The Opéra de Paris, or Paris Opera, has had several names, including “Royal Academy of Music and Dance” at its birth and later “Imperial Academy”, and its activities have been held in at least fifteen different auditoriums. Louis XIV assigned exclusive operation to Abbey Perrin and composer Robert Cambert in 1669, in order to give “opera academies or music performances in the French language the same standing as those of Italy”. The Marquis de Sourdéac became the director and Beauchamps the ballet master. The singer Monier set off for Languedoc to recruit the finest voices. The Salle du Jeu de Paume was leased for five years starting in 1670 and outfitted as a theatre. It was inaugurated with Pomone by Perrin and Cambert. Lully then purchased the privilege in 1672 and banished from its stage any work that was not his. He remained there for fifteen years, setting the rules of French opera, inspired by Roman opera.
He was followed by Campra, Rameau and Destouches who gradually modified the genre. After Rameau’s death, artists came from Germany and Italy: Gluck, Piccinni, Sacchini, Salieri, then Spontini, Cherubini, Rossini, and finally Meyerbeer, all contributing to create the face of French-style opera. This was the fashion, grand opera accompanied by ballet (Donizetti, Verdi, with Jerusalem, The Sicilian Vespers, Don Carlos). Wagner was even asked to revise Tannhauser to suit the trend.
After the fire in the Palais Royal theatre in 1763, the Opera spent time in a great many auditoriums in Paris, including the Montansier hall, at the site of the present Louvois Square, which the bishop of Paris ordered destroyed after the Duc de Berry was assassinated. The Opera set up quarters in the Salle Favart, which had been abandoned by the Opéra-Comique. It moved again pending completion of the Palais Garnier in 1874, which was part of Haussmann’s urban-development plans. This entire period was intense and full of creativity, but then the quality declined, energy was wasted on intrigues, and many singers moved on to other halls.
The Palais Garnier was built between 1861 and 1875 at the orders of NapoIeon III. This building was said to best symbolise the “self-satisfaction” of the Second Empire. But it is in fact a shining example of the unity of artistic creativity. The hall was inaugurated on 5 January 1875 with an act from La Juive by Halévy and excerpts from Meyerbeer’s Huguenots. Electricity was installed in the hall and on the stage between 1881 and 1887. In 1932, the first radio broadcast of a live performance took place. The building, which was then one of Europe’s largest, had immense foyers, a library, rehearsal rooms, a school of dance, etc.
In its first forty years, performances remained cautious and low-profile, as French composers practised a strict protectionist policy. Things began to change in 1915 with the arrival of Jacques Rouché, who held his position for thirty years. But foreign works remained few and far between. He trained a highly structured troupe and virtually banned foreign artists from the stage. The Opera, which incidentally produced quite decent performances, was however cut off from the international opera world.
In 1939 a decree established the Union of National Lyric Theatres. Its responsibilities were shared by an administrator and a director. Despite some prestigious productions and sumptuous casts, the Opera declined slowly until 1970, when major reforms were instituted. Whilst the troupe was dissolved and the theatre was closed, Roilf Liebermann was appointed managing director of the Paris Opera, with Georg Solti serving for a time as musical advisor. Substantial financial resources were made available to the new administrator. Rolf Liebermann made good use of them and considerably expanded the repertoire, requiring the exclusive use of the original language and inviting the big names in singing, conducting, directing and set design. The Paris Opera quickly became one of the centres of worldwide creativity. Bernard Lefort, Massimo Bodgianckino and Jean-Louis Martinoty followed in his wake, attempting to promote a singing school, and to put a troupe back together. The Paris Opera is also home to the corps de ballet which, aside from performances at the Palais Garnier, does many tours abroad and which for some years was directed by Rudolf Nureyev. The Paris Opera Orchestra consists of excellent French players, known especially for their rebellious temperament.
In 1990, Palais Garnier and the Opéra Bastille formed the Paris Opera, which in 1994 became the Opéra National de Paris. Since then Hugues R. Gall, Gérard Mortier and currently Nicolas Joël have succeeded one another at the helm. On 1 August 2014, Stéphane Lissner (former La Scala director) takes over.