The Paris Opera's history
Founding of the Académie royale de Danse (Royal Academy of Dance) by Louis XIV with the purpose of training dancers and formalising choreographic art.
Founding of the Académie royale de Musique (Royal Academy of Music), also known as Académie d'Opéra or Opéra, at the instigation of Colbert. Under the aegis of the crown, this institution brought together a group of singers, the first professional orchestra in France and the Ballet Company of the Académie royale de Danse in order to promote French opera in Paris and in the more important cities in the kingdom. The Académie was not subsidised but funded itself. It wasn't until after the French Revolution that its director received financial help from the state and then only if he accepted certain conditions in exchange. The King granted him one privilege: a monopoly on the performance of musical theatre. From 1672 to 1687, the Académie was directed by Lully who wrote operas for it, including Cadmus and Hermione (1673), considered to be the first French opera in the history of music, Armide (1674) and Alceste (1686). A milestone in the history of French opera, the founding of the Académie royale de Musique was also an important event in the history of Ballet: until then, dance had been considered merely as a courtly entertainment; now it had the public stage at its disposal and dance interludes were incorporated into operas. Little by little, the Ballet became more and more independent until, in the 19th century, the era of the great romantic ballets, it had its own repertoire.
During the two centuries that followed its creation, the Opéra changed its venue eleven times: it resided at la Bouteille (1670-1672), the Jeu de Paume(1672-1673), the Palais-Royal (1673-1763), the Salle des Machines (1764-1770), the second hall of the Palais-Royal (1770-1781), the Menus-Plaisirs (1781), the Porte Saint-Martin (1781-1794), the Salle de la Rue de Richelieu (1794-1820), the Théâtre Louvois (1820), the Salles Favart (1820-1821) and Le Peletier (1821-1873).
The Ballet of the Opéra opened its doors to women dancers for the first time.
At the age of fifty, Jean-Philippe Rameau made his debut at the Académie royale de Musique with a tragic opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, based on the play Phèdre by Racine. It was a triumphant success. Among the spectators, the composer, André Campra, now an old man, remarked that there were enough notes in Rameau's music for ten operas. It was after this memorable performance that Rameau, whose output until that point amounted to only a few works, was to become the musical genius that we know today. During the twenty years that followed, he composed a dozen works for the Académie including Les Indes galantes (1735) and Les Paladins (1757). In reference to the performance of Platée in 1745, the Encyclopédie by Diderot and Alembert, first published in 1751, was to comment on its extraordinary structure, unprecedented in French music, combining grandiose images, humorous tableaux and the most noble, the most powerful music.
In Europe, opera was undergoing a period of profound change, which was to leave its mark on musical history: Mozart was on the point of spreading his wings beyond his native Salzburg and Christophe Willibald Gluck left Vienna for Paris in order to apply his musical reforms to French opera. His works, which included Iphigénie en Aulide (1774) Orphée et Eurydice (1774 for the French version) and Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), were all performed at the Académie royale de Musique and became the spear head of a new operatic art in quest of natural forms of expression and dramatic verisimilitude.
Jean-Georges Noverre, now considered to be the founder of modern ballet, introduced ballet d'action to the stage of the Opera: for the first time the corps de ballet was to dance, not merely an interlude, but a narrative ballet in which the story was developed through dance and pantomime.
Luigi Cherubini composed his first opera, Anacréon ou l'Amour Fugitif, for the Académie royale de Musique. It was followed by Faniska (1806), Pygmalion (1809), Crescendo (1810), Abencérages ou l'Étendard de Grenade (1813) and Ali-Baba et les Quarante Voleurs (1833).
The king endowed the Opéra with a Ballet School, previously the existing École de l'Académie.
Gioacchino Rossini composed his last operas for the Académie: Le Siège de Corinthe (1826), Moïse et Pharaon ou le Passage de la Mer Rouge (1827), Le Comte Ory (1828) and his monumental work, Guillaume Tell (1829).
First performance of Muette de Portici, composed for the Opéra by Daniel-Françoise-Esprit Auber with a libretto by Eugène Scribe. Although it has now been largely forgotten, this opera was a huge success at the time and played an important role in the emergence of French Grand Opera. Auber and Scribe collaborated on half a dozen more works, including Le Philtre (1831), the libretto of which was also used by Gaetano Donizetti for his Elisir d'Amore. Paris would later commemorate the partnership of these two artistic geniuses, Auber and Scribe, by naming the two streets that lead to the Palais Garnier after them.
First performance at the Opéra of Robert le Diable; this opera marks the beginning of the collaboration between Scribe and Giacomo Meyerbeer, another composer of the period. Although Gustav Kobbé considered the scenario of this opera to be grotesque (the son of the devil falls in love with a princess), Meyerbeer's music transcends the libretto and the opera was such a success that the Opéra, according to legend, made a fortune from the takings. Robert le Diable marks the beginning of a long and faithful collaboration between Meyerbeer, his librettist and the Opéra, a partnership which produced Les Huguenots (1836), Le Prophète (1849) and L'Africaine, completed in 1865 after Meyerbeer's death. With their combination of Italianate melody, Germanic harmony and the rhythms and declamatory style of the French tradition, the works of Meyerbeer, together with those of Rossini and Halévy, laid the foundations of French Grand Opera. Wagner imitated them before developing his own style and Verdi never missed a premier at the Paris Opera. Paris was now the hub of the operatic world and all the great composers eagerly sought to have their works performed there.
La Sylphide, created for the Opéra by Philippe Taglioni, was the first ballet to be danced in white tutus.
With more than sixty operas to his name, the Italian composer, Gaetano Donizetti, produced La Favorite, his first work for the Paris Opéra. Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal was soon to follow in 1843.
The ballet, Giselle, by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, marked the apogee of romantic Ballet. Théophile Gautier, the author of the libretto, drew on German mythology for the legend of the deceased lovers who lure foolish travellers away from their road, compelling them to dance all the way to the gates of the Kingdom of Shadows.
Jacques Fromental Halévy's La Juive, his most celebrated work, was performed at the Paris Opera. This masterpiece in five acts including ballet established French Grand Opera as one of the major operatic genres of the 19th century. La Reine de Chypre was to follow in 1841. Like Gluck, Auber and Scribe, Halévy was honoured by having one of the four streets adjacent to the Opéra named after him.
Giuseppe Verdi composed his first grand opera, Jérusalem, for the Académie Royale de Musique. Its rather mitigated success, attributed at the time to the mediocrity of the performers, would not prevent Verdi from accepting commissions for Les Vêpres Siciliennes (1855) and Don Carlos (1867). Verdi always had an ambiguous relationship with the Paris Opéra: he never refused the honour of having a work commissioned but he constantly complained about the demands exacted by what he referred to as "la grande Boutique".
Charles Gounod composed his first opera, Sapho, for what was now known as the Académie Impériale de Musique. Among the works that followed, Polyeucte (1878) and Le Tribut de Samora (1881) are worthy of note.
14th january 1858
As Napoléon III was arriving at the Opéra in his carriage, Italian anarchists employed by Felice Orsini threw bombs into the crowd. The Emperor and his wife escaped by a miracle but eight people were killed and almost five hundred injured in the explosion. The following day, the Emperor made the decision to build a new opera house.
Organisation of an international competition for the building of the new Académie Impériale de Musique et de Danse. 171 architects participated including the thirty-five-year-old and as yet unknown Charles Garnier. His proposed design attempted to remedy what he considered to be the crucial problem for artists of the period: the impossibility of accommodating large audiences. He was proclaimed the winner on May 30th 1861.
Richard Wagner made his entrance at the Opéra amid considerable fracas and financial losses: the first performance of Tannhäuser sparked off a new battle of Hernani amongst the audience. Management gave in to public pressure, cancelling the other performances; the composer hurriedly left Paris. So what! declared Baudelaire, taking up Wagner's defence: a new idea had been launched and a breach had been made in the old edifice: that was the important thing.
The painter and art critic, Émile Perrin, took up the directorship of the Paris Opéra, a post he was to occupy until 1871.
28th-29th october 1873
The Salle Le Peletier was burnt down in a fire, which raged for more than twenty-four hours, the causes of which remain unknown to this day. The Opéra was obliged to move to the Salle Ventadour until the new Opéra Garnier had been completed.
5th january 1875
Inauguration of the new opera house. Charles Garnier's Palais became the centrepiece of Paris, recently rebuilt by Georges Eugène Haussmann. Napoleon III, who had died two years previously, never saw the magnificent palace he had commissioned. No trees were planted on the avenue leading to the main entrance: passers-by enjoyed an uninterrupted view of the facade, intended as a glittering symbol of imperial power.
As France entered the First World War, Jacques Rouché became director of the Paris Opera, a post he held for over thirty years.
George Balanchine, former dancer with the Ballets russes under Diaghilev, was invited to create a new choreography for the Opéra to Beethoven's Les Créatures de ballet. He fell ill and was unable to complete the commission before he died. He recommended Serge Lifar, also from the Ballets russes, to replace him. The following year, Lifar became ballet master, taking over the company to which he devoted more than thirty years of his life. He created a class for adage or pas de deux giving increased importance to male dancers, no longer there merely as a foil for the ballerinas. His neoclassical style greatly influenced Roland Petit and Maurice Béjart.
At the age of nine, Roland Petit was accepted at the Opéra's Ballet School. He danced with the Ballet Company until the age of twenty when he resigned in order to devote his time to choreography. He created a number of ballets for the Paris Opéra including Notre Dame de Paris, Adages et Variations (1965), Le Fantôme de l'Opéra (1980) and Clavigo (1999). He died in 2011.
World premier of Georges Enescu's only opera, the masterpiece Œdipe at the Paris Opéra. In his memoires, the Romanian composer tells how he was inspired to write the work after a dazzling performance of Sophocles' Œdipus Rex in French.
The French government decided to merge the Opéra Comique, now in financial difficulties, with the Théâtre National de l'Opéra to form the Réunion des Théâtres Lyriques Nationaux (Union of National Operatic Theatres). The Opéra Comique did not regain its independence until 1990.
Just after the Second World War, the composer, conductor and music critic, Reynaldo Hahn, was appointed director of the Paris Opéra.
First performance at the Palais Garnier of the French version of Francis Poulenc's opera, Dialogues des Carmélites, the Italian version of which had been performed a few months previously. The moving story of the young novice who overcomes her fears and follows her Carmelite sisters to the guillotine met with immediate success. Poulenc never put as much time and energy into the creation of a musical work as he did for this one.
After being artistic director of Radio Zurich, conductor of the Norddeutscher Rundfunk Orchestra and director of the Hamburg Opera, the Swiss composer, Rolf Liebermann, was appointed to the direction of the Réunion des Théâtres Lyriques Nationaux.
Creation of the Opéra Studio, a training centre for opera singers at the Salle Favart. It was to be replaced by the Atelier Lyrique (Operatic Workshop) in 2005.
The Réunion des Opéras Lyriques Nationaux was disbanded to make way for the Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris of which Rolf Liebermann was to be artistic director until 1980.
Judging the scope of the Palais Garnier to be insufficient, President François Mitterand decided to build a new, modern opera house in Paris. A competition was organised for which 1700 architects entered a total of 756 projects
Founding of the state opera company, the Établissement Publique Opéra-Bastille (EPOB). The thirty-seven-year-old Uruguayan architect, Carlos Ott, won the contract to build the new opera house.
First performance of Messaien's Saint François d'Assise, Scènes Franciscaines, an opera in three acts and eight tableaux, at the Palais Garnier, conducted by Seiji Ozawa and directed by Sandro Sequi. Rolf Liebermann had commissioned the work in 1975 and it took Messiaen eight years to compose the libretto and the score.
After an exceptional international career as a dancer, Rudolf Nureyev became Director of Dance at the Paris Opéra. He left after six years but remained the company's principal choreographer. He was responsible for reviving and adapting the ballets of Marius Petipa, including Don Quichotte (1981), Raymonda (1983), Swan Lake (1984), The Nutcracker (1985) and La Bayadère (1992).
Work began on the new opera house.
The School of Dance moved to its current location in Nanterre.
Pierre Bergé, the co-founder and president of the haute couture company Yves Saint-Laurent, became head of the board of directors of the Opéra. He was to organise the inauguration ceremony of the Opéra Bastille.
13th july 1989
Inauguration of the Opéra Bastille as part of the bicentenary celebrations of the French Revolution.
The Palais Garnier and the Opera Bastille merge to form the Opéra de Paris. The first operatic performance in the new opera house took place in March: Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz in a production by Pier Luigi Pizzi, conducted by the musical director of the Paris Opéra, Myung-Whun Chung. The first season of the Opéra-Bastille began in September of that year.
The Paris Opéra became the Opéra National de Paris. The change of name indicated its intention to extend its scope beyond the confines of the capital.
Having been general secretary for the Réunion des Théâtres Lyriques Nationaux, assistant to Rolf Liebermann at the Théâtre National de L'Opéra and the director of Geneva's Grand Théâtre, Hugues R. Gall became director of the Paris Opera.
The choreographer, teacher and former dancer at the Opera Ballet Company, Brigitte Lefèvre became Director of Dance at the Paris Opera. Before taking up this post, she had been principal inspector for dance at the Direction of Music and Dance at the Ministry of Culture and General Administrator, Assistant Director responsible for dance of the Opéra Garnier.
Gerard Mortier, former director of the Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie in Brussels, of the Salzburg Festival and the Ruhrtriennial Festival, was appointed to the head of the Paris Opera.
The international-known stage director, Nicolas Joel left the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse to become director of the Paris Opera. Philippe Jordan was appointed to his side as Musical Director.