If you want to climb the corporate ladder in France, you'd better know the names of Voltaire, or Victor Hugo, or Simone de Beauvoir.
For upper-management jobs, after diplomas and qualifications are verified, “at one moment or another, the conversation turns into one you would have in a salon,” says Bruno Pequignot, a sociologist of the arts at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris. “If the [candidate] never reads books, or goes to the cinema, doesn’t know music or anything outside of their career, there is no chance they will be recruited.”
That fact helps explain why, at a recent preview of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Samson and Delilah,” at the Paris Opera Bastille, the house was packed with under-28-year-olds, lured by 10-euro ($11) seat prices. The power of the story is one attraction: As Delilah declares her love for Samson and launches into one of the most celebrated arias of romantic opera, the millennials are gripped by the performance of Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, considered one of the leading voices of her generation.
But the Paris Opera is playing to a social goal as well: It is giving youth access to one of the tools it takes to get ahead here.
“In France, culture is fundamental,” says Mr. Pequignot. “If there are some countries where identity is linked to commerce, or the conquest of the West, like in the US, in France it is school and culture.”
The French already do a fine job instilling culture in their youngest, with generous subsidies for the arts and a societal clamoring for events like a rotating museum exhibit for kids at the Centre Pompidou. One 10-year-old here shocked his American side of the family when he blurted out the real name of French playwright Molière in a Trivial Pursuit game – Jean-Baptiste Poquelin – while the French side looked on proudly.
Yet a cultural gap is present here, too. While education or jobs top the list of priorities for the French in tackling inequality, a 2015 Ministry of Culture and Communication study revealed 53 percent of respondents lamenting a lack of equal access to arts and culture. Nine out of 10 agree the state should do something about it, and 55 percent say they are not doing enough.
Stéphane Lissner, director of the Paris Opera, doesn’t suggest that cheap tickets on 13 premieres of opera and ballet a year will close the cultural divide. Still, 60 percent of the audience has never been to the opera before.
He started offering the deal while directing La Scala in Milan, where annual world premiere tickets go for 2,400 euros ($2,700) a piece. “I found this scandalous,” he says. “It means the kids who live in [Milan] would never have the possibility to see the opera in the city.”
Now back in Paris, the demand among youngsters remains “colossal,” he says. The 2,700 seats in this house sell out online in 20 minutes. The opera particularly tries to reach out to school groups and organizations that help disadvantaged youths, in an effort to give them the sort of cultural literacy they may be sorely missing.
Open to them, but not for them?
On this night, the theater at Bastille fills up with opera-goers clad in sneakers, some as young as middle school. There are prepsters and punks with purple and pink highlights. Two exchange students, from Moldova and Russia, talk excitedly about their first opera; others say they are just trying it out because tickets cost the equivalent of the movies. One 17-year-old admits he fell asleep during the first act.
Vincent Rey-Giraud, a 20-something urban designer, grew up going to the opera and ballet, and says that culture is something that, among his friends and peers at work, they want but that they also professionally need. “It could be the opera, or the ballet, or gallery exhibitions,” he says. “It is just something you do.”
But the limits of reduced prices are clear to him, just by watching the experience of the woman he has come here with, Johanna N’Gouan. The high school teacher works in a rougher neighborhood outside Paris and tries to urge her kids to take advantage of these deals.
But, she says, they don't. First, 10 euros is expensive for them. And, Mr. Rey-Giraud adds: “This is open to them, but they don’t think it is for them.”
Pequignot, the sociologist, says such efforts are significant, but their effect can be limited since they reach only those who have a link to the arts in the first place. Mr. Lissner says real democratization could happen only if the Paris Opera opened satellite operations on the outskirts of Paris. But the problem goes far beyond price: Many kids will put all of their savings into an iPhone, tapped into whatever pop culture is du jour, but care little about the arts surrounding them.
'The right to be cultivated'
They would do well to care more, though, at least in Paris. Sylvia Rabemanantsoa, who works in finance management, says culture is an important part of water-cooler talk at her office. “This has nothing to do with work, but it is important to be open, to learn about other things.” And she believes everyone has the “right to be cultivated.”
She and her friend Audrey Vautheny, who is studying to become a scientist, say they are here not to polish networking skills, however, but rather out of pure curiosity. It is Ms. Vautheny's first time attending the opera.
And if the finale of the opera is any barometer, so is the rest of the audience. As Samson, betrayed by Delilah, sets himself and his enemies ablaze, the curtain comes down amid a thunder of applause. If the restrained and polite clapping after an opera can sometimes feel drawn out, here it is exultant.
Ms. Rachvelishvili drops to her knees.
“It is by far my favorite night of the season,” Lissner had said right before the show started, and it is easy to see why.