A musician and founder of the record label Barbès, as well as a bar and performance space of the same name in New York, Olivier Conan is very much a cultural magpie: a lover of chicha and other forms of cumbia music as well as a massive fan of jazz and new contemporary sounds, since 2018 he has played a central role in bringing alternative forms of music to the Peristyle and the Amphi at the Opéra de Lyon. How to describe the programme for the 2020 season? Is there an Ariadne’s thread ?
An interview with Olivier Conan.
What I set out to do was in some sense to subvert what normally happens at the opera by mixing ‘serious’ and popular music, by inviting musicians who take their art seriously but are also part of a popular tradition. I’m not necessarily talking about folklore or some golden age – I’m wary of musical scenes with very strict codes. I think what all the people I invite have in common is that they transgress the codes.
Do you have to be a bit ‘underground’ to enjoy it ?
Of course not! Most of the performances take place in the Amphi, the 200-seat venue in the basement, hence the name ‘Opera Underground’. Some concerts that require a bit more space will be staged upstairs in the main hall.
And not all of the music we put on is ‘underground’. You don’t need any initiation to enjoy an Opera Underground concert. We’re not targeting an audience defined by their level of culture, their age or their taste in food. Some of the artists who we invite are reasonably well known, others are a bit underground, but most of them like transgressing codes and all of them believe that music should be fun. Above and beyond the labels, what interests me most of all is anything that expresses the essence of music and is anchored in the sounds of our age, whether it be jazz, classical or traditional music, and regardless of its roots.
The notion of musical eras seems to be more malleable than ever.
I sense that we’re starting to rid ourselves of the idea of musical chronology. In the 1980s, people talked about rock having started at such and such a moment, the blues at another… The influences and the overall picture were very clear and people made a big deal about it all. But these days we don’t go looking for influences chronologically: Aksak Maboul have been going for 30 years and they’re still relevant. Musicians are borrowing from jazz and any other repertoire in the world that you care to mention.
What can the audience expect from the free lunchtime events like Album of the Century and Sur les Docs ?
At the Opéra de Lyon there’s always been a tradition of free events at lunchtime, and I wanted to maintain that tradition and put on new events. In the case of Album of the Century, you come at midday, lie down on cushions and listen to somebody talking about a record that has really meant something to them. And you listen to the record right the way through, practically in the dark. It’s both a private and a collective experience, and every time something magical happens. Sur les Docs also happens at midday and it involves watching independent documentaries selected from the collection on the tënk.fr platform. I like introducing people to these eye-opening and original perspectives on the world.
Interviewed by Matthieu Conquet.