The show is mesmerizing. Once a year, the backdoors of the Palais Garnier stage are opened onto the Foyer de la Danse, a large golden room, framed by columns and presided over by a magnificent chandelier that personifies the spirit of this theater, inaugurated January 5, 1875. The Foyer was then the setting for discreet rendezvous between opera patrons and dancers. It is still used as a daily rehearsal and warm-up room. Intimate and secretive, the space, though sumptuous, is concealed from the public eye. Except for one evening per year: the annual Dance Gala, an exclusive fundraising soirée presented by the Paris Opera and AROP (Association pour le Rayonnement de l’Opéra de Paris).
Now, for the first time ever, the organizers of this year’s gala are opening the doors to the Foyer de la Danse to all. The program is available online at http://www.chezsoi.operadeparis.fr/
Those in attendance for this festive night will witness the marching in of the entire Corps du Ballet, from the youngest students—les petits rats—to the principals—les danseurs étoiles. The long and joyful musical procession—and pride of the institution—was created more than 350 years ago by its most famous dancer, even though perhaps not the best, but, in his time, surely the most powerful, the Sun King Louis XIV.
Within a few years, the Paris Opera’s dance gala has become the capital’s premier, must-attend social event.
As the ballet troupe advances fearlessly across the slightly inclined Garnier stage, it emerges from its distant room through an array of mirrors. The illusion is perfect. One after the other, the dancers move closer to the spectators. A wonderful, almost modest, choreography, the dream comes to life to the music of Berlioz’ March from Les Troyens. Whether children, students or already professionals performing La Bayadère and Swan Lake, every dancer shares the same passion, the same breath, the same ambition: to perform on stage and greet their audience.
Within a few years, the Paris Opera’s dance gala has become the capital’s premier, must-attend social event. The audience, from all over the world, arrives at the steps of the Palais Garnier in tuxedos, flamboyant costumes, and long gowns. Fully part of the gala’s cast for the evening, they pause for a moment on the red carpet. The photographers are on the lookout for the perfect shot of an actor, an actress, a celebrity or a generous donor, the likes of Marion Cotillard, Keira Knightley or The Lion King composer, Hans Zimmer.
Usually held every September to kick off the ballet season, the sixth edition of the gala was postponed this year until January 27th. Once more, the doors of the Foyer de la Danse swung open. Mask, the dancers paraded in one by one to greet the immense, eerily empty and silent hall. In their wake, it was the turn of the Principals Hugo Marchant and Valérie Colasante to take the stage, dressed by Chanel, for a Grand Pas Classique by Victor Gsvosky, followed by other dancers performing the choreographies of William Forsythe (The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, to a score by Schubert) and Jérôme Robbins (In the Night, accompanied by the music of Chopin).
Like most of the world’s theaters, the public is still absent at the Paris Opera. Garnier’s 1,979 red velvet seats sat empty. The dancers perform to no applause. Only the cameras silently follow their every move.
But, the audience is there, online, watching on screens. Since the gala’s digital debut on the Paris Opera’s new broadcasting platform, L’Opéra Chez Soi, it has attracted more than 250,000 Internet users, more than 126 times the capacity of the Palais Garnier.
The Paris Opera’s newest venue is online, at home.
In so many ways, this 6th edition of the Gala d’Ouverture was a first. Even its usual name, the Opening Gala in English, seems an emergence from our world of closed borders and culture. The evening as recorded on stage was first exclusively available online to donors who had purchased their tickets, then freely accessible via the Internet—and still available.
“If the Opera can be in your home tonight, it is thanks to the commitment of our patrons,” explained the Paris Opera General manager, Alexander Neef, in a short speech before the curtain went up. “This show is a testimony of our recognition and a pledge of our determination.”
For the dancers of the Paris Opera, the evening marked a return to the stage of the Palais Garnier that was essential, explained Dance Director and former Étoile, Aurélie Dupont. “It was important to be able to present this gala, prepared with passion and to offer it to everyone.”
The Paris Opera may be closed temporarily to the public, but it is still bursting with new performances and creations like the gala able to satisfy a whole new audience.
The Paris Opera’s newest venue is online, at home.
The public has awaited this digital broadcasting space for a long time. Since the onset of the pandemic, culture has not been considered an ‘essential good,’ and social distancing has put performances on hold. To mitigate the impact of home confinement last spring, the Paris Opera offered a free series of more than 20 operas and ballets accessible worldwide online. A staggering 2.5 million people became an unexpected, invisible and ‘essential’ audience for the French institution.
And, the Paris Opera is not only offering recordings of past events on the Internet. Live performances are also being presented. Such was the case in January with Mozart’s The Magic Flute, directed by Robert Carsen. Why indeed abandon to Covid-19 the creation of shows, the talent of artists, musicians, ballerinas, and technicians?
So, if the public remains banned for now from the opera hall, the performances are not. While the artists may miss the live applause, they still can sing and dance for the cameras. The operas and ballets of Paris continue to roll on, with open arms, enjoyed and appreciated by a new worldwide audience.
The catalogue of L’Opéra Chez Soi offers a wide array of programs, unmatched by any opera house. Carmen, La Bayadère, Il Trovatore, Rigoletto, Mahler’s Third Symphony, Lady Macbeth, Don Giovanni, Swan Lake, Don Pasquale, Samson et Dalila, Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Falstaff are among the titles currently available. Some are free, such as the Opening Gala, while others can be rented. In addition to the operas and ballets, there are symphonies and short films, backstage videos, educational documentaries, and features. L’Opéra Chez Soi is available worldwide at present, except in China.
“The launch of this new platform complements the Opera’s initiatives in audiovisual broadcasting, notably on television and in cinemas, which have been developed in recent years, thanks to the patronage of the Orange Foundation,” explains Albane de Chatellus, head of protocol at the Paris Opera. A collateral consequence of the shared struggle to defeat the pandemic, the emergence of these new forms of cultural creation, distribution and access to music and dance has accelerated the emergence of this new audience.
Just before the end of year holidays, the Paris Opera had to cancel all but one performance of La Bayadère, which was broadcast on L’Opéra Chez Soi from an Opéra Bastille closed to the public. At the end of the show, Neef and Dupont joined the artists and the conductor on stage where they were greeted by the cameras and empty rows in heavy silence. It was at that moment that Neef announced the promotion of dancer Paul Marque to Danseur Étoile. A historic consecration, live, in front of a distant, yet very present, ‘connected’ audience.