The May 2022 issue of Choral Journal is online and features an article titled “Rejuvenating France’s Choir School Tradition: An Interview with Mark Opstad, Artistic Director of La Maîtrise de Toulouse” by C. Michael Porter. You can read it in its entirety at acda.org/choraljournal. Following is a portion from the introduction.
Woven into the DNA of England’s choral identity are the traditions and contributions of its choir schools. These storied institutions—including Cambridge’s King College School, Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral School, Cornwall’s Truro School, and St. George’s School at Windsor Castle—are often synonymous with our perception of the English choral tradition. Their curriculum have shaped generations of musicians—such as Christopher Tye, Henry Purcell, Herbert Howells, and David Wilcocks—and while they have responded to contemporary social and aesthetic issues, they have ensured the continuation of England’s cherished choral standing. The choir school tradition is by no means solely an English invention.
Many countries have similar celebrated organizations: including the Thomasschule in Leipzig, the Vienna Boys’ Choir, and the Saint Thomas Choir School in New York. However, no country has carried on this musical training as faithfully as England. When Mark Opstad, himself a product of England’s choir school tradition and Assistant Organist of Clare College at Cambridge University, accepted the Professor of Choral Music position at the Conservatoire in Toulouse, France, in 2006, he brought with him the English choral proclivities of his home country. It was only a matter of time before Opstad established the celebrated La Maîtrise de Toulouse—a choir school associated with the Toulouse conservatoire and partly based upon the English choir school model. Since its founding, La Maîtrise de Toulouse has become one of France’s leading youth choral organizations…
PORTER: Was it a challenge for you to bring this idea of a choir school to France? You mentioned that in the 1980s there was a revival, but you were coming from an English choir school tradition. How different were the traditions, and was this difficult to implement?
OPSTAD: That’s an extremely interesting question. I thought it was going to be very easy at first. After two years being the assistant at Caen Cathedral, I was looking for somewhere to move on to. I actually wrote to all the major cities in France which didn’t have choir schools and presented the project of creating a choir school. It was the director of the conservatoire of Toulouse who responded and said, “This is an incredible idea, you must come and do this here.” I was basically given the job to create it. However, he didn’t tell me he was retiring.
So, I arrived in Toulouse, and his successor just did not understand at all what I was trying to do. The first three or four or five years were extremely hard, and I thought this just isn’t going to work. But at the same time, I couldn’t accept defeat. So, I kept pushing and pushing and eventually got it off the ground. Finally, when I was able to show them what I was talking about—when I got the structure in place where the children were singing every day—then from that point on it was just lift-off ! When that director moved on a few years later, and a new director came who was an organist (organists always understand choir better), I was given basically all the means I needed to do what I wanted. I was able to prove what we were capable of doing.
Just when we thought things were really fi ring on all four cylinders, and just as we celebrated our tenth anniversary, suddenly the local education authority tried to close us down, accusing us of being “elite.” They couldn’t stand the fact that these children were doing something so extraordinary. It wasn’t the same for all of the children so it couldn’t be possible. And that involved a huge fight: including a petition with 6,000 [people in support of us], and influential people talking on the radio, and recruiting former government ministers to fight for our cause. We did actually manage to overturn that. So, to answer your question, it’s often been a huge challenge.
Read the rest of this article in the May 2022 issue of Choral Journal.