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Major partners of the Paris Opera’s 350th anniversary

Major partners of
the Paris Opera’s 350th anniversary

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The people’s opera

Episode 1 - The project

— By Aurélien Poidevin

The people’s opera

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Opéra Bastille, Aurélien Poidevin looks back at an historical project that would profoundly alter the morphology of the national and international musical landscape: what were the guiding principles which led to the development of the proposal for a people’s opera? How did so gigantic a construction project unfold?


In May 1981, at the beginning of his first term, French President François Mitterrand approached Jack Lang:

You feel as I do. On the one hand, we must create centres of art and focal points of community life all over France. On the other, I would like to see a series of outstanding monuments and institutions built in Paris that can shape both the history of the capital and the country. Reflect on this and provide me with a list1.

The Minister of Culture suggested several initiatives which included some new ideas (the transformation of the Louvre Museum) and the continuation of older projects (the development of La Défense, the Musée d’Orsay and the Cité des Sciences et de l’industrie, etc.). The issue of major public works projects was still not on the agenda when François Mitterrand announced to the journalists assembled at the Élysée press briefing on September 24, 1981 that “we will build an International Centre for Music”2. Nor was the idea for a new opera house at Bastille…

Nevertheless, that very notion had already been evoked a half-century earlier when Jean Vilar delivered the conclusions of his report “A reform for the Opera”. Anxious to increase audiences and revenues at the capital’s two main opera houses (the Palais Garnier and the Salle Favart), it suggested the creation of “a modern, high-capacity theatre with seats of roughly equal quality3”. This proposal met the requirements set by Jean Vilar, Maurice Béjart and Pierre Boulez when the government proposed that they manage the merger of the national opera houses into a single entity. Indeed, the three men had combined their efforts to reform the opera with a view to democratising access to culture. Back then, no one spoke of a “people’s opera”, but there was agreement already on the necessity to modernise the Palais Garnier’s stage equipment and the need to offer access to productions to as many people as possible.

The Liebermann era (1973-1980) would soon prove to be a new paradigm in the management of the Opera5. On his arrival from Hamburg, the “pope of contemporary opera” programmed what effectively was a permanent festival during which the international stars of opera paraded through the capital to such a degree that it soon became impossible to find a seat at the Palais Garnier! In January 1977, agents of the General Inspectorate of Finance appointed by the then Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, submitted an “Investigative Report on the Paris Opera” the conclusions of which once again included a section devoted to the problems of the buildings. Among the questions posed by François Bloch-Lainé the Chief Rapporteur was “will Mr. Liebermann’s successor work at the Palais Garnier? Is the future of opera and the choreographic arts in Paris at the Palais Garnier6 ?” In a twist of irony, it would be François Bloch-Lainé who would preside over the Opéra Bastille Commission, created by François Mitterrand in the spring of 1982…

Extraits de presse (Le Monde, Le Parisien, Le Quotidien de Paris), novembre 1983
Extraits de presse (Le Monde, Le Parisien, Le Quotidien de Paris), novembre 1983

In the years following Rolf Liebermann’s departure, specifically, when François Mitterrand came to power, the Paris Opera was in a state of ongoing crisis. The governing authorities had to resolve an equation which included artistic variables (restoring the vibrancy of a permanent festival), material variables (solving the problem of the Palais Garnier’s restricted-view seats) and economic variables (reducing expenses by increasing capacity). And among the enlightened observers from the world of art who followed the brainstorming on the future of the opera attentively, Dominique Jameux saw in it the genesis of the “Bastille Utopia”6.

In June 1981, everyone was still very much in the dark as to what form the future “International Centre for Music” toted a few months earlier by François Mitterrand would actually take. For a time, there were ruminations about a sort of “Pompidou Centre for music:” a vast urban complex that would include a new opera house, a new conservatoire, a concert hall, a museum of music and an experimental space devoted to electroacoustic music. To fine-tune the outline of such a project, the writer Jean-Pierre Angremy spent the summer defining the objectives of each of the aforementioned facilities. That November, he delivered his verdict in the form of a 20-page report, more familiarly known in the corridors of the Ministry of Culture as “the Little Red Book”. For the first time, the concept of a people’s opera was advanced and nine development alternatives were proposed around three core options:

- All the musical facilities would be grouped together at a single site;
- The Opera would be built in the Place de la Bastille and the other facilities would be split between La Défense and La Villette;
- All the facilities would be split between La Défense and La Villette and the vacant land at Bastille would be left free for other projects.

Maurice Fleuret, the director of Music and Dance at the Ministry of Culture rejected the idea of locating the new opera at La Villette. The architect and scenographer Christian Dupavillon who at that point was an advisor to Jack Lang, proposed that the Opera be built at Bastille. The idea appealed to the Minister: “[…] I find it exciting because of the explosive parallel between an Opera, reputed to be a bourgeois theatre, and a place of revolutionary history7.”

According to the urbanist Gérard Charlet, it seems that the project leaders were genuinely “spellbound” by the association of the words Opera and Bastille8. However, there were other explanations for this choice. Since 1969, the neighbourhood around Bastille had been blighted by the presence of an abandoned station which had shut out this key location from the process of urban redevelopment and renewal in the eastern part of the capital. Once again finding itself in the spotlight on the evening of May10, 1981 when the people of Paris gathered to celebrate the election of François Mitterrand, the Place de la Bastille had several clear advantages: it represented a historic site in the collective memory, it was vacant land and it occupied a place in the heart of Paris! It would mean that the new opera house would be located between La Défense and the Place de la Nation, at the confluence of the River Seine and the Canal Saint-Martin. Well served by public transport, its construction would also allow for the rehabilitation of a disaffected area of eastern Paris. It was enough to convince the decision-makers that this was indeed the place to create the future of the lyric arts and provide the answers to the questions that for more than a decade had dogged the public authorities over the future of the Opera.

Affiche de protestation des habitants du quartier qui s’élèvent contre la construction de l’Opéra Bastille, 1984
Affiche de protestation des habitants du quartier qui s’élèvent contre la construction de l’Opéra Bastille, 1984 © Hubert Verneret / OnP

Thanks to APUR, the Paris Urbanism Agency which played the role of arbitrator between the State and the City of Paris (Jacques Chirac became Mayor in March 1977, a few weeks after the publication of the Bloch-Lainé Report) the principal city officials finally agreed to the construction of the new Opera at Bastille and to build the remaining musical facilities at La Villette. As a result, on March 8, 1982, the Élysée issued a press release:

An Opera will be built in the Place de la Bastille.

This new modern, people’s Opera will double the current number of performances while significantly reducing administrative costs. It will restore the international role that Paris deserves in this domain and will also produce over 100 performances a year for the regional Operas. This project will be an opportunity to realise a feat of urban planning in consultation with the City of Paris that will particularly enhance and upgrade the Place de la Bastille, a symbolic point of assembly.

For the first time, the construction of a modern, people’s Opera was assured. It coincided with the advent of an “urban civilisation” in which architects, town planners and public decision-makers consciously aimed to reconcile culture and the city. And the public authorities posed the question at the same time as they proffered the answer: what cultural, social and political heritage should the new Opera be founded upon? Included in a large-scale urban rehabilitation programme, the project for the new Bastille Opera naturally fell within the realms of the major works commissioned by President Mitterrand in which remembrance, citizenship and culture combined harmoniously.

Four key figures were appointed by the President of the Republic himself to ensure the smooth-running of the project: The Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, the Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs, Roger Quilliot, Presidential advisor Paul Guimard and the Director of the Office of the Prime Minister Robert Lion. It was their responsibility to accomplish the mission that had been entrusted to them, namely, to build an Opera that was both modern and popular. It would be modern because the new Opera would bring together all the components of the performing arts in a single, unified location—the set-building workshops, the theatre itself, the administrative services and the rehearsal studios. It would be a people’s Opera due to the limited number and high quality of its seats (a maximum of 3,000), as well as through the increased number of performances which would also reflect a more diverse repertoire (some twenty different works per year) and finally, thanks to a reduction in ticket prices proportional to the increase in capacity.

La gare de la Bastille en cours de démolition
La gare de la Bastille en cours de démolition © Hubert Verneret / OnP

In November 1982, François Mitterrand has chosen four trusted figures to oversee all the major building projects on his behalf9–effectively side-lining both the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister. However, two years later, the Opéra Bastille project had become unpopular and was called into question. An advisor to Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy called for the entire enterprise to be cancelled. Even Laurent Fabius, when he replaced Mauroy at Matignon, did not exclude such a possibility. With the backing of a number of influential figures from the world of music (among them, Pierre Boulez), Jack Lang wrote to President Mitterrand:

I urge you: remain the President who was the first who sought to give life to the dream conceived by Vilar and Béjart thirty years ago. Do not break the momentum, merely slow the pace if the country’s finances require it10.

As a compromise, François Mitterrand decided to push back the construction schedule. The project to build a modern, people’s Opera as imagined by Jean Vilar, Pierre Boulez and Maurice Béjart a half century earlier was saved. It would come to partial fruition on July 13, 1989—the day the Opéra Bastille was inaugurated.

1. J. Lang, Demain comme hier; conversations with Jean-Michel Helvig, Paris, Fayard, coll. “Témoignages pour l’histoire”, 2009, p. 168.

2. To view an excerpt from the press briefing: https://fresques.ina.fr/mitterrand/fiche-media/Mitter00164/premiere-conference-de-presse-politique-culturelle-et-grands-travaux.html
3. J. Vilar, “A Reform for the Opera”, Paris, June 30, 1968, Archives Nationales, 19910242/11.    
4. R. Liebermann, En passant par Paris, Opéras, Paris, Gallimard, 1980
5. “Investigative Report on the Paris Opera” by F. Bloch-Lainé, General Inspectorate of Finance, D. Bouton, Inspector of Finances and F. Froment-Meurice, auditor at the Council of State, January 1977.
6. D. Jameux, “Opéra-Bastille. The End of the Prologue”, Études, Vol. 371, N° 4, p. 345-346.
7. J. Lang, Demain comme hier…, op. cit., P. 172.    
8. G. Charlet, L’Opéra de la Bastille. Genèse et réalisation, Milan/Paris, Electa Moniteur, 1989.    
9. Minutes from the meeting of November 2, 1982 with the President of the Republic taken by Yves Dauge (AN, v. 19870301, art. 3).
10. Note from Jack Lang to François Mitterrand, June 18, 1984 (Archives of Jack Lang, IMEC).      

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