For promising Canadian architect Carlos Ott, 40, the exercise was long and frustrating. Three times he made appointments with French President François Mitterrand to present his design for a new Paris opera house. In November, 1983, the Toronto-based Ott had beaten out 760 other qualifying entrants in an international competition to design the $500-million project. But each time, Mitterrand’s busy schedule forced him to cancel the engagement. Then, last March, when Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac was elected prime minister, Ott suddenly found his project at the centre of the wrong kind of attention.
Elected on a platform of fiscal restraint, the neo-Gaullist Chirac ordered a halt to construction of the massive opera house—at a cost of $200,000 a day—while his government pondered the fate of the project. The building was widely associated with the grand cultural plans of Chirac’s political rival, socialist leader Mitterrand. Nine days later officials in Chirac’s office announced that the project
could proceed, but on a scaled-down version of Ott’s widely admired concept, which will see a substantial portion of the project turned over to private developers. Declared Ott: “I feel sad about it.”
The Bastille Opera project was conceived as a replacement for the Palais Gamier, the city’s famous theatre, completed in 1875. As an expression of Belle Epoque architecture, it ranks with the Eiffel Tower as one of the city’s greatest landmarks. But in a country where opera is as popular as hockey is in Canada, the old house has long been an anachronism. The capacity of approximately 2,000 seats, including 400 with obstructed sight lines, falls far short of demand. As well, production facilities are so cramped that sets have to be built off the premises, then trucked in. Lack of space ties up the auditorium for rehearsals, limiting its availability for performances.
Ott’s opera house, even in its new form, will be the largest such location in the world, accommodating 2,700 people in the grand opera hall and another 1,800 in a smaller theatre dedicated to chamber operas such as Mozart’s The Magic Flute. To be situated across town from the old opera house, the mammoth complex will also house a 300-seat third theatre, 10 rehearsal halls, an 800-seat amphitheatre, design rooms, offices, a cinema, stores, two restaurants and a café. The staff, numbering approximately 2,000, will produce 450 operas a year, compared to the old house’s 150. Cultural authorities claim that, despite the new structure’s awesome cost, it will prove more lucrative than the famous old house, which will still present alternate opera programs. The new facility’s gargantuan dimensions prompted Ott to comment, “The building is really a big pachyderm.”
Now, with a new design that deletes the scenic workshops, the builders are racing to complete the structure in time for the bicentennial celebrations of the storming of the Bastille prison during the French Revolution—July 14, 1989. “It has been so fast it makes your head spin,” said Toronto architect Kent Rawson, formerly a member of Ott’s design team. Still, many Parisians are lamenting Chirac’s cost-cutting drive. With the original plan, nearby railway yards would have been cleared and turned into vast public promenades. Instead, the yards will be turned over to private developers for the construction of hotels and apartments. But Ott refuses to express any bitterness over the reduction of his grand design. Said Ott: “The original vision is still there.”
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