When Jean-Luc Choplin took over more than a decade ago as director general of Paris’s Théatre du Châtelet – one of the city’s temples to high culture – heckling from the French press was deafening.
Some critics, surprised and outraged, nicknamed him Mickey – after the cartoon mouse – because he once worked for Disney. Le Monde accused Choplin of being scandalously lowbrow and a “dangerous defender of the entertainment world”, a purveyor of entertainment rather than culture.
The Châtelet had hosted some of the most celebrated international artists, including Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Debussy, Ravel, Erik Satie, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Richard Strauss. But it was in a city that already had two major opera houses and it could not compete.
Choplin, who grew up on a housing estate in the Paris banlieues, was determined to make the theatre more accessible, offering works that were both popular and sophisticated, attracting new, different audiences with an eclectic programme ranging from the classic to the contemporary, ballet to rap and even standup comedy. The keystone of that programme would be what at the time was sniffily considered to be a lower form of art: the American comédie musicale.
“People were horrified. They said, ‘You cannot do musicals, this will be a complete catastrophe’, and pointed out that others had tried before and it had always been a flop. It was a risk, but I felt I had to try,” Choplin, 65, told the Guardian last year.
Today, as he enters his 11th and final season at the Châtelet before the theatre closes for two years for essential renovations, no one remembers Choplin’s cartoon nickname. Instead the theatre director is now known as the Châtelet Enchanter, the musical magician who not only brought Broadway to the boulevards but gave the popular comédie musicale a sophisticated French polish and sent it back to New York to critical acclaim and awards.
His An American in Paris, co-produced with Broadway, won four Tony awards in the US and the Châtelet’s production last year of Singin’ in the Rain will open on Broadway this year. Other popular musicals – My Fair Lady, Kiss Me Kate, The Sound of Music – have been sellouts.
“We took pieces that could be considered as simply commercial and treated them as art. We created the haute couture musical, using a full symphonic orchestra and impressive decors, treating musicals like operas in the hope that these great compositions might be rightfully recognised for their true value,” Choplin told France Today.
The highlights of Choplin’s final year reflect his “sophisticated entertainment” approach. On Wednesday Carmen La Cubana, a Cuban version of Bizet’s opera, opens, followed by the contemporary dance work Auf dem Gebirge hat man ein Geschrei Gehört (On the Mountain a Cry Was Heard). In early summer, Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn – whose pop opera Monkey: Journey to the West brought singers, acrobats and martial artists to the stage in 2007 – will bring Wonder.land, his version of Alice in Wonderland, to the theatre.
Choplin’s musical swansong will be the music and dance extravaganza 42nd Street, programmed to run from the end of this year, when his successor will be named. He will then exit the stage and his vast office, with its spectacular view of the Seine, to reportedly “spend more time with my grandchildren”. It sounds unlikely that the workaholic Choplin, who as a child would conduct symphonies in his bedroom with a knitting needle, is retiring, but he is not saying.
The city, which owns and subsidises the Châtelet, has promised to pay the 150 staff their wages during the renovations. It is expected to seek applicants for the director general’s chair in a few weeks.
Edouard Dagher, spokesman for the Châtelet, says the shows will go on when it reopens around September 2019, but no one knows in what form.
“The Châtelet is unique.Jean-Luc has created something that didn’t exist in Paris before he created it. He took these classic musicals with their English scripts and songs and treated them like operas, engaging great directors, fabulous costumes and designers and the size of orchestra you don’t find even on Broadway,” Dagher told the Observer. “It gave the Châtelet a new identity. Today nobody can say what will be afterwards, except that it will still be a production theatre. We don’t know who will replace Jean-Luc Choplin and what project they have in mind. We have to wait and see.”