A new series by Victoria Production, L’Opéra, offers viewers a backstage pass to the internationally renowned Paris Opera, with all the strong personalities, high drama, spectacular dance, and passionate confrontation you would expect in this glamorous artistic venue. There’s not a phantom in sight in this resolutely modern and even “rock and roll” fiction that goes behind the scenes of a place that truly holds a mirror up to our society. Series producer with Victoria Production, Florence Levard, and Newen Connect’s EVP Distribution, Leona Connell, discuss what makes this iconic location the perfect backdrop and raw material for a series with serious international potential.

The Interview

Backstage passes for a night at the Opera

Unifrance: How did you come up with the idea for a series set against the backdrop of the Paris Opera?

Florence Levard

Florence Levard: It has always been a fascinating world for me, and ever since I was small, I have gone to the Garnier Opera to see ballets whenever I could! When I started producing this series, I realized that the Paris Opera had everything we needed to make a great series: it’s a very visual world, with glamor and spectacle in spades. It is also a highly pressurized environment full of conflict, rivalry and political tensions – all strong dramatic drivers. And of course, we mustn’t forget the prestige of the Opera internationally: it’s a symbol of French expertise, which is world renowned, like a Chanel dress or a macaron by Ladurée!

When Cécile Ducrocq, the series showrunner, and I started working together, we realized that the reality of the place goes way beyond what we imagined. The Opera is also a family, with its codes, rituals and secrets. It’s an elite company that upholds tradition while adding modernity. It is a unique place in France where artists, technicians and politicians pass each other in the hallways, and where you can observe, often in heightened form, all the issues present in French society. This raw material is rich and complex – that’s what convinced us to create a truly ensemble series that looks at the institution in its entirety and not just through the eyes of the dancers. All that with a dash of contemporary rock and roll for good measure.  

Unifrance: Through its writing, aesthetic choices, characters and music, the series takes us inside the secret world of dance. How did you approach the closed shop that is the Opera?

Florence Levard: Through hard work! To make a realistic series on this subject, the series creators, Cécile Ducrocq and Benjamin Adam, did huge amounts of research and looked at pretty much everything there is on the subject. But the most precious help obviously came from meetings with the Opera family: we spent a lot of time talking with dancers and ex-dancers from the company as well as technicians, administrators, and even ex-Directors of Dance and Opera. They all told us their stories from a different angle, and it was like putting together pieces of a puzzle. It was enthralling and fascinating.  

I think that was when Cécile and Benjamin really dived into that world – and never came back out! They didn’t know the dance world very well before we started work, but now they can do a compare and contrast on 10 different versions of Swan Lake if you like!

Unifrance: The dance and acting performances are remarkable. How did you go about casting?

Florence Levard: Cécile and I quickly realized that the casting was going to be a major challenge for the production. We simply could not cut corners in terms of the level of dance shown if we wanted to be credible, but nor could we lower the bar regarding the level of acting. It was a real challenge as dancer-actors are few and far between.  

We were incredibly lucky that Ariane Labed agreed to the project straight away, especially since we just couldn’t imagine anyone else playing Zoé. Ariane danced until she was 20, and she’s an extraordinary actor. Cécile and Benjamin created the character of Zoé with photos of her pinned up around their writing room. Things moved quickly with Sébastien too, since the character is not required to dance, and Raphaël Personnaz was the obvious choice.

On the other hand, it took ages to find our Flora (Suzy Bemba) and to put together our troupe of dancer-actors from a pool of actors who had a background in dance (and who quickly started dancing again!) and dancers who showed real talent for acting. This chemistry worked: even if our corps de ballet seems quite mixed on paper, it works well and is believable!

Unifrance: You also developed a unique musical style for the series…

Florence Levard: That is the challenge that the composer Marco Prince met brilliantly. He created a musical style that was coherent with the Palais Garnier setting, where you can hear lots of classical music of course, since that’s what sets the scene in dance lessons – a piano that resonates throughout the Opera corridors. And at the same time, he managed to create a very contemporary sounds that fits with the characters – who are young and, in some cases, really rather “rock and roll”.    

Unifrance: Is the Opera a microcosm of our society, with all its challenges and problems?

Florence Levard: Yes, of course. And that’s what makes the subject so powerful: the Opera is like a distillation of French society, under permanent pressure due to the expectation of excellence, swathed in intrigue and conflict. It’s quite simply gold for a TV series!

The Opera brings together in a single place the various issues of our society: diversity, of course, which is one of our big themes for season 1, and also the need to reform elite groups, the rigidity of French society, and the violence of the working world. I think that’s what makes the series truly original and what gives it such wide appeal: it’s not so much a series about dance as about French society and how we live together. All that within the incredible gift-wrapped package of the Palais Garnier.

Unifrance: Season 2 is currently being filmed – can you tell us anything about it?

Florence Levard: We were extremely lucky that OCS and Orange Studio put their faith in us by starting work on season 2 even before season 1 has aired! We started filming in early August and will continue until the end of December. We hope this season will be even more spectacular than the first. We continue to follow the three main characters as they face new challenges and we meet new arrivals to the Garnier who threaten to upset the fragile balance of the Opera’s ecosystem.  And of course, new ballets, even more dance, and a huge international competition!  

Unifrance: Why did you choose to represent this series internationally? What drew you to it?

Leona Connell

Leona Connell: This 8×52’ series is produced by Victoria Production with OCS, so we knew we would be getting a high quality, premium series that would make a splash in France. Plus, the talents in the series are very convincing and pushed us to this co-distribution with Orange Studio. They are all starting to earn international recognition. Plus there was the script by Cécile Ducrocq (The Bureau, Call My Agent!) and Benjamin Adam (Kaboul Kitchen), and direction by Cécile Ducrocq, Stéphane Demoustier (The Girl with the Bracelet) and Laïla Marrachki (The Bureau, Rock The Casbah). In addition, there is a cast of internationally known actors like Ariane Labed (The Lobster) – who won the Best Actress award at Séries Mania this year – and Raphaël Personnaz (Anna Karenina), joined by new talents such as the captivating Suzy Bemba in the role of Flora.

Finally, we were also attracted by the fact that the series handles a theme like diversity so well – that’s a central point for us. We know now that the public, and therefore broadcasters want to see diversity in the spotlight more. So when that’s done within a world like the ballet, it’s even more powerful and striking.

Unifrance: How are you presenting the series internationally? What are its unique assets?

Leona Connell: This series is modern and breathtaking, with a touch of rock and roll that gives it something very distinctive. Firstly, a series about the Paris Opera is inspiring! A backstage pass for one of the most famous ballet companies in the world, with all its drama, relationships and challenges, that’s a unique offer for todays’ viewers. Following the lives of its characters, whose paths are diametrically opposed but who come together in a power struggle within an arena as glamorous as the Paris Opera – that is also a big draw for international viewers. It’s chic and glamorous but also dramatic – there’s combat and hope!

Unifrance: What feedback have you had from the international market?

Leona Connell: The series has been very well received abroad! There was already a lot on interest when we starting pitching the series, and that grew when we shared the first two episodes. The series also got great feedback at festivals: it was selected and received an award at Séries Mania (Best French Series and Best Actress for Ariane Labed) and is selected for Colcoa, which is currently being held in Los Angeles!

© Mathieu Zazzo / OCS