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A Degree of Warmth

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In “A Night at the Opera,” Groucho Marx says of the social-climbing Margaret Dumont, whom he is trying to seduce as well as defraud, “As incredible as it seems, Mrs. Claypool isn’t as big a sap as she looks. How’s that for lovemaking?”

Mark Morris, the adventurous Manhattan-based director and choreographer, appears to have gone one better than the Marx Brothers with his night at the opera, “Platee,” a raucous and zany interpretation of an 18th century comic opera by Jean-Philippe Rameau. And if the Margaret Dumont here, in the person of an amphibian swamp nymph who is the butt of a group of Mt. Olympus jokesters, isn’t as big a sap as she looks, that has everything to do with the man who plays her, Jean-Paul Fouchecourt.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Sept. 28, 2001 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday September 28, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo credit--The name of the photographer of the scene from “Platee” on the cover of Thursday’s Calendar Weekend was misspelled. Her name is Carol Rosegg.

The 43-year-old French performer has earned raves for the comic pathos he has brought to the title role since the Morris production premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1997, a co-production between the Mark Morris Dance Group and London’s Royal Opera House. Fouchecourt has since performed the part around the world with the company, essaying it once again for the Southern California premiere engagement Friday and Saturday, kicking off the Eclectic Orange Festival sponsored by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.

When New York City Opera presented this “Platee” in April 2000, New York Times critic Philip Anson wrote, “Thanks to Fouchecourt, Platee emerges not just as a flippant and flippered joke, but as a vulnerable and sensitive soul, who like David Merrick’s Elephant Man, is trapped in a misshapen body which dooms her to loneliness.”

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“For me, Platee is not a clown, she is a real character, she has many faces, many emotions,” said Fouchecourt, in French-accented English, during a break in rehearsals at Mark Morris’ Brooklyn studio just before the company was to decamp for California. “Like everybody, she just wants to be loved.”

That interpretation, and indeed Morris’ wildly maverick approach to Rameau, adds some modernity to this rarely performed opera. (Fouchecourt said that a production he saw in 1987 in Paris emphasized the buffoonery but little of the humanity.) Rameau wrote the piece in 1745 as a bit of fluff to celebrate the wedding at Versailles of Prince Louis, son of Louis XV, to a Spanish princess. In this political alliance, the bride was said to be rather ugly, especially compared with her handsome new husband. So it was rather daring of Rameau to base his opera on a French poem in which the Olympian gods concoct a plot to chide Juno for her tiresome jealousy over Jupiter’s infidelities. They cook up a charade in which the God of Gods pretends to fall madly in love with an ugly swamp princess. The deluded and vain Platee isn’t in on the joke, however; and her eventual humiliation would seem just punishment for any plebian--or rather amphibian--who might have the temerity to leapfrog the social strata of 18th century France.

But when Morris initially began shaping the title character he saw little reason to make her a caricature. “It’s a tragicomedy,” he said. “She has to have something of a heart of gold or why spend all night with her? She’s petty, selfish, grandiose, but also tender and sensitive.”

That comic grandiosity inspired the director-choreographer to base his Platee on Margaret Dumont, and costume designer Isaac Mizrahi has come up with an outrageously campy getup for the swamp princess who flirtatiously twirls her rope of pearls with webbed extremities in a filmy gown that barely conceals her pendulous breasts, potbelly and exaggerated rump. And to crown the horny toad, a tiara of green horns.

Outrageous, to be sure, but totally in keeping with the tone of the rest of this loopy production whose prologue opens in a seedy urban bar populated by a cross-dressing lesbian, a flirty showgirl, a cruising sailor, a hapless drunk and a leather-jacketed, jock-strapped habitue.

When it came to choosing his Platee, Morris said that he quizzed singers, conductors and other players for recommendations and the name that kept cropping up was Fouchecourt, a critically acclaimed interpreter of Baroque music. “He was recommended as someone who could understand the style as well as sing and act beautifully,” said Morris, who knew he also needed someone who would be able to swing those pearls. “If I haven’t worked with someone before, I don’t like to make them do anything that’s going to be make them feel stupid or bad about what they’re doing. But Jean-Paul’s an artist and a great comedian, and he was more than willing to give things a try. He’s fearless. Sometimes he’d ask if he’d gone too far. And sometimes the answer was yes. But he came up with some genius and beautiful ideas as well.”

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Sitting in Morris’ amphibian green office for an interview between rehearsals, Fouchecourt admitted that Morris’ “Platee” was a momentous point in his career--as momentous as having encountered, in his early 20s, Cathy Berberian, the avant-garde American soprano and teacher who set him on his course as a singer, and the conductor William Christie who helped him to nurture that gift in the specialized world of early music.

His compact frame tucked into bibbed overalls and white T-shirt, with short-cropped hair flecked with a dash of gray, Fouchecourt looks more like a farmer from his native region of Burgundy, where he has country home, than a regular of world-famous opera houses.

Fouchecourt is unpretentious and affable, and his face crinkles often into a smile or a self-deprecating bark of laugh.

“This character suits me so well,” he said, gesturing to his small frame. “Physically, vocally. It’s a role that I have wanted to do for many years, so it came when it was time for me to do it. Now, still, I try to find something new, something subtle.”There are so many different feelings to Platee and she can change very quickly. Like that! And Mark [Morris]! So many ideas, so quick. And the costume. I had to play with that, too. The costume is so strong. And if you put too much with it, then it just becomes too much. And I don’t want to be a caricature. Never.”

Just over 5 feet tall, Fouchecourt noted that his size has put him “in the drawer” of the character actor/singer, frequently called upon to play such roles as Arnalta, the old maid in Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea,” the husband in Poulenc’s “Les Mammelles de Tiresias,” Bardolfo in “Falstaff” and Basilio in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”

But few character roles measure up to Platee. “It is the only opera where the character role is the title role,” he said. “I must find something intriguing in any role that I play. Arnalta is not just a mad and crazy old woman. She has her own life and a history, and she sings one of the most beautiful songs in all of the opera. And Platee, she starts here”--with his finger, he traced an arc--”and finishes here. She thinks she is finally going to be loved and then she discovers that she is just, as Juno says, an ‘error.’

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“That’s terrible! At the end, when I go, when I exit, it’s always the same thing, ‘ Pauvre Platee! Poor Platee.’ It is heartbreaking.”

When asked if he based the character on anyone in particular, Fouchecourt laughed. “Ah, yes,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “I do think of a few people I know. She is a mixture. Sometimes you encounter someone who is very, very ugly and she thinks she is beautiful. They just want to be loved and because they want to be loved, they tend to be clingy, gluey, sticky people.

“Like fans sometimes, fans who want to be with you all the time. And you just want them to go away. But they come to where you are and when you go out to eat, they follow you. These very clingy, dangerous people. She is like that, too.”

Fouchecourt was also able to draw on some painful memories of his youth as something of a misfit, a small child who had little time for sports and other boyhood pursuits and was thus a target for bullies in his hometown of Blanzy, France.

Though the town’s population was only 5,000, nearby was an amateur operetta company (of which his mother was a member) and a local orchestra (in which his grandfather played the trombone).

From a very early age, he was drawn to music, piano and saxophone, as well as performing with his mother in operettas, much to the dismay of his father, a plasterer and painter, who had hoped he might follow in that profession.

“He didn’t think I could make money in this way, and he wanted me to make honors at school and I was just doing the very minimum,” Fouchecourt said. “I remember my father said, ‘If you don’t work at school, we’ll just stop the music for you.’ And I said, ‘Stop the music and I will do nothing at school!’ I was stubborn, very stubborn.”

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By age 14, the saxophonist was traveling an hour by train once a week to the music conservatory in Dijon and six years later took top honors at the Paris Conservatory.

But after four years of playing the rather limited repertory for classical saxophone, Fouchecourt began to get restless.

He expanded his previous studies in conducting. But he was still interested in being a musician, so when a friend was looking for a singer for a concert, Fouchecourt jumped at the chance. That concert led to a meeting with Cathy Berberian, who encouraged him to pursue a singing career. At 24, he re-enrolled in the Paris Conservatory.

“I had always loved to sing for fun,” he said. “I loved the emotion of it. But in order to be have emotion, you have to have the technique. And that was so difficult to learn. It was like you have an accident and you have to learn to walk all over again.”

After Fouchecourt had spent three years studying Mozart and Bach, a colleague suggested that he look into Baroque music. “I said to him, ‘That’s such boring music, I don’t like it at all,’ ” recalled the singer. “But then I thought, ‘Don’t be stupid, be curious, find out more about what it is.”’

In 1986, Fouchecourt decided to attend a Baroque concert at the music festival of Beaune near the farmhouse he and his wife had purchased at Beaumont-sur-Grosne. (Now divorced, he has been in a relationship for the last 10 years with a man, a computer graphics designer.)

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Expecting to stay only for a few minutes, he was captivated by singer Rene Jacobs and the accompanist on harpsichord, William Christie, the director of Les Arts Florissants, the world-renowned early-music ensemble and one of the leaders of the Baroque music revival. He went to Christie after the concert and asked to study with him.

“I had to change my eyes, my ears, my mind, my entire temperament in singing,” said Fouchecourt, noting that unlike all previous teachers, Christie had instructed him not to align his sensibility too closely to the tone of the music. “I thought ‘This man is crazy.’ But it was a big meeting for me. The thing about the Baroque is that it seduces you, it takes you in. It changed my life.”

After traveling around the world for three years with Les Arts Florissants, Fouchecourt expanded his repertory to include singing and recording (his voice is featured on more than 65 CDs) the works of Poulenc, Ravel, Debussy, Satie, Faure and others in what he calls the “normal” (i.e. non-Baroque) repertory, including Berlioz’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman” and “Orfeo aux Enfers” and Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

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Now, Fouchecourt feels that he is at the crossroads once again. He is hoping to break out of character roles, snagging ones in which his size won’t matter. He mentioned Octavio in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” or Quint in “Turn of the Screw.” Having sung at most of the major opera houses, including the Metropolitan, Covent Garden and the Paris Opera, he’d like to add Vienna and La Scala to his resume.

“I’m a little bored now and I can do two things: either do the things I have been doing but fewer appearances at the main places in the operatic world and make some”--he drops his voice to a whisper--”money.”

“Or maybe,” he continued, “they will not want me for these roles. OK, I will accept that. That will only mean that it is time for me to do something else. Then I will do concerts and recitals and chamber music and maybe go back to conducting. Or maybe invite musicians and composers to come to my farm and make concerts.”

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Whatever directions his career takes, said Fouchecourt, he just wants to be able to continue to share the joy and fulfillment music has given him since he first picked up a trombone that was taller than he was. “If it’s as a singer or a conductor, I just want to make people feel something,” he said. “Like Platee, I’m not ready to go back to the swamp.”

He laughed. “Not yet.”

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Rameau’s “Platee” will open the Eclectic Orange Festival sponsored by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County on Fridayand Saturdayat 8 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $34 to $89. (714) 556-2787; all Ticketmaster outlets, or https://wwweclecticorange.org .

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Festival Highlights

The Eclectic Orange Festival enters its third year with 26 events at various Orange County venues Friday through Nov. 11. Among the classical music, world music, theater and dance highlights:

* Oct. 2, Founders Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, 8 p.m.: Italian pianist Marino Formenti, one of the world’s foremost interpreters of contemporary music, will perform music by Jean Barraque, Helmut Lachenmann and John Adams. (Program subject to change.) A question-and-answer session with Formenti will follow the concert. $19.

* Oct. 6-29, Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday: “You Are Hear: Music Machines at the Museum.” Large-scale sound sculptures by Seattle-based artist Trimpin, performances of Ligeti’s “Poeme Symphonique” for 100 metronomes; a prerecorded program of 20th century keyboard works on Yamaha’s limited edition Disklavier Pro 2000; world premiere of New York composer Mikel Rouse’s new film, “Funding,” other installation to be announced. $5.

* Oct. 9-10, Founders Hall, 8 p.m.: The ever-adventurous Kronos Quartet will play Terry Riley’s “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector,” Michael Gordon’s “Potassium,” Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, Charles Mingus’ “Myself When I Am Real” (arranged by Sy Johnson), Sofia Gubaidulina’s Quartet No. 4, Alfred Schnittke’s “Collected Songs Where Every Verse is Filled with Grief” (arranged by the Kronos Quartet). $29.

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* Oct. 11-12, Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine, 8 p.m.: The San Francisco-based Joe Goode Performance Group will dance Goode’s “What the Body Knows” and the premiere of his “The Transparent Body” (co-commissioned by the Irvine Barclay and the Philadelphia Fringe Festival). $30 to $35.

* Oct. 19-21, Irvine Barclay Theatre, 8 p.m.: The world premiere of Tan Dun’s Concerto from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (world premiere) and the West Coast premiere of the Concerto for Water Percussion. $33 to $38.

* Oct. 27, Segerstrom Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 8 p.m.: Yamato Drummers of Japan: A program of traditional drumming (wadaiko ). $15 to $35.

* Nov. 1-6, Founders Hall, 8 p.m. except for Nov. 4 which will have shows at 3 and 7 p.m.: The North American premiere of Hal Hartley’s “Soon,” loosely based on the 1993 showdown between the FBI and David Koresh’s Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas. $25.

* Nov. 9, 8 p.m.; Nov. 11, 4 p.m., Carpenter Center, Cal State Long Beach, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach: The Long Beach Opera will present the West Coast premiere performances of Thomas Ades’ “Powder Her Face,” a chamber opera based upon the scandalous life of the Duchess of Argyll. $45, $70.

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Tickets: (949) 553-2422, all Ticketmaster outlets and https://www.eclecticorange.org.

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