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March 16, 2005

Cinema’s cult choir seeks cut of profits

The Sunday Times (UK):

They may not look it, but Georges, a portly butcher with a salt-and-pepper beard, and Gérard, a lanky, intense- looking bank clerk, are at the cutting edge of French fashion. Once a week they join their wives and 30 other people in a basement to indulge a shared passion. After 90 minutes they emerge looking happier than when they went in. Whoever thought choir practice could be so much fun? London has book clubs, Moscow has steam baths. But for the French, fulfilment these days seems to hinge less on cheese and pastry than singing together in choirs and, in the case of Gérard and Georges, hitting as many right notes as they can in time for their next concert. “You’d think choral music had only just been discovered in France,” said Armande Olivier, president of the French Association of Singing Instructors. “Now everybody wants to be in a choir. It has become an important social movement.”

Excitement about choirs is being attributed to the phenomenal success of Les Choristes, a low-budget film that opened in Britain this weekend as The Chorus. Set in the late 1940s, it shows the transformation of a group of juvenile delinquents when they learn to express themselves through song. More than 9m people have been to see the film in France, where it out-grossed Harry Potter, Shrek 2 and Spider-Man. Its DVD and video have sold 2.1m copies — a French record — and the soundtrack has topped the charts. “Every child in my workshop, they all know the songs back to front,” said Christopher Wells, a former Salisbury Cathedral chorister who heads the English Cathedral Choir of Paris.

This success is at the root of an ugly row about money, however. Parents of the children whose singing created one of the biggest French film and musical hits in years are threatening to sue for a cut of the profits. “I don’t see why our children, after working like beasts, should not receive their legitimate share,” said Francis Hartmann, father of Lucile, a member of the children’s choir from Lyons that recorded the soundtrack. “The producer, director and actors have earned large fees,” he added. The children received nothing. What is more their studies were suffering, Hartmann claimed, because of an exhausting burden of celebrity and television appearances, concerts and other activities such as signing CDs in supermarkets for which they were not paid. “Several times this year the school has called me to tell me that Lucile had fallen asleep during class,” said Hartmann.

Sunday mass at the Lyons church where the choir sings has taken on the atmosphere of a pop concert. People arrive two hours early to get seats. The children are mobbed for autographs. Some traditional performances, such as a Christmas concert for children in hospital, had to be cut. “The children don’t have time,” said Hartmann. “The film has destroyed the very soul and essence of our choir.”

He should be happy, at least, that choir practice is flourishing elsewhere. According to Guillaume Deslandres, president of the Institute of Choral Art, the craze for singing unites 300,000 people in about 6,000 choirs.

Even before the film appeared, interest in singing was growing. Air France has long had its own choir. So, too, have the railway workers. But nowadays le tout Paris wants in. Trendy Parisians moving to a new quartier are more likely to inquire about neighbourhood choirs than about the shops, parking or restaurants. Men are abandoning gyms and flocking to choir practice, perhaps because of a growing belief that singing can be just as good for you as a jog in the park. This view is widely echoed in women’s magazines, where articles praising choir practice as a way to keep trim have boosted female participation. “There are a lot of women signing up in choirs,” said Deslandres. “Particularly women whose children have grown up and who are looking for something new to keep them busy.”

Some see this stampede as a symptom of modern society’s malaise and a reaction, perhaps, to the isolation of the internet era. “Choirs fulfil an important social role,” said Olivier. “A lot of people are joining them out of loneliness. Our modern life is so isolating. The important thing is this feeling of doing something in a group.” For many an opportunity to network is as important as the music. “We get a lot of people new in Paris from the provinces,” said Laurent Bellini, director of Mélo’Men, a choir for homosexuals. “They want to make friends quickly. They also want to sing.”

Posted by acapnews at March 16, 2005 12:33 AM