Opera de Marseille smallOne of the oldest and largest opera houses in France, the elegant Art Deco Opéra de Marseille offers a vibrant year-round programme of opera, ballet, concerts and other events.

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THE BUILDING

Operas were performed at various locations around Marseille as early as 1685, and a "Grand Théâtre" was built on the current site in 1787.

It was almost entirely destroyed by a fire on 13 November 1919 during a rehearsal of Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. Only the neo-classical colonnade at the front and the four main outer walls survived the flames.

But the Marseille Opera soon rose from the ashes. Under the supervision of the Marseille architect, Gaston Castel, the current building was completed by 1924, cleverly incorporating the original colonnade into its new Art Deco façade.

Above it is engraved the legend, "L'art reçoit la beauté d'Aphrodite, le rhythme d'Apollon, l'equilibre de Pallas – et il doit à Dionysus le mouvement et la vie" ("Art draws on Aphrodite's beauty, Apollo's rhythm, Pallas' sense of balance - and it owes to Dionysus its movement and life"). Opera in Marseille can be, indeed, a very lively affair.

Sirenes et Midi Net in Marseille November 2012The exterior of the Opéra was given a facelift for the Marseille-Provence European Capital of Culture year in 2013 and now looks splendid. Just off the Canebière and the Old Port, the Opéra and surrounding area are well worth a quick visit, even if you don't intend to go inside or see one of its productions.

Its large grassy forecourt is often used for street theatre. On the first Wednesday of every month a short theatrical performance is staged there at noon by the street theatre company Sirènes et Midi Net to coincide with the regular testing of Marseille's emergency warning siren. Pictured above: the Sirènes et Midi Net show in November 2012.

The forecourt of the Opéra de Marseille really came into its own on 12 January 2013. On that evening, as part of the huge opening celebrations for the Capital of Culture year, a flashmob of over ten thousand people gathered here to join in a rousing mass rendition of Libiamo ne' lieti calici, the Drinking Song from Verdi's La Traviata. You can watch a short clip of this amazing event below.

Another oddball feature is tucked away behind the Opéra. On the place Lulli, the Opéra Noir is a little black structure inspired by a music pavillion at the top of the Canebière, but weirdly twisted, as though redesigned by Salvador Dali or Tim Burton.

You can enter this architectural and sound installation up a small flight of steps, and listen to remixed and distorted sounds, all recorded within the Opéra de Marseille: they include ghostly whispers of stage machinery, singing, audience reactions and applause. The sound loop plays round the clock and the installation is lit up at night.

The Opera Noir in Marseille by nightThe Opéra Noir, pictured, is created by the installation artists Christophe Berdaguer and Marie Péjus. Read more about the Opéra Noir (in French).

If you enter the "real" Opéra de Marseille, you can't help noticing that, inside, it's showing its age. A full refurbishment would be costly and complex (this is a listed building) and is not planned for the immediate future. But, if and when it is undertaken, the result will be magnificent.

The Art Deco interior has been richly decorated by local artists and artisans. Details include marine-themed mosaics on the floor, with starfish and seaweed motifs, gilded masks on the stair-rails and Provence-themed paintings and two huge turquoise Sèvres pottery urns in the foyer.

Inside the auditorium, the acoustics and sightlines are superior - and none of the seating has restricted views. There are 1,800 seats, making the Opéra de Marseille one of the largest opera houses in France outside Paris. It employs over 300 permanent staff, including 88 musicians.

insidertipIt's possible to take a backstage tour of the Opéra de Marseille at certain times of year, notably during Tous à l'Opéra (a France-wide opera weekend in May) and the annual Journées du Patrimoine (Heritage Days, a weekend in mid-September).

THE MUSICAL PROGRAMME

The Opéra de Marseille hosts musical events throughout the year: opera, of course, plus concerts, conferences and dance events. It's also the home base of the Ballet National de Marseille.

With a lot of seats to fill, the programme has to include a certain number of familiar favourites and its current Director, Maurice Xiberras, laments that he can't be as adventurous as the Festival of Lyric Art just up the road in Aix en Provence.

Orphee aux Enfers in MarseilleThere, each July, cutting-edge productions are mounted for a - mainly middle-class - international audience, many of them demanding opera buffs.

Geared to a year-round local audience, the Opéra de Marseille is quite different, with a populist programme more akin to Provence's other big opera event, the Chorégies d'Orange.

Marseille's opera-goers, many of them of Italian or Spanish descent, have a preference for classic bel canto and are, on the whole, conservative in their tastes, according to Xiberras.

But they're also opinionated, enthusiastic and at times anarchic, which can sometimes make for a very lively atmosphere.

The Opéra is also attempting to bring in new audiences from Marseille's huge North African community and elsewhere with an outreach programme.

Very modest seat prices mean that a night at the opera is well within everyone's reach. And the productions at the Opéra de Marseille are generally of high quality, despite its budgetary restrictions.

The Los Angeles-born conductor Lawrence Foster was appointed Musical Director in 2012, sharply raising the orchestra's international profile. Pictured above: Orphée aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) from the 2013-2014 season.

The 2016-2017 season opens on 27 September with Ambroise Thomas' version of Hamlet. It continues with two works by Donizetti, Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda, while Strauss' Die Fledermaus is the Christmas holiday treat.

Also in the programme: Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, Delibes' Lakmé and Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, based on Romeo and Juliet: all part of a mini-tribute to Shakespeare to mark the writer's 400th anniversary. The season ends with Don Carlos by Verdi.

There's a programme of concert and symphonic performance and four leading conductors, including Peter Ruzicka and Krysztof Penderecki have been invited to conduct performances of their own compositions. Various ballet companies will also appear at the Opéra de Marseille, among them the city's own company, the Ballet National de Marseille.

Previous years at the Opéra de Marseille have also featured newly commissioned work: in 2007 Marseille attracted Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu for a new opera, Marius et Fanny, based on Marcel Pagnol's famous trilogy - and staged virtually within earshot of the Old Port, where the drama was set.

In 2014 the Opéra de Marseille commissioned and hosted the premiere of Colomba, a version of Prosper Mérimée's story of a Corsican vendetta, with music by Jean-Claude Petit and Marie-Ange Todorovitch in the title role.

The Opéra de Marseille has been recently been merged with L'Odéon, a venue at the top of the Canebière for operetta, comic opera and what the French call "boulevard theatre". It's planned to make it a training ground for young talent and develop operas for young people there, the first project being a childen's ballet based on Peter Pan for the 2015 season.

 

THE BALLET NATIONAL DE MARSEILLE

Also based (in part) at the Opéra de Marseille, the city's dance company has had a turbulent history It was founded in 1972 by Roland Petit, succeeded in 1998 by Marie-Claude Pietragalla, a controversial choice who was fired in 2004 after a series of disputes with the dancers.

Ballet de Marseille Sport FictionHer replacement was the Belgian choreographer Frédéric Flamand, who steered the company towards contemporary dance and to international critical renown.

His creations included acclaimed ballets about the Radiant City (Le Corbusier's pioneering housing development in Marseille) and the wreck of the Titanic. Pictured: Flamand's Sport Fiction (2013), a ballet exploring the links between sport, dance and images.

Flamand's contract ended in 2013 and the current co-Directors of the Ballet National de Marseille are the dancer Emio Greco and choreographer Pieter Scholten.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Where: The ticket office for the Opéra de Marseille is at 2 rue Molière, 13001 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 55 11 10 or (+33) 4 91 55 20 43. Website for the Opéra de Marseille. It's closed during August, as is the online ticket office!

The Ballet National de Marseille performs from time to time at the Opéra, but its main base is in a southern suburb of Marseille at 20 boulevard de Gabès, 13008 Marseille. Website for the Ballet National de Marseille.

How to buy tickets: If you're going to be in town for a few months, you can subscribe to the Opéra de Marseille for the entire season or buy individual tickets online.

450 low-priced tickets are available for the amphitheatre, including 50 seats which go on sale one hour before each performance at the box-office on the rue Molière. Students (with a student card) can buy unsold tickets for anywhere in the auditorium at a bargain rate ten minutes before the start of the show.

For a late-night drink or a meal after the show, there are several options just behind the Opéra de Marseille. O'Stop, at 16 rue Saint Saëns, is a 24/7 bar which also serves simple food round the clock.

French restaurants tend to keep rigid hours and close their kitchens around 9.30-10.00pm. However, if you like shellfish, Chez Toinou, at 3 cours Saint Louis, is a good self-service seafood restaurant that stays open until at least 11pm. Click here to read a full review.

Le Mas, at 4 rue Lulli (many streets round here have musical or literary themes), looks from the outside like an old-fashioned provençal family restaurant. Inside, it's a bohemian / show-business eatery, an institution that's been going for around 40 years.

Every square inch of the walls is lined with mirrors and signed photos of French sports, politics and films and television celebrities, most of them looking a bit the worse for wear. You might spot the odd opera singer or musician too.

The food is Italian and there's a decent wine list (you have to order food with your drink) but you go here for the atmosphere. It's open, we're told, until 6am or when the last customer leaves. Tel: (+33) 4 91 33 25 90

Note that this part of Marseille is something of a (low-key) red-light / night-club area, but it's generally safe until around 2am when the bars and discos start to close. After then, things can get rough.

 

 

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