Opéra Bastille, Bavali
About Opéra Bastille
Background and construction
The idea for a new "popular and modern" opera house in Paris first came up in the 1880s, only years after the opening of the Palais Garnier. It would remain virtual for a century and reemerge periodically due to the recurrent "crisis at the Opera" and to the limitations imposed on modern opera production by the palais Garnier. It was notably promoted in 1965–1968 by stage director Jean Vilar, the most prominent figure in "popular theatre" at the time, who had been commissioned a reform project for the National Opera Theatre and echoed composer Pierre Boulez’ provocative appeal to "blow up opera houses", as well as by senior civil servant François Bloch-Lainé in a 1977 report on the Opera's management and perspectives. In 1981, the newly elected President François Mitterrand included a new opera house in his large monument-building programme known as the “Grands Travaux”. The project was originally part of the Cité de la musique, a complex of musical institutions in North-Eastern Paris. It was quickly decided to separate it and to build it in the Bastille area of Paris, a relatively working-class district that also evoked the French Revolution and was a traditional starting or ending point for demonstrations. The following year, an international competition was launched, under supervision of the Opera Bastille Public Corporation (EPOB), to select an architect. 756 entries were received, and, in November 1983, the competition was won by then little-known architect Carlos Ott, an Uruguayan living in Canada. It was said that the jury, who—as it is quite common with architectural competitions—did not know the authors of the submission, mistakenly assumed that his design was from American architect Richard Meier. Construction began in 1984 with the demolition of the gare de la Bastille train station, which had opened in 1859 and closed in 1969, and where art expositions had been held thereafter. In 1986, the new right-wing government led by Jacques Chirac considered canceling the project, but eventually decided it was too advanced and gave it the green light again. President Mitterrand remained personally involved throughout the building process, to the point that the planning team referred to him to decide on the seats’ colour following internal disagreement. (He chose black.) In the original project, the house also included a small concert hall and a multi-purpose hall (“salle modulable”). The latter was a public request by Pierre Boulez, who had long been publicly lamenting the lack of a proper venue for contemporary music and experimental performances in Paris. However, due to the construction delays, it was eventually shelved, much to Boulez’ irritation, and a similar facility was eventually built as part of the Cité de la musique. The concert hall, known as the Bastille Amphitheatre (amphithéâtre Bastille), was maintained and built. After heavy budget overruns, the final construction cost was at 2.8 billion French francs. The building was inaugurated by François Mitterrand on 13 July 1989, on the eve of the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, in the presence of thirty-three foreign heads of state or heads of government. A semi-staged gala concert, directed by Robert Wilson under the title la Nuit avant le jour (The Night Before the Day), was conducted by Georges Prêtre and featured singers such as Teresa Berganza and Plácido Domingo. The Paris Opera's traditional Bastille Day free concert was given there the following day.The house, which was unfinished at the time of the official inauguration, did not see its first opera performance until 17 March 1990, with Hector Berlioz’ les Troyens, directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi.
Troubles and controversies
The Opéra Bastille's management and public perception were marred by various controversies and scandals in the house's first decade and even before its opening. In 1987, conductor Daniel Barenboim, who had previously led the orchestre de Paris, was hired to become the house's first Artistic Director, and began planning the first seasons. In January 1989, six months before inauguration, the company's board chairman Pierre Bergé, otherwise head of the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house, fired Barenboim, reportedly after the conductor's refusal to cut his pay by half as well as due to his modernist stance, which Bergé deemed unfit for a "popular" opera house. It was also noted that Barenboim had been hired by a right-wing government, while Bergé was a prominent supporter and donor of the Socialist Party. This decision proved extremely controversial in the artistic field: Patrice Chéreau backed off the staging of the inaugural gala, composer Pierre Boulez resigned from the Board of Directors, and Herbert von Karajan and Georg Solti, along with several other prominent conductors, signed a letter of protest and called for a boycott of the opéra Bastille, canceling their own concerts there. This made the search for a new Artistic Director difficult; in May, Bergé was finally able to announce the appointment of Korean pianist and conductor Myung-whun Chung, then young and practically unknown in France. Chung took the pit for the first opera performance in May 1990. Although his term was later extended to last until 2000, Chung was fired in 1994 after the right-wing coalition's election victory, the end of Pierre Bergé’s board tenure and a power play with the company's Director designate, Hugues Gall, who cancelled his contract; at the height of the conflict, Chung was physically prevented from entering the building despite a judicial ruling in his favour.The building was as much a source of trouble as the internal conflicts. As early as 1991, a few of the 36,000 Burgundy limestone panels covering the facade began to fall, which led to the installation of safety nets over some external walls in 1996; they were dubbed "condoms with holes" by the disgruntled Director. Several other major renovations had to be carried out in the following years, including that of the soundproofing structure and of the orchestra pit’s acoustics, each time with complex and sometimes judicial procedures to determine who was responsible. The facade problems were not solved until 2009 with the installation of new plaques made of composite material and attached differently.
The Opéra Bastille was originally expected to become the company's sole opera venue, with the palais Garnier turned into a ballet venue exclusively. However, this strict split was abandoned in the 1990s when some operas were performed at the Palais Garnier and the company's ballet also danced at the Bastille. Since then, most opera performances take place at the modern house with some ballet performances and a few symphony concerts every season, while the traditional house presents a somewhat even mix of opera and ballet performances. Hugues Gall, who took over as the Paris National Opera's Director in 1995, was originally an opponent of the Bastille conception, famously quipping that the new opera house was "the wrong answer to a problem that did not exist". In his nine-year term, he is however credited with stabilising the company's administrative, artistic and financial situation, which was in part due to the possibilities offered by the modern theatre: higher revenues due to the larger seating capacity, wider range of technical means for stage directors, better working environment, higher scheduling flexibility.