30 years on: the Bastille adventure

4/5 - Frédéric Laroque

A look back at the birth of an opera house

By Aurélien Poidevin 17 June 2020


© Florian Kleinefenn / OnP

4/5 - Frédéric Laroque
Frédéric Laroque studied the violin at the Paris Conservatoire with Gérard Jarry. He continued his musical studies at Indiana University Bloomington, before joining the Paris Opera Orchestra in 1986. Since 1992 he has occupied the post of first lead violinist. For nearly thirty-five years, Frédéric Laroque has performed with various chamber music ensembles and since 1999 has taught the violin at the Paris Conservatoire.

Aurélien Poidevin: On the day of the inauguration of the Paris Opera, you were playing in the orchestra pit. What memories do you have of this moment?

Frédéric Laroque: We had made it! I remember the effervescence that reigned that day: we were called at 1pm and we left the theatre at midnight. It was an intense day and we brought it off, in spite of all the organisational difficulties that characterise the inauguration of a building of such grandeur. Amongst other things, never had the Paris Opera Orchestra played before such a huge audience.
I also remember the acoustic, rather bad at that time: it was a real shock for the musicians in the pit. Whereas at the Palais Garnier the acoustic is very sharp and not very resonant – that is, you can hear absolutely everything – at the Opéra Bastille the acoustic was close to that of a public lobby. Of course, changes were made rapidly: the seats were modified and for the last thirty years, we’ve been endlessly optimising the acoustic of this immense concert hall which now sounds rather well.

Vue de la grande salle avec la fosse d’orchestre
Vue de la grande salle avec la fosse d’orchestre © Jean-Pierre Delagarde / OnP

AP: And when you returned to the theatre for its official opening, in the winter of 1989, how did you apprehend your relationship with your new place of work?

FL: From 1989 until 1995, we were in a developmental phase. To put it differently, we were not as busy as we are today and we had not yet found our public. You have also to plunge back into the atmosphere of the area more than thirty years ago: Bastille was a less attractive place and the theatre, gigantic, was still under-exploited. It was rare to attain a full house in the main auditorium and it took us all, public, artists and technicians, quite a time to get to grips with the immensity of this building.
For example, when I took my first steps in the corridors of the Opéra Bastille, I discovered an empty building. Completely empty! And until 1992, I often walked about in it and I often got lost. The more I wandered about the place, the more I wondered about the way in which this exceptional work tool had been conceived. Faced with such a degree of complexity and vastness, I needed to understand how the various activities were organised.

Dans le studio de travail des percussions avec Nicolas Lethuillier, deuxième timbalier solo
Dans le studio de travail des percussions avec Nicolas Lethuillier, deuxième timbalier solo © Christophe Pelé / OnP

AP: Whilst describing the particularities of this place, you also make an oblique reference to the nature of the activities that go on there. As an orchestral musician, did you have the impression that this new tool would affect the way you do your job?

FL: At the Opéra Bastille, I discovered professional comfort. That is something priceless: this innovative work tool compensated the musicians’ loss of spending power. Faced with the rise in housing prices, they could no longer afford a room to practise in at home. When you have a rehearsal in the morning and a performance at night, it is only at the Opéra Bastille that you can stay and work; because practice rooms were designed for that very purpose.
For the Orchestra then, this new theatre represented an exceptional opportunity: at last we had our own place, spaces reserved entirely for us... And still today, all the infrastructures made available to us are adapted to the exercise of our profession, whether in terms of space, practicability or technology. Rooms are reserved for each section of the orchestra, there are four for the strings, four for the woodwind, for the brass and for the percussion. In short, everything is conducive to the professional fulfilment of the musicians, which had not been the case at the Palais Garnier since the second half of the 20th century.

Pierluigi Pizzi et Myung-Whun Chung lors d’une répétition des Troyens, spectacle d’ouverture de l’Opéra Bastille, 1990
Pierluigi Pizzi et Myung-Whun Chung lors d’une répétition des Troyens, spectacle d’ouverture de l’Opéra Bastille, 1990 © Florian Kleinefenn / OnP

AP: Myung-Whun Chung was appointed musical director of the Paris Opera in 1989. It is not unusual, even today, to see his name associated with the Opéra Bastille. How was the relationship between the Orchestra and its musical director established at the moment when the institution invested its new performance venue?

FL: When Myung-Whun Chung was appointed, the Orchestra was in full mutation. Two figures give a precise idea of the context: first of all, in 1989, the Paris Opera Orchestra boasted nearly 160 international awards. During the first three years of my career, there were about twenty of us young musicians at the Palais Garnier sharing a platform with eighty forty-year-olds. Five years later, as a result of the opening of the Opéra Bastille, it was almost the opposite: eighty forty-year-olds shared a platform with a hundred or so young players, since the Orchestra now numbered 174 musicians.
Myung-Whun Chung’s mission was to fashion an orchestra on the same scale as the institution, which was not an easy task to accomplish. He ceaselessly aimed to raise our standards and, for the first time, we were rehearsed by a conductor with the demands of a musical director. He recruited the musicians with us. And as he knew he was going to stay in Paris for several years, Chung invested his energies in a long-term project.
Myung-Whun Chung’s youth and ambition were formidable assets in terms of marketing. He helped to get the Opéra Bastille known, thanks in particular to a contract with Deutsche Grammophon. The CD boxes associated Chung with the “the Opéra Bastille Orchestra” and on the back of the box, the institution’s logo showed the new opera house! Pierre Bergé had managed to contrive the union of a man, a place and an orchestra. The result was particularly fruitful but we were not altogether out of the woods because audiences were still not answering the call.

AP: You describe the period from 1989-1994 as a period of growth, so at what point did you feel that the Opéra Bastille was at last in full swing?

FL: The arrival of Hughes Gall at the head of the institution marked a real breakthrough. His appointment coincided with the moment when we were at last ready to adopt the right working rhythm, that is, one which would fully use the potential of both performing spaces at once, the Palais Garnier and the Opéra Bastille. In short, it was Hugues Gall who got the house up and running thanks to a simple idea consisting in offering a performance every day, in accordance with the scale of the institution. At that moment, we knew that we were saved and that we were going to fulfil our mission of public service

AP: And in thirty years’ time?

FL: I dream of a renewal of our audiences. We need to have new ambitions and seize upon the new tools that have emerged in the course of the last decade. Nowadays, digitalisation needs to be at the service of cultural democracy and serve to penetrate into the heart of new social milieus: thanks to numeric technology, opera and ballet can reach new spectators so that tomorrow, they will be heading for the opera houses. Without which, I fear the emergence of a public that is local, aging and elitist. And why not continue to vary the repertoire? We could run for six performances instead of twenty, on condition that we film the production. It would be accessible to everybody everywhere, again thanks to computerised tools. In that case, we could do up to forty different works per season instead of twenty-five: the human, technical and material potential would allow this, thanks to the formidable tool that is the Opéra Bastille.
Finally, I wouldn’t be surprised if in thirty years’ time, a system had been installed to further improve the sound of the orchestra in the auditorium.

Dans les studios de travail (cordes, harpes et timbales) et dans le foyer des cordes avec la participation de Lise Martel, troisième violon solo, et Nicolas Lethuillier, deuxième timbalier solo
Dans les studios de travail (cordes, harpes et timbales) et dans le foyer des cordes avec la participation de Lise Martel, troisième violon solo, et Nicolas Lethuillier, deuxième timbalier solo 4 images

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