The new opera house inaugurated in 1989 at the heart of the Bastille quarter is designed to be truly open – both to the broadest possible public and to new works. The transparent architecture of its imposing structure manifests its closeness to the city around it.
The idea of creating a second auditorium for music theatre and dance in the French capital was not new. Jean Vilar published his project for a popular national opera in 1965 and, three years later, seconded by Pierre Boulez and Maurice Béjart, he came up with a reorganization plan for the Réunion des Théâtres lyriques Nationaux which maintained the idea of a new auditorium dedicated to opera.
With François Mitterrand as President at the Élysée and Jack Lang as Culture Minister in Rue de Valois, the idea at last began to take shape. The initial plan provided for a music complex combining an opera, a large auditorium, the National Conservatory of Music and a museum of music, but these elements were eventually split and the creation of an opera became a separate item. Among the new building’s mission, it was to triple the capital’s operatic offerings, reduce the state subsidy by a third and, above all, ensure broad public access to a previously elitist for of theatre.
The land formely owned by Citroën, La Villette, Place Champerret and the underground area of Les Halles were all rejected in favor of the Old Bastille railway station, on the eponymous Place Bastille. Automatically identified with the French Revolution and its founding event, the name and the place are universally synonymous with liberty. For a “people’s institution”, the name has a magnificent ring to it. After some serious reflections and a study tour of the main European and North American opera houses, the Building Programme was quickly draw up and the general principles of the project were laid down in: Opéra Bastille would run a moderate rotation system, with four or five production at any given period, and a total of around twenty-five per year, representing some two hundred and fifty performances in all.
A few months later, in July 1982, the architecture competition was declared open. Four months later there were 757 projects presented in the form of anonymous submissions. The jury, comprising architects and professionals from the world of music and opera, shortlisted six of these. In November 1983 Carlos Ott, a 37 year old Canadian of Uruguayan origins, was announced the winner. Ott’s project was the one that most closely matched the Programme. This was made particularly complex by the difficult dimensions of the terrain and the bar on remodeling the surrounding site. Place de la Bastille is no orderly, classical square. It focuses a number of urban and architectural issues such as the evolution of a historic site with its angles and perspectives, but also the continuity of the urban fabric, the presence and the significance of a monument, its scale, the relation between new and old. Ott’s project clearly manifested its determination to fit the future building into the cityscape and engage with its historical continuity. Moreover, the new opera would need not only to bond successfully with the area, but also to forge a relation with the public by opening up to a new generation of music lovers and eclectic tastes. Finally, the ultimate difficulty of the Programme was that this modern opera, whose architecture would necessarily be out of the ordinary, had to be functional enough to perform its mission as a Production Centre and daily place of work for over a thousand theatre professionals.
Work began in November 1984. The foundations were laid in February and the carcass of the main auditorium was up by December 1985. After three years of building work and numerous incidents, the Opéra Bastille was officially inaugurated on 13 July 1989, on the eve of the celebration of the Bicentenary of the French Revolution, with a show directed by Bob Wilson. On 17 March 1990, the first opera season got under-way with Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz.
What with the Musée d’Orsay, the park at La Villette and the Institut du Monde Arabe, Parisians were used to projects on a grand scale. Still, they were surprised by the impressively supersized dimensions of this new building; with a Covered area of 22000 square meters and a total height of 80 meters (30 of them below ground level), it is the third biggest edifice in Paris, after the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Finance Ministry at Bercy. Broken up into smaller volumes, it achieves overall unity as a set of rational, legible spaces corresponding to specific functions. The façade’s receding forms bespeak a desire to blend into the city. Playing on the contrasts of black, white and grey, the building’s skin celebrates transparency, combining stone, glass and metal across its vertical sections.
The Grand Salle is like a superb sounding board of 40 meters wide and 32 meters deep. In order to maximize visibility for each of the 2703 seats (1517 in the stalls, 518 in the first balcony, 516 in the second and 98 in the galleries), the architect has brought those of the back of each balcony as far forward as possible by steeply sloping the tier. There are no unsighted seats.
Studies of aural reverberation and intensity, the warmth and brilliance of sounds, their sharpness, determined the depth of the balconies, the angles of the side walls, the form of the proscenium and the nature of the different materials. All these choices were validated by series of acoustic test carried out using mathematical models, and then with a 1:20 scale model of the auditorium lined with the chosen materials. Thus the walls delimiting the theatrical space are covered with blue-grey granite from Lannelin, Brittany, whose treatment – flamed, toothed or polished – imparts a horizontal order to the design of the walls. A number of side galleries – fine structures in Chinise peak wood – open onto the main space. The floors of the stalls and the two balconies are covered with oak parquet. The seats are a refined combination of pear wood and black velvet. The delicate lateral structures, too, are in pear wood. Delimiting the stage opening, the proscenium comprises monumental cornices in which satin-finish black wood alternates with pear. Finally, twenty meters above the spectators, the ceiling is formed by four assembled waves of glass like a gigantic, luminous awning, which gives an original new twist to the tradition of great chandeliers and decorated ceilings.
In the stage machinery of giant scale gives an idea of the magnitude and complexity of what is vented, produced an d performed in the place that totals 190 performances per season. Behind the modular orchestra pit , which can hold 110 musicians when in its maximus configuration, the main stage, 30 metres wide (with a proscenium measuring 17,5 meters across), 20 meters deep and overlooked by upper flies at a height of 38 meters, is indeed only the visible part of a gigantic infrastructure designed to manage two shows at the time, with a third one in rehearsal.
Entrusted to leading productions designers, the stage set, for example, are assembled on mobile, 400 square meter platforms which, in twenty-five minutes, can be raised from level -6 of the building up to the stage. Backstage, these platforms are moved on a network of rails set into the floor on a turning hub with a diameter of 28 meters, before being positioned in one of the four spaces equal in size to the stage and located around its edges. All this follows the demands of the productions and programming, thanks to wholly automatic machines of powerful as they are spectacular, and capable of maneuvering with amazing precision.
Another important innovation, also justified by the Opéra’s alternation policy, is the modular rehearsal room, stage right, which can hold between 500 and 1000 spectators. Named the “Salle Gounod”, this space offers the same kind of configuration as the main stage. Thanks to its acoustically insulating iron curtain, it makes it possible to rehearse a forthcoming production while another is being performed in the Grande Salle. Finally, this inventory of the multiple possibilities would not be complete if failed to mention the 500-seater amphitheater for events linked to the programme of the Grand Salle (presentations of productions, the Passeport Programme of free talks,events for young visitors) and the 280 Studio for young professional singers from the Atelier Lyrique.