30 years on: the Bastille adventure

2/5 - Loïc Durand

A look back at the birth of an opera house

By Aurélien Poidevin 02 June 2020


© Florian Kleinefenn / OnP

2/5 - Loïc Durand

Loïc Durand is an Arts et Métiers engineer. From 1985 until 1989 he was part of the Opera Bastille construction team and was then in charge of the set design office until 2001. Today, Loïc Durand accompanies performing arts professionals in the conception and realisation of sets with his own company « Spectat ».

Aurélien Poidevin: What were the circumstances that led you to take part in the Bastille adventure?

Loïc Durand: The totally atypical nature of the construction of this theatre necessitated the creation of two project management teams. One, commonly known as “MOE1”, was devoted to the building and represented by the architect (Carlos Ott), and the other, “MOE2”, was concerned with stage engineering and represented by the consultancy firm EMH, the design being carried out by a German company specialising in stage equipment (Cabinet Biste). I was employed in “MOE1”: as an Arts et Métiers engineer, I knew about mechanics and I spoke German. I was therefore responsible for ensuring the best possible coordination between MOE1 and MOE2. It was the ideal post for a young engineer because I was at the intersection between two project management teams and by the eve of the inauguration I knew practically every square metre of the site!
A little before the completion of the construction, I reintegrated the Paris Opera teams and was entrusted with a new department: the set design office.

Aurélien Poidevin: What was the function of this set design office?

Loïc Durand: As you can imagine, they didn’t need me to design the sets... The workshops at the boulevard Berthier already had a design office in which each of the builders (carpenter, locksmith, painter) established his own plans based on the model provided by the scenographer and/or the director. I therefore observed the way in which they collaborated with each other before proposing tools from the world of engineering, with a view to developing the process as a whole and offering new perspectives.
Little by little, we established principles by which to calculate structures, we planned our tasks, we introduced computerised tools and developed computer-assisted creation. The idea was, on the one hand, to improve the circulation of information between the different technical departments (stage management, machinery, set workshops, lighting, sound, props etc.) and on the other, to transfer the responsibility for the conception of the sets to the design office, whilst making sure that the workshops remained in charge of the construction of the sets because they remained the guardians of unparalleled expertise and skill.

Montage des décors dans les ateliers
Montage des décors dans les ateliers © Florian Kleinefenn / OnP

Aurélien Poidevin: The challenge cannot have been easy to meet, for it represented a profound change in methodology. Looking back, what made the success of such a project possible?

Loïc Durand: Remember the theatre’s inaugural production: we did The Trojans by Hector Berlioz, directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi. In the course of the first act, an immense horse crossed the stage, from right to left. If we had built this element using traditional techniques, we would not have succeeded. The horse would have been much too heavy and would have gone through the floor of the stage! Thanks to composite materials and rigorous structural calculations, we met the challenge. The horse was built by the Devineau workshop in Blanc Mesnil, with the support of an army of naval constructors brought in from Vendée. New perspectives were opening for the building of stage sets.
In the course of the 1991/1992 season, Bob Wilson’s production of The Magic Flute was on the bill. The time had come to set up a department devoted entirely to composite materials. As far as I know, even today, the Paris Opera is the only theatre in the world to have such skills at its disposal in its own set-building workshops.

Aurélien Poidevin: Let us return to that prodigious tool – the Opéra Bastille: if it was to do again, thirty years later, what changes would you make in the light of your experience?

Loïc Durand: Before anything else, let us remember the main lines of the project. They can be summed up in a single phrase: alternating performances. The design brief for the construction of the new opera house stipulated that we had to be able to put on more than 300 performances per year, including nearly 250 at Bastille. That was the condition necessary for the creation of a people’s opera house, that is, a theatre offering productions that are varied, numerous and accessible. One can’t appreciate the theatre's volumes or the surface areas of the loading and storage areas for the sets without taking that constraint into account; alternation means presenting several different productions in the same week, and therefore being able to store all the sets on the stage and in the wings, whence the immensity of the Opera Bastille.
However, I have identified three flaws in its layout. The first is to do with the position of what is commonly known here as the “dumb waiter”, the main stage lift that goes from the stage up to the first floor and down to below-stage level 6 – the area in which the sets are assembled and taken apart). Installed precisely in the area of the main stage, the “dumb waiter” represents a major risk because, if it breaks down, it would make it impossible to use the theatre for current productions. That clearly constitutes an error, so much so that it is strictly forbidden to instigate manoeuvres with these primary elevators during performances... Two solutions were found: we developed a new stage equipment department, responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of this specific piece of equipment, and we decided to activate this lift by night only, so as to limit the risks.
The second flaw is to do with the relationship between the stage and the auditorium, which constitutes a key element in theatre scenography. It’s highly paradoxical, but the fly tower was not designed for multiple productions, no more than was the sub-stage area! In short, there is a discrepancy between the vastness of the scene docks and the nature of the other stage facilities, notably those linked to lighting and to trap room equipment. We compensated for this inadequacy by constructing false stage proscenia installed on trolleys, behind which we installed the projectors, so as to limit the time needed to adjust the lighting. Thirty years on, with the widespread use of servo projectors, these difficulties have probably diminished.
Finally, the third flaw, the rigging width is insufficient in relation to the size of the proscenium: at the Opéra Bastille, the width of the flies is 21 metres (the proscenium is 18 metres wide) whereas at the Palais Garnier the flies are 26 metres wide (although the proscenium width is 16 metres). In other words, the Palais Garnier offers greater potential in terms of stage effects than the Opéra Bastille.

Aurélien Poidevin: So what is your verdict?

Loïc Durand: The first five years were difficult because we had to invent new technical procedures to compensate for the structural defects (rigging too narrow, absence of sub-stage, the position of the main lift) and tackle the new constraints resulting from the fact that the sets were placed on mobile trolleys. Thanks to the dedication and enthusiasm of the staff as a whole, new solutions were found and today, this leviathan has reached a handsome cruising speed. 

Maquettes de décors de Pierluigi Pizzi (©Christian Leiber) et photos de spectacle associées (© Florian Kleinefenn)
Maquettes de décors de Pierluigi Pizzi (©Christian Leiber) et photos de spectacle associées (© Florian Kleinefenn) 6 images

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