Planet Opera: Paris When it Sizzles

Friday, April 06, 2012 - 12:10 PM

I love Paris in the springtime. The French capital, epicenter of Planet Opera in the 19th century, has become the most important opera center in Europe in the early 21st century. It has perhaps even surpassed New York as the most important opera city in the world. There, I've said it.

My assertion (and I already can hear the yelps and growls from partisans in other opera centers) is based on the fact that Paris offers more operatic variety, and currently displays more energy, than other cities. The Vienna State Opera and New York’s Metropolitan Opera -- to mention but two obvious examples -- still present excellent performances, yet they are glorious giants surrounded by few alternatives (Vienna) or an environment that is fiscally and spiritually parched (New York). By contrast, opera seems to be booming in Paris.

Paris has a constellation of venues and vibrant troupes that attract lively, committed audiences who listen knowledgeably and with great care (not interrupting arias with clapping) and then erupt in waves of applause when performances conclude. Unlike New Yorkers, who often stampede to the exits to compete for transportation, Parisians stay and cheer, often falling into lengthy rhythmic clapping after according loud ovations to individual performers. This reaction expresses a genuine interest, an engagement (to use the French term that English speakers comprehend) here between audiences and performers. Musicians give more to audiences who give more to them. On most evenings, the environment in the theaters I was in was crackling with excitement.

The Parisian aesthetic, at least in opera and classical music, presupposes seriousness and intelligence on the part of the audience. Printed programs have consequential essays that combine history, musicology and a freshness of approach that is admirable. They are also beautiful things to hold. Nowhere is there the fetid stench of marketing.

Il Faut Choisir, Hélas

In five days I attended six operas and I could have attended nine more. Fifteen operas were playing in town! There was so much high quality opera on offer, and not all the big theaters (the Chatelet, for example) had something scheduled during my stay. There are other weeks in the year when there is even more opera. I heard Valery Gergiev conduct Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with orchestra, chorus and soloists from the Mariinsky Theater and superb narration by Gérard Depardieu (who was vividly described in his program biography as a “bulimic and insatiable artist”).

There was Handel’s Theodora with the excellent Sandrine Piau in the title role. She will give a recital at Zankel Hall in New York on April 26 and I encourage anyone nearby to attend. I heard Wagner’s Parsifal (conducted by Daniele Gatti, who leads a new production of this opera at the Met in February 2013 that was playing in Lyon while I was in Paris) and Tristan und Isolde (led by Andris Nelsons).

The Paris Opera (combining the old Opéra Garnier and the Opéra Bastille, opened in 1989 as a grand project that was part of the bicentennial of the French Revolution), is presenting 25 operas this season (almost equal to the Met’s 26). In addition to opera, there are eleven different dance programs, orchestra concerts, recitals, seminars and visits by other opera and ballet companies.

Opéra Garnier at Night (Fred Plotkin)

The vitality and variety amaze me because, when I lived the student life in Paris in the 1970s, there was only the Garnier and most nights the theater was dark. The schedule listed many evenings of Relâche, which I did not understand to mean that nothing was on offer. Instead, I thought it was a little-known French opera that I could never secure a ticket to. Now, both theaters of the Paris Opera are busy most of the time. If I had another day, I would have gone to Pelléas et Mélisande at the Bastille.

At the Opéra Garnier, I saw and heard a beautifully produced and sung performance of Léhar’s Die Lustige Witwe or, as it was called in Paris, La Veuve Joyeuse. It was intriguing to see a French production (sung and spoken in German) of a Viennese operetta about a widow from Pontevedro (an invented small kingdom in the Hapsburg empire) that takes place in Paris. Hanna Glawari (the widow) is pursued by men who are interested in her money and one man who tries to secure her funds to save their impoverished homeland. One of the scenes takes place in Maxim’s restaurant, which is a few blocks away from the Opéra Garnier. The character of Paris is indivisible from the enjoyment of this work, which became a happy hybrid of lustig Vienna and joyeuse Paris. To understand this sensation, imagine watching Tosca in Rome or Boris Godunov in Moscow.

The performance was successful for many reasons, primarily for its blend of talents. It had an American star, Susan Graham, a specialist in French repertory and, though the work is in German, she managed to evoke Parisian flair. Bo Skovhus, the Danish baritone, has a pan-European appeal that is totally plausible as Danilo, who casually romances the widow. They were joined by Harald Serafin (as Baron Mirko Zeta), patriarch of a Viennese family of singers that includes his soprano daughter Martina (debuting at the Met next season in Die Walküre) and son Daniel, a baritone singing a recital in New York’s Neue Galerie on April 19. Harald Serafin is echt-Viennese and brought that flavor to the production. The score was brilliantly conducted by Asher Fisch and the entire cast sang and acted with élan.

Focus on Fabulous Dancing

What made this Merry Widow unforgettable was that, in addition to the musical and theatrical components, it had sensational dancing. The Paris Opera Ballet (right) is the oldest and among the best dance troupes in the world. It performs in operas as required and also does whole dance evenings on its own that have a huge following. While my passion for dance comes nowhere near what I feel for opera, I recognize the greatness of this company and watch them with immense pleasure and, yes, engagement

The origins of ballet were at the Medici court in Florence where balletto (little dance) was born in the 16th century. It came to Paris when Catherine de' Medici married into the French royal family (she also brought good cooking!). In 1661, King Louis XIV created the Academie Royale de Danse, which practically codified what ballet is and, ever since, has produced magnificent dancers, the best of whom are known as étoiles (stars). This is the Paris Opera Ballet. In 1669, the King created the Academie Royale de la Musique, which became the Paris Opera. 

Thanks to Degas and other 19th-century artists, the imagery of dance is part of the way we think of the city. Back then, most operas composed in Paris had ballets inserted, making for long evenings, but ones that pleased an audience that came to expect dance as part of opera. Today, the coexistence of the ballet and opera companies in the Garnier and Bastille, performing at such a high level, is something only a few cities, including London, Copenhagen and St. Petersburg, can attempt to match. The Paris Opera Ballet has 154 dancers, while the Met has 16 (and 96 more who are called “extra” dancers”). As I explored in an article last year, Paris is a model other cities might embrace. 

It has just been announced that the Paris Opera Ballet will visit America this summer, performing at Millennium Park in Chicago, the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, and finally, the Lincoln Center Festival, where it will present a mixed bill (pieces with music by Bizet, Lalo and Ravel), Orphée et Eurydice and Giselle (July 11-22).

Right now the Garnier is hosting an exhibition about Jules Massenet that is extensive and consequential in ways that most opera houses could not muster. The show is a product of curatorial rigor, ample documentation in the form of scores, photographs, costumes, posters and other artifacts from the composer’s life and career, and the inevitable and ineffable chic that is an ingredient in everything Parisian.

There is so much more to tell you about the current opera scene in Paris, some of which will come in my next post. In the meantime, ponder this: One of Paris’s two major newspapers, Le Figaro, is named for an opera character. What other city can say that?

Photo of Paris Opera Ballet's Mathieu Ganio: © Sebastien Mathe


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Comments [12]

Yakup Julian Sarli from Germany

Hi. Thank you very much for that article. Thank you very much for the Planet Opera: Paris When it Sizzles. I sizzled myself an egg and will be right back to listen to your sizzle music. I wrote good intendet.

Jun. 25 2012 01:19 PM
kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

PARIS has everything for every culture. It is the REAL cosmopolitan's concept of sophistication and modernity with a nod to the masters of old. Whether it is art, the theater, or the connoisseur of the kitchen's potentials, it is comprehensive and an umbrella for all functions and formats. Every Frenchman has his own opinion on what he cares about and he supports it by anecdotal recall. GLOIRE ! I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, opera composer: "Shakespeare" & "The Political Shakespeare" & the director, the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where professional actors are trained for the Shakespeare roles and big-voiced singers are coached in the Wagner roles and voice production and dramaturgy techniques.
Website: where one may download, free, 37 complete "Live from Carnegie Hall" selections that I have sung in four concerts, three of them three hours-long solo concerts and one a Joint Recital with the dramatic soprano Norma Jean Erdmann, in the main hall of Carnegie Hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium, by opening up, downloading from the "Recorded Selections" venue on the home page. My next concert in New York will be on Saturday, June 9th at the YOGA EXPO at the New Yorker Hotel. The title of the concert is 'BRING HIM HOME, with that song from the musical LES MISERABLES, encouraging the return of our armed forces and inspiring hope and love of country with This Land is Your Land, The House I Live In, Climb Every Mountain, The Impossible Dream and 23 other selections.

Apr. 16 2012 01:57 AM
Victor Goodstone from Brooklyn, NY

Excuse me, but when I'm playing one of my favorites, such as The Tales of Hoffmann, Carmen, Turnadot, The Barber of Seville, Il Trovatore, and the like, in my LR, that's the capital of the Opera world, for me. You can have Paris! In fact, you can have the Met! Too many wanabees, and centenarians, there lately!

Apr. 08 2012 04:17 AM
shadeed ahmad from New York City

The Paris opera scene is a passionate love serenade of art and its appreciation in authenticity and style...

Apr. 08 2012 01:19 AM
Fred Plotkin from New York

To William, I know what you are saying about productions, but I have seen improvement. Less goofy and esoteric and more about what the actual story of the opera is. And to Alexandra, yes it is true that Le Figaro is drawn from Beaumarchais but, by now, he is better known as the opera character(s) he became.

Apr. 08 2012 01:13 AM
Alexandra from Milano

Fred Plotkin,

I beg to differ: the French newspaper, Le Figaro, was not named "for an opera character" (sic), but for the main character of Beaumarchais's most famous play.

Apr. 07 2012 06:00 PM
William V. Madison from New York City

During the seven years I lived in Paris, I couldn't keep up with the operatic scene. As you say, there's a great deal to choose from. But honestly I didn't find the quality of productions terribly inspiring at any of the houses, and more often than not I encountered clunkers performed indifferently in unconvincing, ugly stagings. (On just about every count, the Opéra de Lyon left all the Parisian troupes eating dust.)

I'd like to think that things in Paris have changed for the better in the months since I left, though I'm more inclined to believe that you simply had extremely good luck, Fred!

Apr. 07 2012 05:22 PM
Fred Plotkin from mid-air

Readers, thanks for your comments. I will have quick responses to three of them. But first I want to reinforce something I said in my article. The Met and the Vienna Staatsoper do excellent work. But I was not comparing them to the Paris Opera. I was comparing the total opera scene in Paris to those in Vienna, New York and elsewhere. Where Paris has the edge is the quality presented by the other companies. It is first-rate, with world-class artists, and the variety of repertory. To Terry: In my experience of the past 5 years of operagoing in Paris and Vienna (and many other places), the productions are more incisive in Paris. The Vienna Orchestra may have the edge, but the Paris Opera Orchestra under Philippe Jordan has improved radically. In my next article (for April 10) I will discuss more of this. To Mark, by my count there are 40 opera companies in NYC. That is probably more than Paris but the output is smaller and more variable. Right now we face many important challenges in New York in terms of how we take responsibility for culture. Where Paris has the edge is that its people not only believe in it but are willing for the state to support it. This is a quality of life issue as much as food, transport and freedom. To RodolfoL, yes, much more funding may come from the state. But if both companies have more or less the same amount of funds, than what we look is how the money is spent. As I detailed in my article, Paris has 25 operas, 11 full ballet productions, concerts, seminars, extensive educational activity, superb exhibitions and a very broad cultural impact. And that is just the Paris Opera. The other major companies all have full seasons of 5 to 15 works, almost all of a very high standard. I am a New Yorker so, believe me, I want that my city remain the opera leader as it is a leader in so many things, but there is stuff we can improve. For example, why has London had 3 Olympic games, Paris and Los Angeles two and New York none? Even Antwerp and Helsinki had the Olympics....both wonderful cities, but not world capitals.

Apr. 07 2012 04:15 PM
Terry from New York

I have a question. Isn't the quality of the Viennese productions still far and away superior to the Parisian? Really, even if the Staatsoper is it, the Staatsoper puts on very, very fine shows.

Apr. 07 2012 01:09 PM
Mark Schubin from Manhattan

I love both Paris and Fred, but I'd like to point out that there's a lot more to opera in New York City than just the Met. Opera Lafayette performed "Le Roi et le fermier" in New York before taking it to Versailles, where it was also a huge hit. Its New York audiences not only stayed and cheered but also partied with the company afterward. Gotham Chamber Opera's "Il sogno di Scipione" was such a hit that it's returning next week." By my count, there are about 60 companies performing opera in New York City, quite a few of them commissioning new works and reviving others long unperformed.

Long live opera EVERYWHERE!

Apr. 07 2012 12:21 PM
RodolfoL from New York

Maybe you should also mention that the budget of the Paris Opera is USD 300 million a year, around the same as the MET Opera and entirely contributed by the State.

Apr. 07 2012 10:12 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

FRED PLOTKIN you have so comprehensively expressed how Parisians combine intellect (the language is scientific in its specificity) with a joie de vivre and a passion for life that goes beyond that three word picturalization. Wagner had gone to Paris to sell his songs when he was desperate for funds. He had composed them. between 1838 and 1840 The great bass Luigi Lablache and another famous soprano Valenti told Wagner who was only in his late 20s that "we only sing music by great composers." His first version of Tannhauser at the Palais Garnier was a flop because the Jockey Club missed seeing their girlfriends in the ballet. which in the original Dresden version did not include the "orgy" of the ballet Bacchanale, which when it was repeated with the girlfriends was a big success. Tells us something of the Frenchman's eye for the fairer sex ! The selections that were rejected by Lablache and Valenti I performed as part of my Thursday May 28th, 1998 (8 PM) fourth Isaac Stern Auditorium solo concert. Wagner's Lullaby is as melodic and loving as Brahms's most beloved Lullaby. Mr. Plotkin,keep up the great informative and entertaining blogs.
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ
For two years 1957 to 1959, I hosted and occasionally sang on my own program,OPERATIC SPOTLIGHT with Met Opera and New York City Opera singers on WNYC following the OSCAR BRAND program. I was informed in 1998 when I was preparing my fourth solo concert in the main hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall, that almost all of the recordings of interviews and actual live performances at WNYC by composers, singers, painters, sculptors, writers and political figures were discarded, destroyed. My concern at the time was to review some of my performances. This past week the current archivist Andy Lanfet, who came on the scene years after my inquiry, inquired of me if I had any recordings oif those broadcasts; that he would format them onto CDs. He has been the archivist for the past 11 years. My copies were on reel to reel magnetic tapes and occasionally on audiocassettes. When I have them collected, I will certainly provide them for those at WNYC for their library or other pirposes. WNYC has the most longevity and august history of all radio stations prresnting classical music and its reaches into all subjects is most awesome and much appreciated.
I am an opera composer, "Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare," a Wagnerian heldentenor and the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute. At my website,, one may download at "Recorded Selections," free, 37 complete selections from the over one hundred I have sung in four three hour long solo concerts in the main hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium, of Carnegie Hall. They are all LIVE performances.

Apr. 06 2012 06:58 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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