To mark the 30th anniversary of Opera Bastille, the writer Gaëlle Obiégly resided for two days in the building, pacing its corridors, its backstage areas, from the workshops to the ticket office, from the offices to the stage. She observed the production, which everyday draws hundreds of men and women towards a unique place where the curtain rises and the stage lights blaze. To the rhythm of her wanderings, the author imagined a narrative, the story of the musical awakening of the young Nour whose ascension follows the rhythm of day from sunrise to sunset.
Karima nettoie le bureau du président. Avec son chiffon, elle frappe les fauteuils en cuir pour en ôter la poussière. Il faut faire vite avant l’arrivée du maître des lieux. Dans l’évier, s’entrechoquent les tasses et les cuillères à laver rapidement pour qu’il pénètre dans un espace impeccable et vide. Tout sera propre et rangé, sauf le désordre de papier qui ne concerne que son auteur. La vaisselle, brassée dans l’évier, rincée à grande eau, produit des sons que Karima n’entend pas mais sa petite-fille, oui. Nour, qui l’accompagne à l’Opéra le mercredi matin. Elles s’y rendent en bus, le noctilien de 4h50, qui relie Aulnay-sous-Bois à Paris. Depuis son entrée en primaire, Nour vit avec sa grand-mère qui ne la laisse jamais seule pour préserver l’enfant des dérives de la solitude. Grâce à son ancienneté, la femme de ménage, dont l’âge de la retraite approche, pourra bientôt adapter ses horaires à ceux de l’école. Quand elle part à 4h40, la voisine de palier prend place sur le canapé replié qui est le lit de Karima. L’enfant a une chambre. Sortis du haut du placard, ses habits propres sont prêts à être enfilés. Il faudra lui chauffer un bol de lait, l’aider pour ses lacets, la conduire à l’école. C’est une aide indispensable. Mais le mercredi matin, elles sortent toutes les deux, Nour et Karima. Il fait nuit, elles vont à l’Opéra, celui de la Bastille. Pour l’enfant attentive, ces pièces que nettoie Karima sont des sortes de studio, hermétiques aux bruits extérieurs. L’Opéra Bastille tout entier est ainsi. On y entend, en dehors du spectacle, de fortuits arrangements sonores, très rythmés, sans mélodie, de percussions principalement. Au petit matin, ce sont des cuillères frappant le bord d’une tasse ; et portes de placard, froissements légers, frottements du papier absorbant, les gants en caoutchouc enfilés juste avant une plongée dans un seau dont le liquide euphorique ruisselle et goutte sur le lino des sanitaires. L’abattant de toilettes est reposé en un geste sec sur la cuvette. À partir de là, les bruits s’enchaînent sur un rythme effréné. Ce tempo, c’est d’une certaine manière le chef qui l’impose puisque Karima doit agir avant son entrée. La cadence du nettoyage est dictée par le compte à rebours. À partir de ce moment, qui vient toujours après l’étirement du caoutchouc, c’est-à-dire une fois qu’elle a ses gants de ménage, elle se met à racler le sol, à taper les plinthes avec la brosse et l’eau ruisselle ardemment. Les clés tintent selon son pas à présent nerveux. La porte, en se refermant, grince longtemps, manœuvrée par le groom. Après quoi, l’on n’entend plus rien que des voix.
Nour s’exprime peu. Elle est attentive, cependant. Le commentaire de l’instituteur a pour but de rassurer Karima qui craint qu’elle soit rêveuse. Qu’elle soit maladroite. Peut-être même handicapée. À quoi consacrerait-elle alors son existence ? À de petites taches, certes utiles, mais sans éclat, sans valeur aux yeux de la plupart. Karima, par amour, exige de Nour qu’elle obtienne les meilleures notes et qu’elle excelle dans sa passion. Le chant. Nour y parvient, stimulée par l’affection et par la gratitude. Elle ne parle pas beaucoup, ni chez elle ni à l’école. Mais au conservatoire, sa voix retentit plus que toutes les autres quand elle chante. Indirectement, c’est grâce à Karima que Nour a découvert la musique, grâce à son poste de femme de ménage à l’Opéra Bastille. Pendant plusieurs années, jusqu’à ce qu’elle devienne collégienne, Nour a déambulé dans ce grand bâtiment. Elle lui trouve du caractère, précisément celui de Karima, une souplesse. Le sol de vinyl donne de l’élan aux pas et une sonorité souriante. À certains endroits, on se croit soulevé, on se sent presque dans les airs, et vide agréablement. Les courbes de quelques couloirs polissent l’absence qui, nuit et jour, écorche l’esprit de Nour. Dans ces lieux, le silence n’est pas pesant. Au contraire, il favorise l’écoute de tous les sons qui, pour elle en tout cas, produisent une musique familière et cependant étrange. L’enfant, il lui arrive de parcourir les couloirs à l’affût de mélodies quand elle se lasse des modestes percussions du chariot d’entretien. En premier lieu, avant même d’avoir une passion pour la musique, Nour s’est aperçue de son ouïe très développée. Elle a porté son attention sur la qualité sonore très particulière de Bastille. Elle a continué d’y aller avec Karima, même à un âge où elle aurait préféré s’attarder au lit. Et pendant que l’une presse son éponge au-dessus du seau, l’autre plisse les paupières pour déployer ce ruissellement. Et la rêverie sensuelle devient créatrice ; l’adolescente envisage de quelle manière transposer cette sorte de cascade qui chute dans un seau. Quel instrument la rendrait le mieux ? À sept ans, elle en connaissait déjà beaucoup. À cette époque, Karima lui tenait les mains de peur que l’enfant ne touche les instruments de musique. Elles regardaient leur forme briller dans la pénombre. Personne, hormis les interprètes, ne les prend ni même ouvre les étuis. Karima aura eu le privilège de les caresser avec son chiffon à poussière. Nour, face à un peloton de contrebasses bien protégées, se sentait menacée de mort. Se sentait, à 12 ans, carrément mise en joue. Cette terreur, Karima la désamorçait en frottant les étuis avec légèreté, avec détachement.
Opera, for Nour, is permanently bound up with a range of sounds that evoke ordinary life. The silence in these places is such that every gesture is sonorous, each body resounds. They do not oppose each other, the silence, the noises; they articulate each other. At least, it is this well-ordered mixture that seduces Nour, that will spark off her vocation. She will become a singer. She vowed that one day she would be on that stage, no matter who with. Vowed that she would sing here. At ten, she marked out her place on the black surface of the stage with odd ends of chalk. Her mark was daily rubbed out as much by the cleaners as by the stage hands and the performers. She renewed it, with the decidedness that comes from a premonition. A dream had informed her of her destiny, but can one make prophecies for oneself. In Nour, hope was coupled with a superior will. The security guard and Karima speak in Arabic. What are they talking about? Nour has no idea, although her years of study have made her a polyglot. But she has never had to sing in Arabic, which means that she understands nothing of the family language. Since they look at her as they talk, she supposes that she is the subject of their exchange which, for Nour, consists in a vocal duet in which the female voice expresses itself more than the man. Who contents himself with acquiescing. From being a model employee, zealous, hurried, rapid, Karima has become a talkative OAP, a whisperer who accompanies her granddaughter on her numerous engagements. Or waits for her in the comfortable, spacious flat that, with her generous fees, Nour rents at the Palais-Royal. With her pension, Karima sometimes treats herself to a plane ticket permitting her to be at the side of the diva of whom she is the only close relative. For many people, such a life is pathetic. Nour thinks so too from time to time. And Karima is uncomfortable living with Nour because she feels a burden to her. In fact it is the opposite. Nour can do nothing for herself and she has no friends and no lovers. She doesn’t have time. Friendship, as much as love, requires commitment. Witness the time that one devotes to her or to him whom one loves. At least, that’s how most people see things. And the only invitations Nour receives are from institutions, sponsors. Other people have excluded her from their amusements.j It’s a punishment. She knows this. A punishment that comes after a few rejections. Several times, she has in the end not been able to go to her friends’ dinner parties and has not even let them know. Because she had to rehearse, because she was called at the last moment to step in and sing a role impromptu, but also sometimes to stay with Karima after a long absence. The feelings she has for her are the only ones that have left their mark.
They leave a mark even in Nour’s voice which, when she began, found favour not with the majority, but with a fervent community. Over the years, her stunning interpretations have conquered all reticence. There is a vibration at the heart of the singing she manifests. A yellow reflection that gleams like gold. The light of brilliant sunshine on crystal, eyes respond to it, by instinct, by a movement of the eyelids. A voice that generates, as the music unravels, a unique effect, as the desert heat makes the oasis shimmer. It’s a mystery that draws numerous aesthetes, unproductive poets, and persons less radical. Because of a slight flaw in her dentition, Nour’s words whistle as they emerge from her. They tried to correct it in vain. A man was assigned to this oddity in her mouth, who is still there to this day. Simon, who, from the role of teacher has become Nour’s assistant, coaching her on various roles, seeking only to develop the intensity of his pupil. Through the genius of a man without talent, Nour’s physical anomaly has now made her a rarity. It is also he who rid her of her surname, since in any case, there is no real family to be attached to. Her stage name is simply Nour. One syllable that suits her perfectly because it is dense. Nour is missing a tooth, it’s the reason for her embarrassment in society. But the rare quality of her singing, apparently, comes from that very deformity. Some syllables seem to flow whilst others agitate the bottomless abyss of words. By virtue of a missing tooth, this is singing that has overtones of the metaphysical. And carnal at the same time. And which conjures up images. A man with whom she could have been happy had she agreed to live a comfortable life beside Lake Leman, had the intense sensation of walking amongst Roman ruins in mid-summer just listening to Nour in The Passion. It was too short. The man wanted to meet her. They liked each other. But Nour would have had to sing only for him. Or for him and their children. Repeatedly, she found herself in this sort of situation. She had to renounce her engagements, either that or she found herself abandoned. She now sings at the most important opera houses. She travels a lot. Or rather she has made numerous trips for work. She has met people here and there. She will next be performing, as is indicated on the posters and in the programmes, the role of a woman desperately in love because of a magic potion. An old legend that exists in numerous version and as an opera, perhaps even several. But Nour only knows the one she is rehearsing at Opera Bastille. Several times she has dreamt that she can’t manage to sing because of her skirt. The director has asked her to lie on her side but her skirt with its whalebone structure hinders her. And that stiffness makes her come apart vocally. Where does this fear come from? The skirt feels to her like a cage. In a cage, she cannot sing. By looking squarely at the images of the dream, she understands its content. It reassures her since, forewarned of what threatens her if she gives herself up to conjugal bliss, she takes more pleasure in solitude. And in her who makes it bearable – her grandmother.
Nour enters the soft fabrics workshop for a costume fitting. A cheerful man with round glasses escorts her there. While she is waiting to try on the unfinished costume, she takes a seat on revolving stool that reminds her of a photo booth. Her short legs barely touch the floor. She watches the dressmakers stitching with machines. Some blue fabric catches her eye. It’s a bodice adjusted not on a dummy but on a woman with the gestures of a surgeon. The woman is bending over a white skirt that she is cutting with a scalpel. Meeting Nour’s curious gaze, the woman says, “I’m redoing my skirt.” Who is it for, in reality? The woman who makes it; the one who wears it? It will be Nour’s costume. It’s been coming into her dreams these last nights. The dressmaker had ill-designed it. It was too flexible. She gave it a framework. It was then too rigid. She got the idea of adding woven hat fabric to the material of the skirt. She assembles the strips of fabric, fixing them with pins. Once it has been sewn, Nour can try it on. She says: “This is better, in this vast skirt stiff and supple at the same time, I feel capable of anything.” And when she has to lie down, the voluminous skirt will not mask her for, in spite of its volume, it sinks down with her. Nour has tried on the complete costume, moved around in it, acted out the demise of her character and her ardour. It’s fine, the clothes espouse her. For the top half, they have made her a wrap-over bodice identical to the ones for the new dresses for the women’s chorus, the cut of which is greatly appreciated as it is adapted to all body shapes. And the wrap-over style is ideal for Nour as, when she changes costume in the second act, she won’t disturb her hair. He black hair will be flattened down so it disappears under a wig. Long blond tresses caress her bare arms. In the workshop, while they are perfecting this excessive coiffure, a young woman sews a floral border onto a very long veil attached to a wooden dummy. Nour will be that spectacular bride, but a wife never. During rehearsals, she comes across a girlfriend from twenty-five years ago, from the conservatoire in Aulnay-sous-Bois, who is in the chorus. This friend now spends a lot of time here, more than Nour herself, although she feels this is her home. Her friend has one of the chorus dressing rooms. They are little rooms, like cubby holes with a few personal possessions, children’s drawings. There is a photo of Nour stuck on her friend’s mirror; they were adolescents and fellow students back then. The chorus dressing rooms are very familiar to the soloist who used to like to stay there while Karima washed the floor in the corridor. Nour used to examine the tiny rooms without touching anything. At present, she allows herself to leaf through a book lying on the little table. The performances are approaching. The two women stroll past the vast picture windows without talking more than they ever did. For Nour, it is the sounds of the building that retain all her attention and the silent tableau of the outside world that stretches out beyond the windows. Alone in the cafeteria, she listens with interest to the dialects of the manual workers. Their creations will soon be her showcase. She opens a folder, takes out the score and mentally sculpts the vocal line. She enfolds it, soaks up the lines of music which she hears as easily as she runs through them. When she is on stage, she will have only to externalise the sound matter that fills her. Her naturalness, that grace that draws the crowds, it comes from her devotion. She gives herself utterly to everything that touches the work. She is possessed. She is silent. She is holding back everything for the performance. She glows, explosive and immobile. Subjugated by her art. Devoted to her public. All the tickets have been sold. She knows, ever since the success of the opening night, that she has been praised to the skies. Other than Simon, nobody knows that her art depends upon her dental deformity. What humiliates her in daily life is the means of her apotheosis on stage. Her speech may have excited mockery but she excels in expressing the divine. The reviews and tributes are ignorant of Nour’s secret. Only an autopsy would reveal it. Nothing shows. Only the brilliance. There is no other opera house in which she feels so at home as at Bastille. It saw her grow up. She knows every corner of it and its population, which is characterised as much by passion as by collective and personal discipline. Each post has its own difficulties. All efforts culminate in the beauty that manifests itself at the end of the day. A naturalness that comes from artifice. Each and every individual devotes themselves to it. Everything is poured into the performance: one’s skills and one’s very self. At the ticket office, the employees are known as “sales technicians”. It’s not ridiculous if you think about it. Technique aims to guarantee excellence at every level of the production. Selling tickets contributes to the extraordinary thing that is coming. It has its constraints, as do the performers. At your till, you forget your own emotions, your ordinary needs. As soon as the curtain of the ticket office goes up, the sales technicians are on stage. If a performance is cancelled, they are in the front line. It does happen. There are strikes, technical problems, dramas.
The catastrophe, this evening with people crowding into the entrance of Opera Bastille for Nour’s triumph, it is Karima who is the cause. Karima is dead. The ambulance men took her to the emergency room. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation was without effect. Death was certified at the hospital in Aulnay-sous-Bois at 12 minutes past 5, a few hours before Nour’s entrance on stage. She is informed by telephone. She isolates herself. She does not cry. She tears out the long tresses from her wig. She strips off her costume violently, like a plaster. Dishevelled, literally voiceless, she trips on the debris of her character. Simon fails to convince her to go on. A brigade of wardrobe assistants, wig makers and the nurse are posted at the entrance to her dressing room, ready to step in. Nour comes out devastated, half naked under a long anorak. She moves away and disappears at the end of the corridor. Unrecognisable, spectral, she walks through the crowd of her admirers, disappointed by the cancellation. Some of them are already queueing up at the ticket office to be reimbursed, perhaps even for a plane or an hotel: they have come a long way. Others, more fervent, applaud as Nour passes by. She is not expected to take a bow. Robbed of her treasure, she mingles with the public, vulnerable but important and royal.