Opera Bastille: 9 (little) things you should know about the largest operatic stage in Europe

One of the major projects proposed by the president François Mitterrand, known as the "Grands travaux", the Opéra Bastille is one of the largest and most impressive opera houses in the world. Here are 9 (little) things to know about the impressive opera house, from its origins to today.

Opera Bastille: 9 (little) things you should know about the largest operatic stage in Europe
Opera Bastille: 9 (little) things you should know about the largest operatic stage in Europe, © Getty / VAN DER STOCKT

In the 1960s, various important figures of French music and cultural politics began asking important questions: should the Opéra Garnier be closed? Should the Opéra de Paris as a whole be reformed? Should a new opera house be built? Jean Vilar, Maurice Béjart and Pierre Boulez in particular frequently shared their thoughts regarding the operatic institution, deemed obsolete, too expensive, and too narrow in its cultural offering.

The Opéra Garnier was considered "unusable", and the idea of a new opera house thus began to gradually take shape. The project was firmly adopted in 1981 by the president François Mitterrand as part of his "Grands Travaux". France, and more precisely Paris, was in need of a modern opera house, more popular, capable of boosting the waning French lyricism. An international competition was organised, the largest in the world, resulting in over 750 project submissions, each candidate kept anonymous to ensure a fair selection. To everyone's surprise, the privilege and heavy responsibility of such creating a modern and popular French opera house was awarded to a largely unknown architect. But had the jury in fact meant to choose the Uruguayan-Canadian architect Carlos Ott? Or did they believe that the project belonged to another, more reputable architect, Richard Meier? Though rumours began circulating, the President himself assured repeatedly "of the six final [projects], I chose this one because it seemed the most suitable."

Against all the odds

"The project was extremely difficult to realise, I endured every kind of complication imaginable. Working with the French is terrible!" Though somewhat jokingly, Carlos Ott nonetheless hinted at the countless difficulties he faced during the 8 years required to complete the project. A supposedly "modern" and "popular" opera, conceived in order to bring diversity to the repertoire, the initial project was not unanimously soutenu, as explained by Michael Dittmann, member of the project committee Etablissement Public Opéra Bastille (EPOB): "the opera was fully conceived in only three months but we had to endure seven years of constant struggling for the project to be finally accepted and completed." 

From its earliest stages, the opera was criticised both for financial and ideological reasons. The promise of 300 performances per year left many sceptical. And where to build such a "popular" opera? Whilst various sites such as the Quai de Javel, La Défense, Marne-la-Vallée, and in particular the Parc de la Villette were seriously considered, the idea of building upon the notorious Place de la Bastille was not at all taken seriously. "Initially, the opera house was not at all meant to be at Bastille, but rather at the Parc de la Villette as part of an elaborate site […] The model was the Lincoln Center in New York. [However,] advisors convinced François Mitterrand that it would be better to build such an opera on a symbolic, and popular, site", explains Christian Merlin, French musicologist, critic, and radio presenter.

An opera house for 2€/kg

The subject of countless political arbitration and budgetary adjustments, the opera's construction was even halted entirely in 1986 for two weeks (costing 750 000 francs per day) by order of the Prime Minister Jacques Chirac and the Minister of Culture François Léotard. A new proposal was made: replace the Opéra Bastille by a grand theatre with auditorium, and sell the spaces initially set aside for the in-house stage design and costume workshops, and the "salle modulable", a modular concert hall. It was not until May of 1987, following several financial studies, that the project was finally given the green light: the Opera Bastille was completed in 1989, with the in-house workshops but not the modular concert hall.

Despite various last-minute scares and setbacks (including the collapse of a podium in the orchestral pit in June 1989, barely a month before the bicentennial celebrations of the French Revolution), the inauguration was an unquestionable success, attended by 33 of the most powerful heads of state, presenting the newly-constructed Opera Bastille to the world as a major institution in the world of vocal music. And in response to the incessant budgetary criticisms, an anecdotal financial study confirmed that the 427-million-euro opera house capable of seating 2,745 spectators came to a very reasonable 2€ per kilogram!

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The musical chairs of the musical director

Finding a musical director for the new French opera house proved to be no easy task! Appointed in 1984, Jean-Pierre Brossmann resigned barely a year later. Various potential candidates were therefore contacted, including Ernest Fleischmann, Brian Dickie, Hugues Gall, and Gérard Mortier, then the director of the Théâtre royal de la Monnaie in Brussels: Mortier was finally appointed in September 1985 but removed himself from the project only six months later. 

In 1987, the legendary Daniel Barenboim was recruited as the institution's new musical and artistic director. However, the world-renowned conductor was unfortunately very expensive and frequently absent, and was eventually fired in January 1989 following the arrival of Pierre Bergé as the new President of the advisory committee of the Opéra de Paris.

The arrival of the new director Myung-Whun Chung brought with it a period of stability and success for the opera house, yet despite these successes Chung's contract was terminated in 1995 by the new committee president Hugues Gall. Somewhat ironic considering the fact that Gall had declared several years earlier that the Opera Bastille was "a poor response to a question that wasn't worth asking". He eventually admitted: "I am going to try and prove myself wrong so that I can say at the end of my term: "Yes, it was necessary to build Bastille"."

Europe's largest operatic stage, with a stage under the Seine

Bastille may possess Europe's largest operatic stage, but this space only represents 5% of the building. Around the main 750m² stage are similar side- and rear-stages, creating a total surface of 5000 m². But there is also a second "stage" at the Opera Bastille, identical to the principal stage, situated 25m underneath, in a space aptly nicknamed "l'enfer" ("hell"), deeper than the Paris metro system and 8 meters beneath the river Seine. 

All these spaces allow for the simultaneous assembly, disassembly, and storage of the stage decorations for various concurrent productions. The seemingly daunting task of raising the heavy stage decorations stored 25 meters below is made astonishingly easy with the use of a 400 m² elevator capable of lifting 300 tonnes in only 12 minutes. This is but one of the many impressive technical achievements that make the Opera Bastille unique in its own right... not to mention the soundproof rehearsal stage situated next to the main stage, allowing ensembles to rehearse even during a live performance!

A watery acoustic

The acoustic of the main hall had to be carefully and precisely calculated in order to create a favourable reverberation for the orchestra whilst also allowing for the human voice to carry and resonate naturally throughout the hall. A delicate balance that Carlos Ott and acoustician Helmut Müller studied at length, using in particular a model of the hall filled with water, an element whose properties behave similarly to those of a sound wave.

In order to compensate for the sound-absorbing textures of the 2,745 seats and even the clothing of the spectators, granite walls and a wooden floor were placed so as to encourage a better reverberation. Finally, a curved glass ceiling was placed above the immense hall, not only a source of light for the hall with its 2,700 fluorescent tubes but also an acoustic resonator for the hall's acoustics: contrary to the Opera Garnier and its luxurious chandelier, the hall of the Opera Bastille has no outward displays of luxury so as not to disturb the overall sound.

A multi-coloured opera house...except green

It took almost a year to decide on the colour of the seats for the hall of the Opera Bastille! A seemingly simple decision, various colours were considered, notably blue-grey, red, and black... all except for green, a traditionally "evil" colour as far back as the theatres of Ancient Rome. 

Unable to decide, the choice was therefore presented to President François Mitterrand, who decided once and for all in 1987: "Black is a real colour. Black it is." Fortunately, elsewhere in the Opera Bastille, the colour green is welcomed with open arms: spread over two floors, the costume and design workshops create all the necessary accessories for the staged productions, with workshops for sewing but also for making shoes and wigs, and even dyeing clothes.

An opera house that quickly lost face

Barely inaugurated, the opera house began to lose face... literally! Several months after its opening, the slabs attached to the building's facade began to crack, some even falling off! Therefore, in 1996, the opera house was wrapped with 5000 meters of netting, a "condom with holes" as described by the French newspaper Libération.

It was only after 14 years that the Opera Bastille's committee and the building's insurer were finally able to come to an agreement regarding the required budget for such a renovation. Once the problem identified (a faulty "stapling" of the slabs), the entirety of the 28,000m² of the building's facade was restored and the netting finally removed in 2010.

Snubbed by the presidents

Despite the financial and symbolic investment of the François Mitterrand's "Grands Travaux", the president did not consider the Opera Bastille to be one of his greater achievements: "The Opera Bastille, I don't like it", admitted the president bluntly during a conversation with the novelist and playwright Marguerite Duras. Though he attended the inauguration on 13 July 1989, the president only returned to the opera house on 19 May 1993 to celebrate the 80th birthday of the French singer Charles Trenet.

However, François Mitterrand is not the only French head of state to snub the Opera Bastille: Jacques Chirac, François Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy and Emmanuel Macron have never set foot in the French opera house.

Finally the end?

30 years after its inauguration, the Opera Bastille remains an unfinished work. Though the opera house possesses the largest stage in Europe, there is still one important element missing to Carlos Ott's grand project: the famous modular concert hall, abandoned in the late 1980s for both financial and political reasons.

Abandoned, yet nonetheless built! Paradoxically, the space was still constructed but left empty: an amphitheatre and a great hall, two immense concrete shells. Only recently, when the Opéra de Paris was forced to move its large stage decoration workshops from the Ateliers Berthier in Paris's 17th arrondissement, was the current director Stéphane Lissner able to negotiate in exchange the completion of the modular concert hall.

According to Pierre Boulez, "if you wish to build a modern opera house, ahead of its time and capable of creating new forms of lyricism, it is necessary to build this modular hall." The hall's construction should be completed in 2023, thereby adding the final touch to Carlos Ott's creation thirty years later.