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30 years on: the Bastille adventure

1/5 - Christian Schirm

A look back at the birth of an opera house

Serie

1/5 - Christian Schirm

After studying literature and political science, Christian Schirm taught at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna from 1982 until 1987. In 1988, he became Hugues Gall’s collaborator, first at the Grand Theatre in Geneva, then at the Paris Opera. In 2004, Gerard Mortier entrusted him with the direction of the Paris Opera’s Atelier Lyrique. In 2015, Stéphane Lissner appointed him as artistic director of the Academy of the Paris Opera.

Aurélien Poidevin: Appointed deputy company secretary then deputy director in charge of the Palais Garnier and dramaturgy at the Paris Opera, you took up residence in this new building, a symbol of the major public works of the Mitterrand era. Do you remember your first impressions?

Christian Schirm: I arrived at the Opéra Bastille the day after Hugues Gall’s nomination as director of the Paris Opera. We had already been working together at Geneva's Grand Theatre and I followed him to Paris for the preparation of the 1995-1996 season. What I remember very precisely is the feeling of apprehension that filled me as I took my first steps in the theatre’s 33 kilometres of corridors: with the immensity of the space and the intensity of the work pace, I quickly understood that this opera house was quite unique! On the other hand, Bastille, unlike other houses, is not a stagione theatre, that is, a theatre in which one production is in rehearsal whilst another is on the bill. It is therefore difficult to share the daily life of the artists and accompany them day after day, from the initial readings of the score to the opening night.

Grand escalier de l’Opéra Bastille
Grand escalier de l’Opéra Bastille © Jean-Pierre Delagarde / OnP

Aurélien Poidevin: Was this a change from your previous experience of opera?

Christian Schirm: We had gone into over-drive: this state establishment brought together the Palais Garnier and the Opéra Bastille. Here we had two internationally renowned symphony orchestras, a hundred or so performers including the chorus, a ballet company comprising 160 dancers, some of them amongst the finest in the world, and no less than four performance spaces (two main stages, an amphitheatre and a studio)! Above all, I was immediately aware of the high degree of professionalism that characterised this establishment thanks to the possibilities offered by the new building. It had been much criticised and perhaps wrongly. Because it created a synergy of excellence, and did so with the full range of crafts and professions (from technical to artistic), the Opéra Bastille gave the institution considerable clout; everything had been designed to facilitate alternating productions.
Every time one walked through this extraordinary building one’s sense of responsibility and one’s sense of duty were summoned up. It was galvanising. The demand for success was without precedence: the management team had to be worthy of the talent concentrated within the house... And from then on, we had to sell almost 800,000 seats a year! In short, the Opéra Bastille imposed new standards of quality on every member of staff at the Paris Opera.

Aurélien Poidevin: In your opinion, what gave this building, designed by Carlos Ott, such an influence over the staff and the productions?

Christian Schirm: To understand this, one must consider the factors that determined the construction of this new theatre. Opera Bastille was to be “popular” and thus respond to a concern for the democratisation of access to operatic works. It was a question of passing on the emotions elicited by operatic and ballet performances to as many people as possible. The main auditorium had therefore to allow young spectators to attend numerous productions and thus appropriate, little by little, the repertoire. By this, I mean that, by going to the opera, audiences acquire the set of references needed to develop a taste for the performing arts.
The wager was partly won on the day of the inauguration: unprecedented political and financial state backing had made it possible to build this modern and effective tool. That is, a performance space seating 2,700 which, thanks to its layout and technical facilities, had the capacity to trigger genuine emotional shocks in the audience. At the Opéra Bastille, the public could have “music appreciation classes” far more easily than elsewhere and thus appropriate the repertoire. It was high time: I would point to the unprecedented increase in ticket sales and their stability over time as proof. This has shown that the realisation of this project was necessary.

Aurélien Poidevin: So it’s an unmitigated success?

Christian Schirm: I think so, but with one caveat. In effect, one could only justify the existence of an immense performance space if there was another opera house adapted to other repertoires, other forms and genres than 19th century “grand opera”. This is why the principle of an adaptable space was developed at the outset of the project. This adaptable space would have been used to host performances of Baroque and/or contemporary works, as well as more experimental projects. And the coherence of a people’s opera house relied entirely (and still does today) on the articulation of several performance spaces, different in size and nature. 

Grande salle de l’Opéra Bastille
Grande salle de l’Opéra Bastille © Jean-Pierre Delagarde / OnP

Aurélien Poidevin: If you had to characterise both the building and the institution, how would you define the Opéra Bastille?

Christian Schirm: The Opéra Bastille is a tool at the service of opera and ballet: one can but be in awe when 2,700 people are thrilled at each performance and share unparalleled emotions thanks to the quality of the performance and the professionalism of all those who serve the performing arts. A marvellous tool at the service of opera, that really is the idea I have of Bastille. And, since a people’s opera house must make opera accessible to the greatest number, the Opéra Bastille is also at the service of the public. 

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