Paris's Opéra Bastille at 25

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The Bastille in Paris has been on my mind lately. It is mentioned in David Ives’s charming The Heir Apparent, now at New York’s CSC Theater. The plot of this funny play, set in France in 1708, is a mash-up of Moliere’s The Miser plus The Marriage of Figaro, Gianni Schicchi and Kaufman & Hart’s You Can’t Take it With You. And yet it all works.

The Bastille is a more menacing presence in Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, now concluding its run at the Metropolitan Opera. Though maligned by some, it is one of my very favorite operas and I am always happy when it returns. WQXR and other stations will broadcast it on Saturday April 12. The Met production was created for Luciano Pavarotti in 1996 by Nicolas Joël, which brings me to today’s subject.

Monsieur Joël is now concluding his tenure as head of the Opéra de Paris, one of the world’s top companies, whose performances can be seen in two theaters—the Opéra Garnier (the historic 1,800-seat Paris Opera) and the Opéra de Bastille, a modern opera house with 2,723 seats that opened on the site of the notorious prison that was stormed on July 14, 1789. The Bastille opera house was part of the grand projet of President François Mitterrand and was opened to coincide with the bicentennial of the French Revolution.

I think I am the only person who cares that the Opéra de Bastille is about to have its 25th anniversary. I say “have” rather than “celebrate” because there does not seem to be any plan to observe or even discuss the changes it has wrought. It is fashionable in Paris to disdain this theater and most grands projets, those ambitious initiatives that have changed the face of Paris through the decades but also gave cultural relevance and grist for the mills of philosophers and polemicists.

Paris is not in a celebratory mood. I went there in December and found little of the customary gaieté parisienne. The current word around town everyone seems to use to describe the state of things is “morose,” which works equally well in English as it does in French. Morosité can be felt in most conversations, heard in broadcast media and seen in newspaper headlines.

Part of the morosité was disappointment in President François Hollande, who was busily scooting from his office to home with his partner Valérie Trierweiler to political ally Ségolène Royal (mother of his four children) to Julie Gayet, his mistress. Most Parisians were not aggrieved so much by Hollande’s infidelity as the graceless clumsiness with which it was being conducted. If I were to write an opera about the escapades of France’s head of state, I would call it L’Élysée d’Amore.

The chief purpose for my Paris visit was to find out how the theater has changed the neighborhood and the opera scene in the French capital. Based on performances of I Puritani and Elektra at the Bastille and La Clemenza di Tito at the Garnier, I found the company in good shape artistically. Its young artists program, the Atelier, is also doing great work.

My sojourn included a visit to the office of Joël. Several books were splayed open that he was reading, including a biography of Riccardo Zandonai (composer of Francesca da Rimini). This was unlike the offices of many opera company heads, with their neat stacks of untouched books, posters from old productions and, perhaps, awards. Joël, in not trying to make an impression, actually made a better one. He spoke in elegant but unpretentious English, considering each question and responding with seriousness and erudition. Joël, who will be succeeded by Frenchman Stephane Lissner (who now heads La Scala), plans to return to directing and has Ponchielli's La Gioconda in his sights (Joël has previously stated that he's leaving because of government budget cuts).

While, as a building, the Bastille is hard to love, I have always enjoyed attending performances there because of its fabulous stage technology that usually serves rather than dominates productions. In most theaters, production glitches and breakdowns have become distressingly common. Joël said “no performance here has ever been cancelled or interrupted because of technical default.” Though designed in the 1980s, the stage equipment has always been kept up-to-date and state-of-the-art.

Joël told me that, between the two theaters, there are 350 performances per year of opera and ballet. The Paris Opera Ballet was founded by Louis XIV and is one of the world’s best companies. As Joël reminded me, “It is a key part of the creative output of the Paris Opera. Here the ballet is not of secondary importance. We intend to keep this tradition very much alive. We would not be able to run the Opera without the ballet.” Last fall and winter there were 24 performances of Sleeping Beauty, all sold out. In the current season the Bastille has 13 operas and 4 dance programs while the Garnier offers 6 operas and 13 dance evenings.

Since 1989, the area around the theater has seen a boom in restaurants and small hotels as well as a wonderful outdoor market where I spotted members of the Opera buying leeks and baguettes. Recently, I spoke with Dominique Meyer, now the head of the Vienna State Opera, who led the Paris Opera when the Opéra Bastille opened in 1989. He made very persuasive arguments about the positive effects of the new building:

“This quarter of Paris was like a suburb. It was very old-fashioned. The new opera house was key to economic development in this part of town. It also represented a remarkable change in the number of opera performances one could hear. When I was a student in the 1970s, there were about a hundred performances per year in the Opéra Garnier, and that was it in Paris. Now Parisians see opera at the Garnier, Bastille, Champs Elysées, Opéra Comique and the Chatelet.

"I think the new Bastille opera house was the thing that opened the door to these changes. Because President François Mitterrand and his left-wing government were the chief proponents of the Bastille, Jacques Chirac [who was then the right-wing mayor] gave lots of city money to the Chatelet.”

This infusion of cash made the city the place to come, whether you were a singer, producer, aspiring opera worker or fan. Paris, which had always been a great opera capital, responded positively to these developments and its five theaters give the city a range of opera productions I think are unrivaled in their variety and are usually of very high quality. And that is nothing to be morose about.

Photos: Nicolas Joël at the Opéra Bastille in 2011 (Wikipedia Commons) 2) Restaurants opposite the Opéra Bastille (Brian Wise/WQXR)