Taming the beast of the Bastille: Since its inception in 1981, the Paris Opera has been a monster out of control. Enter Hugues Gall. By Della Couling

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The Opera-Bastille is the bad response to a problem that never existed,' remarked Hugues Gall, then director of the Geneva Opera, as the huge glass carbuncle on the Place de la Bastille finally opened for business in March 1990. Like Frankenstein's monster, however, it soon created its own problems - not just for its creators, but, ironically, for Gall himself, who took over as director- general earlier this year.

The original 'problem' was the Salle Garnier, home to the Paris Opera since 1875. Like any ageing theatre, the Garnier was certainly in need of a face-lift, but its other supposed problem - its artistic standard - had already largely been solved. Doggedly chauvinist in the first half of the century - resisting innovation, foreign languages, and even foreign artists - the Opera had received a much- needed shot in the arm when the Swiss composer Rolf Liebermann became director in 1973. By the time he left in 1980, Liebermann had largely restored the Opera's reputation and put it back on the international map.

But other forces were also at work, not least 'la gloire'. Pyramid building was all the rage, whether literally, as at the Louvre, or metaphorically, as at the Pompidou Centre. The story of the Opera-Bastille is Clochemerle writ large. Politics, personal ambitions, bureaucratic bungling - all were ingredients in the primal soup from which it emerged.

President Mitterrand's grandiose plans for a 'cite internationale de la musique' - to contain an opera house, a concert hall, a conservatoire, a music museum and electronic workshops - first began to be aired in 1981, notably by the then minister for culture, Jack Lang. Several sites were considered, including the now unoccupied market at Les Halles, the Place de la Bastille, and even the new town of Marne-La-Vallee out in the suburbs.

After a fair amount of political scrapping, the torrent of corporate energy generated by this over- ambitious conception was suddenly diverted into finding a new home for the Opera. The Place de la Bastille soon emerged as the perfect site: not only would it solve the problem of what to do with its now disused rail station but, given its high symbolic position in French history, it would send out upbeat signals all around, while, at the same time, niftily grafting a bourgeois institution on to an icon of working-class struggle. And with a little bit of luck, it could even open on 14 July 1989 - the bicentenary. In the rush of patriotic fervour that followed, Gall's cautionary remark simply went unheard. Yet Gall, who had been Liebermann's assistant at the Garnier, was better placed than most to understand the situation.

As for the Garnier itself - one of the most beautiful and historic opera houses in the world - even the politicians realised that it would be unthinkable to close it down. So it was decided that the Opera de Paris would have two houses. And to make this financially feasible, the number of performances would be tripled, while the state subsidy would be cut. This showed a staggering misreading of market forces, labour relations and much else besides. The result has been not only a decline in the reputation of the Garnier so carefully built up by Liebermann - the final, simplistic, solution being to dedicate the Garnier to dance - but constant administrative problems.

But before the huge glass monster was even half finished, paternity was being denied. Late in 1988, Jack Lang was countering criticisms with the question: 'Qui a decide cette betise?' And even Mitterrand, cautious as ever, intimated it wasn't really his idea, but he had 'come round to it'.

In 1986, the new prime minister Jacques Chirac tried to pull the plug on the whole project. There was a very costly hold-up in construction while economies in the design were argued out. The project lurched from crisis to crisis, not helped by changes of government, which inevitably - given the party political nature of arts appointments in France - also meant changes at the top for the Opera.

In all, 19 directors or administrators were engaged with great fanfares, and dismissed with even greater compensation payments, over the past five years: Daniel Barenboim came and went as musical director in 1989 without ever raising his baton. And when the new house was finally unveiled, in July 1989, it had been so hopelessly mismanaged that it closed again - for further work - the day after its grand opening, and didn't reopen until March 1990.

If size is important, the Bastille has it, with the biggest opera stage in the world. As can be expected from a brand-new building, it also incorporated the latest in theatre design. But, as Hugues Gall wrote in a brutally frank 30-page commissioned report (made public last November to coincide with the announcement of his future appointment), many decisions are inexplicable - like the safety curtain, which, unlike everywhere else in the world, comes down between orchestra pit and auditorium, making it impossible for the orchestra to use the pit if rehearsals are happening on stage, and vice versa. Much of the machinery is also badly designed and dangerous - a complicated section taken to the Universal Exposition in Seville collapsed, causing one death and 40 injured. Gall also criticised the seat prices, exorbitant for a house - in the Bastille, of all places - which was intended to provide opera for the people.

To save this desperate situation, it was decided last year to sack the administrative team of four and install Gall as the new supremo in their place. Entrusted by the current minister of culture (and 'Francophonie') Jacques Toubon with the gargantuan task of reorganising 'la vie lyrique en France', Gall has reversed the simplistic solution of hiving ballet off to the Garnier, but now faces the additional problem of that theatre's closure (until December 1995) for a much-needed renovation.

And what about the orchestra? Two houses means two orchestras. Who plays where? And who is more important in this 'structure bicephale' (as Le Monde elegantly put it)? Here Gall faced his first major battle. For the one person who has managed not only to ride out every storm in the Bastille, but also to make a very positive contribution, has been its musical director, Myung Whun Chung.

Relations between Gall and Chung have never been cordial, but since Chung's sacking last month - officially for not having agreed to a cut in salary and length of contract - they seem to have been non-existent outside the courtroom. Gall's brief was to take over the entire running of the Opera - including its artistic programme - and this was one area that Chung was unwilling to relinquish. He refused to give up his veto on casting and repertoire.

After long weeks of bitter legal wrangles, during which the Opera's music director was even barred from entering his own opera house, the final ruling accepted by all parties is that Chung will indeed step down (plus golden handshake), but only after conducting the new production of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra with which the house reopens on Monday.

The Opera now faces yet another dilemma: in Paris there are three other houses which have been able to profit from the interest in opera generated during Liebermann's time at the Garnier, and from the present parlous situation at the Bastille. Alain Durel, director of the Theatre des Champs-Elysees (which concentrates on the early French repertoire), and Stephane Lissner, director of the Chatelet (20th- century repertoire), find their theatres going from strength to strength. They are now attracting lively, discerning audiences - many of them young and by no means your average opera-goer - drawn by first-class productions by directors often known previously for prose theatre. Durel and Lissner also meet regularly to co- ordinate programming and general policy. The Chatelet, in particular, has profited from the shabby way in which Barenboim was hired and fired in 1989. This caused a virtual boycott of the Bastille by many of the world's top artists - including the conductors Pierre Boulez and Jeffrey Tate, and the directors Patrice Chereau and Luc Bondy - who have now made the Chatelet their regular Paris address. (Barenboim himself will be bringing his Berlin Fidelio to the Chatelet later this season.)

As for the Opera-Comique, long in the doldrums, it too is now on the bandwagon, following the appointment of Pierre Medecin as director in March, and is busy dusting off the French 19th-century repertoire. All three directors are passionately devoted to promoting opera as a serious art form: between them, they are turning Paris into the most exciting opera venue of the decade.

Contrasted with the lively and coherent efforts of this dynamic trio, the Bastille looks rudderless and lacklustre. Lissner, a good friend of Gall (with whom he has also worked in the past), welcomed his appointment when it was announced last November, explaining that a well-run Bastille, with an artist at the helm and not a team of bureaucrats, could only help raise opera's profile in Paris. He hopes, he told me recently, for the kind of co-operation with Gall that he already enjoys with Durel at the Champs-Elysees. Gall has just won his first battle; winning the war remains an awesome task.

'Boccanegra' opens Monday (booking: 010 331 44 73 1300)

(Photograph omitted)