulu.” Sometimes, with my experience in classical repertoire, people don’t think of me for modern repertoire. I am a favorite for the big works, but they don’t necessarily think of me to direct “Lulu” or “(The) Rake’s Progress.” And I still have a French accent—thank god—and they think of me more for French repertoire, which is ridiculous. I come to mind especially with French or Italian opera. It’s too late; I’m not a kid anymore, maybe that is ingrained in their brains and not easy to change.