The Bastille falls to the level of a national soap

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The Independent Online

How does Paris manage to sustain five opera houses? All is not what it seems. Lucy Reid finds that Paris is also having trouble putting its houses in order.

Opera Bastille, dubbed the "People's Opera" when it opened in 1989, has become more like a soap opera. Recent episodes include the sentencing of the former chairman, Pierre Berge, to 10 months' imprisonment and a fine of pounds 3,000 after a set collapsed, killing one person and injuring 40 others.

The new chairman, Hugues Gall, is in charge of the two main opera houses, the nineteenth-century Opera Garnier and Bastille, now united as the Opera National de Paris (ONP). He was employed in 1995 as the Sir John Harvey- Jones of the opera world on a six-year contract, wielding absolute executive power.

Perhaps Mr Gall's toughest challenge has been reversing the negative press given to the Opera Bastille throughout its brief lifetime. One of the latest setbacks has not been one of interior strife, so much as exterior. Visitors will note the presence of what resemble enormous fishing nets swathing the bathroom-tile-like facade of the building. They are not there to catch fish. Since 1990, the stone slabs which make up the exterior of the house have been crumbling away.

Mr Gall has started to turn things around by concentrating on crowd-pulling favourites. He has cut back on excesses, which saw huge fees paid to some performers. He has imposed a more autocratic style of management, by sacking the former musical director, Myung-Whun Chung, and employing an American, James Conlon, as principal conductor.

The two houses put on 14 productions this year, including nine operas, compared to only five in 1995.

What, briefly, of the three other opera houses in Paris? All are smaller, lower-profile operations, surviving through virtue of diversification. The Theatre des Champs-Elysees and the Opera-Comique receive minimal subsidies, helping to support themselves via a policy of renting out rooms for other events.

The Theatre du Chatelet is owned and subsidised (pounds 13m per annum) by the City of Paris. It has carved a niche with cycles of 20th-century and Baroque operas.

At first glance, the French have been fairly successful in the bums- on-seats department, filling an average of 90 per cent of places at the two houses belonging to the Opera National de Paris and 83 per cent at the Chatelet. Ticket prices at the ONP range from pounds 6 to pounds 64, at Chatelet from pounds 5 to pounds 75. When asked what the current deficit is, the ONP confidently states that there is no deficit.

But it's a question of terminology; the French simply cover the yawning gaps between what is spent on productions and the money coming in from ticket sales with a wash of public money, without which opera would be unsustainable.

A simple sum reveals all: the state subsidy for 1997 is approximately pounds 55m for the Opera National de Paris; divide this by the projected number of tickets sold in 1997, 808,000, and you see that the state subsidises each seat by pounds 68.