The big red circus tent up on the hill

A.K.A. Le Chapiteau de mars (The…uh…big red circus tent in March)

Nothing ever happens in this town in the wintertime.  But here, the first sign of spring is not a flower or a budding tree or a warm breeze.  It is instead a week-long music/theatre festival, planned at least six months in advance.

The first time I heard of this, it was from the teachers at my school, back in early October when I first started eating lunch with them.  The direct translation (and only one I found) of “chapiteau” is “big top,” as in circus, and I was very confused as to why they were planning a choral concert for the kids in a circus tent.  Or perhaps there was going to be a school-sponsored circus coming.  But at the time, I wasn’t quite sure how to ask questions that would get me more explanatory responses, so I let it sit, figuring I would find out more when it got closer.

Then, last month, posters plastered themselves onto blank walls and lampposts overnight, more than I had ever seen advertising anything.  Labeaume en Musiques presents L’argentiere’s Chapiteau de Mars 2010, from March 13-21.  It opens with a concert with a blues/folk artist, then a theatrical adaptation of Sinbad the Sailor, then there’s choral performances the whole week from schools and other groups in the area, then the last weekend there is an opera.  A farcical maritime opera, the last performance of which features some of my older kids as “petits mousses,” little cabinboys and -girls on the ship sailing towards the Caribbean.  Okay, I’ll bite…but what the heck should I expect in terms of quality?  How well known is this?  Yes, the 2000-person town is buzzing about it, but I’ve been in New York City for four years.  I know stellar theatre, amazing musical performances.  How would this compare?

As it turned out, I could not have asked for a better festival to come to town.  The first night was Piers Faccini (go look him up, if you don’t know him already), a blues/folk artist who is apparently fairly well known.  I’m just pop-culturally challenged, even in the areas that I like…so I’d never heard of him.  Listen to a few clips, and then let me tell you that he performs even better than he records.  I felt like, for one night, I was back in New York.  Really, for the second night, too, with Sinbad the Sailor — only it was in the French part of New York.

The opera, which I saw yesterday (YAY! something to do on a Sunday!), was hysterically funny.  I had half of my kids tell me they knew I was there because they heard my laugh.  (On a side note, that observation should be familiar to anyone I’ve ever told that I went to go see a taping of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.)  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I understood the whole thing, because theatre is always harder to understand than regular conversations, especially sung theatre with a bunch of maritime vocabulary that I do not know.  But it was a family-oriented romp through the old French theatre traditions, with a narrator, one bumbling buffoon, a drunk yet heroic captain, musicians getting in on the act, and an alto man playing all the women.  And the bows at the end — there’s a certain presence to all French curtain calls that I just love.  It’s a tradition dating back beyond the beginnings of the Comédie Française in Paris, but they still do it the best.  Precise and military, yet character-filled.  These people once performed in the court of a king.  You just know.

All this was in a big red circus tent, up on the hill next to the fire station right outside of town.  Et voilà: le chapiteau de mars!

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