The new Consul General of France in Calcutta, Didier Talpain wears a diplomat’s costume and also wields a conductor’s baton. A conversation with the French.
Welcome to the city. What were your previous publications?
I spent a lot of time in Central Balkan Europe – Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Greece, in addition to Paris. Three and a half years ago I moved to Karachi.
What prompted you to choose South East Asia?
I was offered these positions and had no reason to refuse. About 15 years ago, I carried out my first diplomatic mission to Delhi. We have a network of French schools assisted by the French government in almost all countries. There was a small school in Delhi. I spent two or three days there.
Consul General Talpain on his trip to Durga Puja. Photo courtesy of Sourav Bose
You landed in Calcutta in mid-October and managed to visit a few pandals from Durga Puja, right?
Yes, I took a little tour to get an idea of this colorful feast. I went to four places. Last week I took a look around the city while visiting a few restaurants participating in our French food event, Goût de France. It is a green city, even in comparison with some European cities. I also didn’t expect so many heritage buildings. I have, what is called in French, the love of old stones. This means structures dating from before the 20th century. We have a lot of them at home.
What part of France are you from?
I come from the East, from a region called Franche Comté, whose capital is Besançon, about 200 km north of Lyon.
You are a trained musician. What instrument were you specialized in?
Before turning to conducting, I obtained my flute diplomas. I also did a few years of the bassoon, which played a big role in Peter and the Wolf by (Sergei) Prokofiev (children’s theater composition).
One of the main gods of the Hindu pantheon is a flutist – Lord Krishna.
Yes. In the West, we know the flute image. The flute has been popular since ancient and pre-ancient times in various shapes and forms. In the Arab countries, they have the ney – not totally straight, not totally transversal. You find mention of the flute even in the Egyptian papyri. In Europe, from the 18th century, you have compositions for flute.
In India, the bamboo flute is more popular than western metal flutes.
The flutes used in the orchestra are silver or gold or a mixture of the two. Until the middle of the 19th century, flutes were a piece of wood with three keys. Then the mechanism came to make metal keys. Over the years, there have been improvements to have better intonation. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, there were wooden flutes in Western classical music. Today, there is a strong movement in Europe to return to period instruments when playing the repertoire of the 17th, 18th or first half of the 19th century. It is interesting to reinterpret the music of the past with instruments from the past. You can listen to a Mozart symphony as it sounded when it was composed.
You conducted your first concert at the age of 18. Where was he ?
It was in La Chaise-Dieu, a small village in Auvergne, in central France, where there are dead volcanoes. It is famous for an annual music festival launched by a virtuoso French pianist of Hungarian origin, Georges Cziffra. My first concert was not in the main part of the festival although later I also participated.
Do you remember what you did?
Yes. One was a symphony by one of (Johann Sebastian) Bach’s sons, Johann Christian Bach. Another was a trumpet piece written for Versailles during the time of King Louis XIV by (Jean-Baptiste) Lully. At the time, I was a student at the Nancy Business School and at the Nancy Conservatory of Music. Later, I moved to Strasbourg where I studied at the Institute of Political Studies and then in Paris where I took courses at the Ecole Normale de Musique and at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique.
But you have managed to balance your diplomatic career and your artistic pursuits.
I try to keep one foot in the artistic world. As a diplomat, you can choose the cultural sector, which I did in Central Europe. Working as a cultural advisor at the embassy meant taking care not only of the arts but also of promoting the French language, organizing film festivals, debates, etc. I have undertaken musical collaborations not only with Central European countries but also once in Jordan for an opera production. The musicians came from Jordan, Moldavia and France.
You must also have plans for musical collaborations here.
I am going to visit the Calcutta Music School. It is famous. You could have music even without a common language. It is the magic of music. Of course, I don’t know Indian classical music, which is another continent.
You have received an award from the Yehudi Menuhin Foundation.
Yes. I followed a high level training in orchestral conducting with a senior conductor of the Paris Opera under the label of the foundation and obtained the title of laureate of the foundation.
Have you heard of Pandit Ravi Shankar then?
Yes, Menuhin and he worked together to create cross music. It was quite famous in the West. It’s not every day that two musicians of this caliber collaborate. But that was a long time ago, in the mid-sixties. I took the course in the mid-eighties.
You prefer to record lesser-known songs.
No one would ask me to record the 51st version of a composition! Also, it is more interesting to record things not recorded before. I have recorded a few rare operas. Johann Christian Bach was a Mozart teacher. One of his last works was for the Paris Opera, Amadis de Gaule. It is an opera-ballet. I recorded it in the original French version with period instruments. An earlier recording existed but it was in German translation and with modern instruments.
Another of my recordings is related to India, titled Les Bayadères by (Charles-Simon) Catel. It takes place in western India and is a love story between a maharaja and a bayadere, believed to be devoted to God. The theater which housed the Paris Opera until 1873, was opened with this production in 1821.
Do you have an interest in sport?
I’m not really into sports, with one exception. I like to trek, not the Himalayas, but long distance hikes, which I do a lot in France. Another sport I played when I was younger was fencing. It is not a popular sport because it is difficult to show it on television. The goal is to hit the opponent. But it is very fast and only lasts a few seconds. You cannot make out anything except by looking to see if the (score) light has turned green or red (to decide which player has scored the shot). So it’s frustrating for the public. It’s not like football, which is played over a long distance and where you can see where the ball is all the time. I’ve heard that the International Fencing Federation is considering putting lights under the blade, like lightsabers in Star Wars. Then you can see the movement.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I listen to a lot of music, I read a lot. I love history, especially that of the 20th century. The last article I read was on the history of Sikkim.
You may want to watch a documentary on Sikkim by Satyajit Ray.
Yes surely. There is another interesting connection with Sikkim in Alexandra David-Neel. She was partly French, partly Belgian. A museum is dedicated to him in France. She lived until 101. She was an explorer, a feminist, a little anarchist, an opera singer and the first woman to enter the holy city of Lhasa, in 1924. She was also in Calcutta and spent a long time in Sikkim. She was interested in Buddhism. She has led an extraordinary life.
Do you plan to perform in Calcutta?
My job is to be the consul general. Our two main missions are to provide consular services and to foster links between the two countries and to promote French culture and to make higher education in France attractive to Indian students. Of course, within this framework of rapprochement between two countries, we can be active in cultural and artistic collaboration. But it is rather the work of the Alliance Française du Bengale. I don’t know if I can be personally involved. Of course, I have some ideas and now I have to find out who the Indian musicians are to collaborate with.
(left to right) WA Mozart, Joseph Haydn
• Gioachino Rossiny (how I love opera)
• WA Mozart
• Joseph Haydn
• Antonio Vivaldi. I started my musical education with him
• The sons of JS Bach. I recorded a few series of their music
• JN Hummel