A couple of weeks ago we looked at the opulent splendour of the Palais Garnier, known to most Parisians as the home of opera in the city. These days, though, visitors and locals alike are more likely to catch a performance from the French national company, the Paris Opera, at the ultra-modern opera house in Bastille on the other side of town.
The two buildings may only be a few miles apart (if you want to visit them both, then line 8 of the metro runs between them both) but the difference in style couldn’t be more different. The Palais Garnier is dripping in gold and dates from a time when a night at the opera was an elite pastime and somewhere to see and be seen. One of the new building’s stated aims, though, was to make opera accessible to the general public.
A New Home
Musicians and composers had been seeking a new home for the Paris Opera since the 1960s. The Palais Garneier not only suffered from a stuffy image, but despite its epic proportions, only holds around two thousand spectators. To top it off, working in a building designed for another age was beginning to become difficult.
When he agreed to a new opera house for the city, French President François Mitterrand added a symbolic dimension to the new project by demanding that it open in time to commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, which kick started the French Revolution, in July 1789.
Glass and Steel
The competition he launched attracted well over 700 entries, which a panel of professionals whittled down to a shortlist of just three. Mitterand’s favourite design was by the then-unknown Uruguayan architect Carlo Ott, and featured large open spaces which some critics have said look more like airport lounges than an opera house. Ott insisted that he wanted all of the public spaces at the front of the building to be open and airy so that members of the public would feel welcome.
The modern design isn’t to everybody’s taste, of course, but it’s certainly practical, giving the Paris Opera much more space to rehearse and more flexibility in set design: there’s room behind the scenes to fit nine full-size sets at once—and space out front for almost three thousand opera fans.
If you’d like to see a performance, the best way to get a ticket—either for opera at Bastille or ballet at Garnier—is to book online, but be warned, performances sell out very fast.