Lyon Builds New Home For Its Opera

Architect Jean Nouvel's design harmonizes with history, but makes use of technology

WISDOM, adaptation, and innovation are three attributes of the Lyon Opera that, according to Jean Pierre Brossman, can be discerned in the stunning glass-and-steel structure that has risen within the old opera building's beaux-arts walls in this city's Place de la Comedie.

Wisdom, because "Here in Lyon a very reasonable decision was made to replace the old with something new, as when the new Met replaced the old in New York," the Lyon Opera's artistic director says. "Too often in Europe there is the bad habit of adding a whole new [opera] when the decision is made to modernize, but it's crazy to think we can keep adding and operating new institutions."

Adaptation, because by integrating the new building into the historic site, opera remains in the neighborhood that has been its home for 300 years. In a city like Lyon - France's second largest, yet still provincial - it was important to maintain links with the past while nudging an often-conservative public along with new ways of seeing and hearing opera, Mr. Brossman says.

And innovation, he adds, because the new building's signature glass top lights up as a beacon signaling that opera is an alive and vital art form. Lyon Opera is also using new technologies, such as videodiscs, to reach new audiences.

"For more than 20 years the Lyon Opera's approach has been revolutionary, mixing performing arts, updating and broadening programming, and generally presenting opera as theater is presented, only with music," says Brossman, who has been with the opera for 13 years.

"We have pushed to offer opera that will attract the more numerous followers of theater, dance, music, and cinema, a generally younger public that risked abandoning this art for good as dusty and inert," he adds. "The building we are about to occupy corresponds to the work we are trying to accomplish."

The new building is set to open May 14 with Debussy's "Rodrigue et Chimene," followed by a month of special works including Lully's "Phaeton," the first opera presented here in 1688.

THE facility is the work of architect Jean Nouvel, known for the Institute of the Arab World on the banks of the Seine in Paris. The structure relies on a heavy use of glass, steel, and black surfaces - polished black granite and shiny black metal - to create a delicate play of light, dark, and shadow.

The main auditorium, an Italian theater design of an orchestra floor and six balconies, is almost all black. "It's like the inside of a camera," says Jacques Oudot, Lyon's vice-mayor for cultural affairs. "Here the stage acts as the lens, providing the light."

By digging 65 feet below the surface and adding several floors under the building's semi-tubular, glassed-in top, the architect was able to double the opera's usable space. This allowed the addition of a much-needed practice stage, a recording studio, new public areas including a restaurant, a 200-seat amphitheater, and enlargement of the main auditorium by 500 seats to 1,300.

The internationally acclaimed Lyon Opera Ballet will move into impressive quarters just under the curved-glass roof that include one of the new building's choice spots: a glass-encased practice floor with such glorious views of the city they may be distracting.

WHILE Lyon appears to be justifiably proud of its new opera, the city has also faced growing criticism recently about the opera's cost - especially in an economic downturn.

"People in the arts don't want to accept that there are economic difficulties, so they search for a scapegoat and right now it's the opera," says Mr. Oudot. "But they can blame nothing on the opera, because the project hasn't caused us to take one penny from other budgets" - a statement that is hotly contested.

Brossman, too, has little sympathy for complainers within the arts world - but he does have a word of caution for them. "It's dangerous to say `The opera receives too much,'" he says. "It's the best way for all of us to see our budgets reduced."

The new building itself will cost $87 million, up $4 million from the cost announced when construction began in 1989. But the operating budget has drawn more fire: At about $34 million, it will be increased substantially from the opera's previous budget of $24 million. This is still far less than the Paris Bastille Opera's $137 million budget and roughly equivalent to Brussels' Thtre de la Monnaie.

"This budget will place us among the least expensive in the world for the quality of its product," Brossman says.

Not everyone is convinced by this scenario, however. "Lyon now finds itself trapped by its choice" of a first-rate opera, says Gerard Collomb, a Socialist city councillor. He says this year's budget is based on partial operation of the new building, "so we could easily face a $50 million budget in coming years."

While Mr. Collomb has only high praise for Brossman; the opera's American musical director, Kent Nagano; and the opera's ballet; he faults the city for "incoherent management" of the cultural budget.

One of Lyon's problems is simply that it is not Paris. The capital's five music stages are either largely or wholly subsidized by the national budget, while the Lyon Opera receives less than 10 percent of its budget from Paris.

And while the Lyon Opera serves a wide region - not to mention drawing spectators from Italy, Switzerland, and elsewhere - the Lyon regional government has rebuffed pleas to boost its participation in the budget beyond the 9 percent it already contributes.

Within the still-unfinished opera house, the 400 construction workers pushing every day (including Sundays) to get the building done on time are not oblivious to the controversies swirling around them. In an unpainted stairwell, large graffiti proclaim simply, "money pit."

Further on, however, another hastily scrawled message offers another tone, closer to what the new building exemplifies: "In this world of violence and hate, opera is a ray of hope - we should wish it good luck."

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