30 years on: the Bastille adventure

3/5 - Jean-Claude Hugue

A look back at the birth of an opera house

By Aurélien Poidevin 10 June 2020


© Christophe Pelé / OnP

3/5 - Jean-Claude Hugue

Jean-Claude Hugue was hired as a theatrical technician at the Palais Garnier in 1984. Five years later, he was appointed member of the fly crew at the Opéra Bastille. In 1995, he joined the technical department and has been assistant technical director at the Opéra Bastille since 2002.

Aurélien Poidevin : What was your state of mind when you learnt that you were among those shortlisted to join the future technical department at Bastille?

Jean-Claudes Hugue : First of all, nobody knew how this new tool could or should function! Everything had to be invented and the people who were prepared to join Bastille were courageous as they were heading into the unknown. It was not, therefore, an easy decision to take. All the more so since the technicians at the Opera had a rather bad reputation amongst the management teams and we weren’t necessarily welcome: in the end, it was thanks to the pugnacity of one of our representatives, Michel Bieisse, that in 1988 the decision was taken to transfer part of the technical team from the Palais Garnier to the Opéra Bastille. Michel Bieisse convinced the administrators of the soundness of this operation, which aimed to involve as many people from the house as possible in setting up the new theatre.

So I was summoned to the office by the chief technician: a visit to the site under construction was organised, I was invited and at the end of it, I was able to take an informed decision. I remember being very moved, once I’d arrived on the stage. I discovered a modern theatre, vast and beautiful! The glass ceiling dazzled us. This place was both superb and grandiose. I gave Laurent Lemeur my consent and, in January 1989 when I was appointed fly-man at Bastille, the adventure began.

La salle vue du plateau avec les espaces de dégagement encore vides, 1989
La salle vue du plateau avec les espaces de dégagement encore vides, 1989 © Florian Kleinefenn / OnP

AP : You say that everything had to be invented from scratch and that nobody knew how to make the new theatre work. Did you encounter particular difficulties when you arrived in the technical department?

J-C H : Nothing functioned... It had been announced that the Opéra Bastille was equipped with the first computerised fly loft system in the world: that meant, in principle, that we were supposed to control the raising and lowering of the set elements, backdrops and lanterns fixed on grids, using a computer. Except that the system had not yet been installed. During rehearsals for the inaugural production, we therefore put markers on the cables so as to estimate, from above the stage, the positions of the grids. And in the course of the performance, there were 15 to 20 fly-men busy directly above the motors, which are installed in the fly loft situated above the grid. We each used the only tool working then, an electrical switch allowing us to operate the motors and load the set elements! You have to realise that we were operating the set elements from the fly loft without being able to see them on stage.

Répétition générale du spectacle de l’inauguration du théâtre avec Georges Prêtre à la baguette
Répétition générale du spectacle de l’inauguration du théâtre avec Georges Prêtre à la baguette © Florian Kleinefenn / OnP

AP : Are we to infer that all the elements were united to produce a serious dysfunction?

J-C H : No! Not at all! That’s the magic of theatre! On the night, something always happens to make it all function. Everyone felt the excitement and the magic worked.

From then on we worked hard to make sure the theatre was running smoothly. I remember that, after the summer holidays in 1989, we all went off for training for three months . We had a course in hydraulics so as to learn how a solenoid valve worked and little by little, we acquired the vocabulary necessary to be able to communicate with the companies responsible for the maintenance of the stage equipment.

We returned to Bastille in 1990 in order to prepare The Trojans. Apart from the monumental horse, I have very few memories of that production. On the other hand, I remember Kátia Kabanová. In this production, directed by Götz Friedrich, we had to manoeuver a ceiling weighing nearly three tons... Each time we pressed the button, we never knew if it would work. We were in a sweat every night. However, from then on, everything functioned correctly. The thing about the Opéra Bastille is that there is no visibility from the fly-loft. It’s situated on the first floor, stage left, just above the stage manager’s control booth. And to watch manoeuvers, the fly-loft has only close-circuit video. We had to learn how to work using new methods.

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

AP : Looking back, how do you view the initial exploitation of this theatre?

J-C H : Among all the professions, I really believe that it is the theatre technicians who, in 1989, underwent the biggest changes in their practice. The techniques were new, and going from the Palais Garnier to the Opéra Bastille, for the fly-crew, was like discovering and learning a new profession.

There were also certain dysfunctions that would be considered inacceptable today. They have been corrected since, fortunately. One single example: off-loading sets that arrived by lorry took so long between the loading bay and the workshops that we had time for a game of tennis in the storage areas! It’s anecdotic of course but it shows how much work has been accomplished since: throughout the period from 1990 to 2002, we developed new ways of doing things and gained in dexterity to such an extent that today, all these operations are carried out with fluidity and speed.

AP : At what point may one consider that the Opéra Bastille began to function efficiently?

J-C H : It’s thanks to the arrival of Hughes Gall that we reached our cruising speed. In 1995, we were at last thoroughly adept and the season proposed by the management team allowed for the full exploitation of the theatre’s potential. A new working organisation had been invented: we followed the productions step by step, from the arrival of the lorry containing the sets at level -6, their installation, the rehearsals in the Salle Gounod through to the performances on the main stage. This principle of “following a production” was imposed little by little and it was a real innovation. Everyone knew what was happening during the performance because everyone had followed the rehearsals in their entirety, which not only saved time but guaranteed better security. To sum up, everyone knew precisely what they had to do.

AP : Thirty years later, how do you see the functioning of the theatre, the organisation of the work and the development of production?

J-C H : Thirty years ago, when we arrived at the Opéra Bastille, everyone installed themselves wherever they wanted to... The heads of department walked up and down the corridors, opening doors, and if a space took their fancy, they put a new lock on the door without even taking the trouble to inform anyone. Everyone did it at that time, it was customary... The consequence is that, today, it is not unusual to waste a lot of time getting from one place to another. So I tend to think that the time has come to reorganise the allocation of space and the way we circulate.

Retrospectively, I also think that a major effort should have been made at the parting of the ways, because in the early nineties, to some extent, we abandoned the Palais Garnier. The turning point was not very well negotiated. Nobody should be employed in either of the two theatres without also being hired in the other. Whilst the Palais Garnier was being restored, in 1995, we tried this as an experiment and it proved to be very positive. The strength of a great cultural institution like the Paris Opera is that it forms a single entity, as much from an artistic as from a human point of view. In my opinion, this goal can be achieved.

Lady Macbeth de Mzensk, Opéra Bastille, 1992
Lady Macbeth de Mzensk, Opéra Bastille, 1992 © Christian Leiber / OnP

AP : A particularly vivid memory?

J-C H : Yes, the production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1992. There were previously unheard of scene changes, only possible at the Opéra Bastille: people applauded the scene changes, we went from a field of cabbages to a station and the audience was incredulous!

Lady Macbeth de Mzensk, Opéra Bastille, 1992
Lady Macbeth de Mzensk, Opéra Bastille, 1992 © Christian Leiber / OnP

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