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 1969, the Paris Opera celebrated its 300th anniversary. At the time, audiences, the performing arts professions, and the public authorities all shared the same diagnosis: the Palais Garnier would gradually become an obsolete tool that would no longer be able to meet the dual requirements of the present day which consisted of revitalising the genre and opening the Opera to a wider audience. The building designed by Charles Garnier in 1875 would remain a magnificent showcase for the gems of the repertoire but its structure had reached its limits, particularly when it was necessary to create and stage new productions. Twenty years was all it took to conceive and create a new tool to serve the performing arts. Henceforth, the Opéra Bastille, a modern theatre inaugurated on July 13 1989, would embody the future of the institution yet in a way that did not eclipse the Grande boutique as Garnier was affectionately known.
And yet, a few years earlier, the prospects for a new theatre were far from certain. On July 10 1985, the composer Marcel Landowski wrote a piece in Le Figaro to express the fears shared by many in the art world: “Opéra Bastille. Broadside of hope or tomb for music?” The architects of this pharaonic project had already decided to offer their own response. The architect and urban planner Gérard Charlet who had joined the Opéra Bastille project in 1982, summarised the challenges of this extraordinary venture:
"The great ambition of the new Opera is to ensure a real future for opera by bringing together all its component parts in a single location: the main auditorium and the modular theatre open to all forms of music currently known or yet to be discovered, thus integrating creation to the repertoire and enabling a fusion of forms necessary for the survival of opera. This was the context in which the first elements of the project were developed."
And so, between 1981 and 1989, this was how one of the three largest Parisian monuments, behind the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Ministry of Finances was built. Indeed, this new temple to opera so desired by François Mitterrand would become even larger than the Louvre Museum. A few figures are enough to grasp the amplitude of this titanic public works project:
22,000 square metres of floor space
17,000 cubic metres in terms of volume
4,550 square metres of rehearsal space
2,640 square metres of stage space (including the stage itself, the backstage areas and the open areas on the left and right side of the stage)
A 500-seat amphitheatre
A 280-seat studio
A construction cost estimated at 427 million euros
13,000 cement mixers
And a storage area for 45 set containers and a 2,000-square-metre costume reserve
The challenge was to find an answer to a major problem: how to make opera and dance—whose importance had never ceased to grow since the heady days of the Ballets Russes (1909-1929)—coexist in a single institution with the greatest possible harmony? The solution seemed simple: it would be necessary to offer between 250 and 300 performances per year in front of an audience of 750,000 to 800,000 theatregoers. And the invention of a powerful tool would help to realise this utopia…
The architect Carlos Ott translated this into a seemingly straightforward equation: since the human voice was invariable, it alone would determine the theatre’s capacity—if only to prevent opera performances from being amplified by a sound system. As a result, everyone was aware that it would be futile to expect quality performances in an auditorium with more than 3,000 seats. In addition to the acoustics a few other constraints would quickly become apparent: opera and ballet both needed seats offering a clear view of the stage. And yet, of the 1,991 places at the Palais Garnier in the 1980s, nearly 500 had a restricted view or no view at all! To solve this equation, Carlos Ott broke with the principle of a horseshoe design typical of Italian-style theatres and proposed a 2,700-seat auditorium that would offer performances eight times a week (six evening performances and two matinees) for forty-four weeks out of the year.
As a consequence, numerous observers were quick to point out a mysterious paradox: with 2,700 seats and a stage 25 metres deep and 30 metres wide, how was it possible that the auditorium occupied just 4% of the building’s surface area? From the first presentation of the scale models for the Opéra Bastille project, the media focused on the incongruity of the calculation. One such example was Gérard Mannoni’s article in the December 3-4, 1982 edition of Le Quotidien de Paris entitled “The Bastille: an opera with fourteen stages”. Nevertheless, although the project was deemed excessive in some quarters, the government ploughed on, despite the technical, financial and political challenges sparked by the project. Interviewed in Le Nouvel Observateur on December 14, 1984 François Mitterrand conceded that for a time he had had second thoughts about completing the venture but was convinced of the project’s importance by François Bloch-Lainé and Pierre Boulez:
"This Opera is best understood when it is viewed in the context of Jack Lang’s plans to revitalise music in France. […] Music has once again become a major French passion and the Bastille will naturally find its place and its audience."
One man would play a decisive role in at this modern tool alongside the architect and his name was Michaël Dittmann. Dittmann had worked in numerous operas in Europe as an assistant and then as a director. From 1973 to 1979, he worked alongside Rolf Liebermann when the latter was the general administrator of the Palais Garnier. In August 1981, Michaël Dittmann began studying the project for the new Opera with Jean-Pierre Angrémy: the two colleagues embarked on numerous fact-finding trips throughout Europe to visit theatres and infrastructure before the project for the Opéra Bastille had even been officially announced by the government. Eventually appointed stage equipment director for the public institution that would become the Opéra Bastille, Michaël Dittmann designed the stage technology with Carlos Ott.
Working in tandem, the architect and the stage equipment director devised a system like none other in the world, that would bring together
all the studios and workshops needed to plan, build and perform a production in
a single location. When funding disputes arose in 1986 and
questions were raised as to whether the set workshops should be built or not,
they knew they had to counterattack. Abandoning their construction would
prevent a single unified team of stagehands from overseeing the production of a
production, from the building of the sets to their assembly, to their
positioning on the stage and their storage in containers after the curtain came
down. And the overwhelming strength of Carlos Ott’s project resided precisely
in the proximity between the workshops and the stage and the active
participation of all the professions associated with the performing arts in a
single unified space in bringing a common artistic project to fruition.
Although Carlos Ott and Michaël Dittmann were initially obliged to shelve the
option of a modular performance space
capable of seating between 600 and 1,300 people, with multiple acoustical
configurations in which to premiere new works, they nonetheless established a
new vision: the Bastille system.
The Bastille system was devised around three main principles: modular stage infrastructures, an “industrial” approach to realising a production and the integration of artistic and technical contingencies in one single location.
These are set-moving dollies. They represent the
principal innovation because they allow us to recreate the stage, like a
sliding puzzle. To visualise the device that was developed at the request of
Carlos Ott and Michaël Dittmann, you have to imagine a 500-tonne, 6-metre-deep
elevator capable of carrying 300 tonnes of set equipment: it can climb 7
storeys or a little over 25 meters in the space of 4 minutes. And these set-moving
dollies are deployed in several locations: in the vast spaces under the stage,
25 metres from the main stage, stage left and stage right where two
lateral stages coexistent as well as backstage and the rear backstage behind
it! In short, there is a continuous handling area with automatically driven dollies capable of
moving entire sets without the need to dismantle them. In addition, the design team devised a mobile stage proscenium
that could be adapted to accommodate productions that had been specifically
designed for different-sized theatres. As for the orchestra pit, it was
designed to accommodate seven different configurations from a Mozart-type
ensemble to a full-sized Wagnerian orchestra. With an area covering 175 m2, it lends itself for example to large scale orchestral ensembles, such as those required for Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise.
By proposing Loïc Durand, an engineering graduate from the Arts et Métiers, to oversee the creation of a design and research department, the institution entered a new era. A project engineering unit was set up to adapt set construction to the stage machinery of the two main theatres (Bastille and Garnier) and all the other performance spaces (Amphitheatre, Studio, Ballet School, and venues outside the theatre complexes). Last but not least, the proximity between the workshops and the stage proved to be a tremendous asset: ironwork; carpentry; sculpture, resin and composite materials; assembly; painting of the sets and backdrops, the tapestry work; props; tools and hardware; costumes; wigs; and makeup… Everything was made or built in situ, which allowed for sound management of resources and offered greater flexibility in realising a production. A few detractors would employ some unflattering terms to describe this new tool: “the Renault of the Opera” or “an assembly line for the lyrical arts”. But the staff quickly took advantage of the incredible potential offered by the system devised by Carlos Ott and Michaël Dittmann:
"The most positive contribution of Bastille was not produced by the increased automation, computers and expert systems, but by the vastness of the stage areas. They could be used on a daily basis for full-set rehearsals, to pre-equip the sets and lights, to fine-tune some stubborn mechanical issue, or change a particular element of the set, etc."
Naturally, the control of production spending costs had guided these organisational concepts. However, the aim was also to increase productivity in the theatres by encouraging alternation through the continued use of the Palais Garnier. Nevertheless, a compromise needed to be found between the operational practices of German-style opera houses, where there was no rehearsal of a revived production and the concept of the Stagione or “permanent festival” during which the stage was tied up for several weeks at a time. To find the right balance and maintain a high level of quality, in-built rehearsal areas located in the theatre as close as possible to the technical and administrative teams proved to be an extraordinary advantage. Ten rehearsal studios, including two which were exclusively reserved for the Ballet made it possible to bring together all the protagonists in the same location. Indeed, the artists of the Chorus had a 400 m2 studio at their disposal while the musicians of the orchestra enjoyed 800 m2 of studio space together with three rehearsal halls…
Ten years after the theatre’s inauguration, Hugues Gall gave an initial assessment of the venture. Two questions remained given the “gigantic” scale:
That of the reaction of the staff,
And that of the quality that would be achieved.
And the answers to both those questions exceeded all expectations. The staff accepted the constraints inherent from having two sites and made the necessary effort to adapt. In short, all the staff, from the stage to the workshops, all those employed came together and made what followed possible. And what followed is a recognition of a return to quality and success[
The Opéra Bastille did indeed represent a revolution in the world of opera : that new building thanks to the combined efforts of architects, urban planners, programmers, artists, technicians and executives had, in essence, upended the established principles of an Italian-style theatre. By its layout and its functionality, the Opéra Bastille transformed the way productions were made and returned to the basics: to bring together a community of workers from the performing arts to realise a production. Ten years after the inauguration, the gamble had paid off: the two theatres with 2,703 and 1,991 seats respectively were welcoming 850,000 spectators per year of which 530,000 were theatregoers to the Opéra Bastille.