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Lyon's unmistakable opera house
One thing I'll say for the Lyon opera house: you can't mistake it for any other building in Lyon, or for any other opera house in the world that I know of.
Or do you know of any other building that has a nineteenth century façade topped by a huge black vault shaped like a half barrel?
The nineteenth century façade is left over from an older opera house that was inaugurated in 1831 and was used for over a hundred and fifty years before being radically redesigned by the French architect Jean Nouvel (born 1945).
For other buildings designed by Jean Nouvel, please have a look at my tip on the new concert house in Copenhagen and my tips on the Institut du Monde Arabe and the Musée du quai Branly in Paris.
My first photo on this tip is a side view of the opera house as seen from Place Louis Pradel, a square which is named after the man who was the mayor of Lyon from 1957 until his death in 1976.
Louis Pradel was a quintessential twentieth century politician whose main interest was making the city fit for cars, not people. One of his nicknames was "the king of concrete". His massive concrete motorways still mar the city of Lyon and probably will for many years to come. He also supported the building of the first Métro lines, but that was mainly to make room for even more cars on the surface. He would no doubt turn over in his grave if he knew that after his death the street above Métro “A” line, Rue Victor Hugo, was turned into Lyon's first pedestrian street instead of being reserved for speeding automobiles as he had intended.
Update: Thanks to VT member JLBG for pointing out that one of Louis Pradel’s nicknames was “Zizi béton” as Zizi is a common nickname for Louis but also, in child talk, names the male organ! (Béton means concrete in French.)
Second photo: One of several photos I took from Fourvière Hill, showing the opera house with the Fine Arts Museum in front of it and the City Hall off to the left.
Third photo: The opera house as seen from the other side of the Rhône River.
Historic photos of the Lyon opera house on carthalia.
- Theater Travel
One day I went into the Lyon opera house at around noon to pick up a ticket I had ordered on the internet, and there was a long line of people waiting for something. I asked and was told there was a free piano recital downstairs in the amphitheatre.
So I got in line too, and went down with about two hundred other people to hear a Korean pianist named Mi Yong Lee (aka Mi-Young Lee) of the "CNSMD de Lyon", playing classical piano works by Johannes Brahms, Claude Debussy, Franz Liszt and Jean Françaix. "CNSMD" stands for conservatoire national supérieur musique et danse.
Mi Yong Lee is indeed an impressive pianist who has won first prizes at various competitions. Her noontime recital in the amphitheatre was part of an ongoing series of 45-minute concerts called Amphimidi, a combination of the words for amphitheatre and noon.
In addition to classical music, this noontime series of free concerts includes jazz, gospel, rap and French chansons.
The amphitheatre is a round black room in the first basement level. Seating is on five semi-circular rows of padded black benches with black benches, with each row being higher than the one before so everyone has a good view. The walls are black, the doors are black, the ceiling is black, the floor is made of black marble and of course the piano was also black. No photos are allowed in the amphitheatre, but they wouldn't have come out anyway because of all that blackness.
Second photo: In the ground floor lobby, which of course also has black walls, a black ceiling and a black marble floor.
All you loyal readers of my Amsterdam page (thanks again to both of you) may recall that I wrote a tip called There's no such thing as a free lunch, about a free lunch concert that I attended in the small recital hall of the Concertgebouw. (Which is not black, by the way.)
More recently I attended a very nice (and also free) lunch concert at the De Oosterpoort concert hall in Groningen, the northernmost city in the Netherlands.
The opera lobby from 1831
This ornate lobby is left over from the original building from the year 1831.
While this is an attractive lobby, it is also quite small. The opera house seats over 1,100 people, but only a small fraction of these can be in the foyer at any one time.
I'm told that the backstage and side-stage areas are also very small in comparison with other modern opera houses, because of size constraints imposed by the walls of the original building.
Second photo: People in the lobby at intermission.
- Theater Travel
Inside the large hall of the Lyon Opera House the color scheme is very simple: black, black and black. The walls are black, the seats are black, the balconies are black, everything is black.
Well, almost everything. The little blobs of red that you can see at each level are the air locks or noise locks that I have mentioned in another tip. When the (black) doors are closed, these blobs of red will no longer be visible. But there are still some little green lights to mark the exit doors.
Maybe I'm just being old-fashioned, but I personally have trouble warming up to this color scheme.
Lots of people stay in their seats during intermission, not because they love the black room but because there is so little space in the foyer to walk around.
If you look at the people in my first photo, you can see that they are quite casually dressed. I'm a bit older, so I was wearing a tie, but I was part of a small minority. I didn't see anyone under fifty wearing a tie, and not many over fifty.
On its website, the Lyon Opera has this to say about the dress code: "Jeans or long dress, jacket or T-shirt, sneakers or fancy shoes. There are no rules, what matters is to be comfortable and have fun. It's your evening, after all!"
Second photo: Looking up at the black balconies.
Third photo: People returning to the black balconies after the intermission.
Fourth photo: Here for comparison is the interior of the Musiktheater im Revier (MiR) in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. This is the only other opera house I know, besides Lyon, which has black interior walls. But the Gelsenkirchen opera at least has off-white balconies and floors, whereas in the Lyon Opera nearly everything is black. (Gelsenkirchen is a former coal-mining town, by the way, so they have a plausible reason for painting things black.)
- Theater Travel
Auditorium suspended from above
The stairs in the opera house are not directly connected to the large hall where we spectators sit, because the large hall not attached to the main building but is (amazingly) suspended from above.
In front of each door to the large hall there is a red padded room (first photo) that reminded me of an air lock in a space ship but is probably more like a noise lock. I'm not sure exactly how it works, but somehow these noise locks allow us to go to our seats although there is no firm connection between the large hall and the rest of the building, which seems to improve the acoustics and the soundproofing.
I know of two other (newer) opera houses which also have the spectators' hall suspended from above rather than attached to the rest of the building. These are the new opera house in Erfurt, which was completed in 2003, and the Operaen in Copenhagen, which opened in 2004. In Copenhagen the auditorium is sometimes referred to as “the Conch” because of its shape. It appears to be floating in the foyer, to which it is connected by bridges.
Second photo: Metal stairs in the Lyon opera house.
Third photo: These staircases leading down to the north arcade are emergency exits, but inside the opera house the staircases also look like this -– all made of metal, with no carpets. There are also escalators and elevators, however.
Fourth photo: New metal stairs from behind.
- Theater Travel
Activities in the arcades of the opera house
The arcade at the front of the opera house combines the old (arches, lamps and the painting on the ceiling) with the new (glass and metal inner walls and a black marble floor.
I took the photo in April when nothing was going on, but in the summers this arcade is turned into a café with jazz concerts six evenings a week (Monday to Saturday), featuring "la crème des jazzmen de la région Rhône-Alpes."
At other times of year the arcades are often used by break-dancers aka b-boys (and a few groups of b-girls) from the "problem-area" suburbs, who find the smooth marble floors ideal for practicing their dance/sport. The opera encourages this. In the summers, when the front arcade is used as a café, the more active break dancers are allowed to practice downstairs in the opera house, in the amphitheater in the first basement, which has the same sort of marble floor. Choreographers from the opera have even helped them prepare for the national and world championships (which they won in Seoul, I believe, in 2007), and later helped them work out a break-dance choreography which they presented on the opera stage in October 2009.
With this kind of outreach activities, it's no wonder the Lyon Opera has an unusually young audience, with 25 percent of the audience being under 26 years old –- a record most opera houses can only dream of.
- Arts and Culture
Old and new parts of the opera house
When Jean Nouvel redesigned the Lyon opera house from 1989 to 1993, he retained the old nineteenth century façade on all four sides of the building, plus the upstairs foyer at the front side. But everything else is new.
Since the ground area was restricted by the size of the original building, he made more space by digging deeper and making five levels under ground, and by adding six levels at the top of the building under the new black vault. So there are now eighteen levels altogether, providing three times as much usable space as was available in the old building.
Second photo: Looking up at the old and new façade.
Third photo: The opera house at dusk. Here you can see into the nineteenth century foyer, through the seven big windows of the old façade. The statues of the eight muses are lit up from behind by red or pink lights. (The ninth muse was left off because she would have disrupted the symmetry of the building, as I have explained in one of my restaurant tips.)
- Theater Travel
Opera De Lyon
The Opera De Lyon was built in 1831 but all that remains of the original building are the four façades and the foyer. The interior was gutted, to be replaced by an 18-level building, i.e. twice the space of the previous structure.
I found this building very interesting. The Opera House was reconstructed by Jean Nouvel. For the Opera program look at the web site.
The Opera building in Lyon is a controversial one. They added a glass dome to the old structure, adding 3 times as much space to it, but hurting everybody's esthetics' values.
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