Three hundred and fifty years ago, Louis XIV, the Sun King, established opera academies—patterned after those established in Italy and already copied in Germany and Charles II’s England—in France. “We hope that not only these things will contribute to our Entertainment and that of the Public,” wrote the king in his edict, “but also that our Subjects, developing a taste for Music, will naturally come to perfect their skills in one of the most noble of the Liberal arts.” Three years later, the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully became the opera’s first “Superintendent and Composer of music for our Bedchamber,” as Louis expressed it, for the newly established Royal Academy of Music.
Through the centuries, a series of buildings—including the Jeu de Paume and the Salle Favart—showcased the country’s ever-changing musical tastes and repertoires, and today the opera finds two homes: the Palais Garnier (finally unveiled in Paris to a bedazzled Third Republic audience in 1875, it symbolized a city reborn after the devastation of the Franco-Prussian War) and the state-of-the-art, postmodern Opéra Bastille (inaugurated in 1989).
And so it was that on the morrow of the “Camp” gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I took the red-eye to Paris to celebrate another storied institution that sets the senses aflame. Architect Charles Garnier declared that his magnificent building “must be harmonious, the architectural equivalent of opera in the performing arts,” and his sumptuous creation showcased the work of the greatest salon artists and sculptors of the day.
The grand staircase—always a sight to take the breath away—was shadowed on either side for the gala by a fairy-tale woodland, its marble banister garlanded with blue Agapanthus and pink Nerine, the magical creation of event designers Cédric Guigues and Eric Chauvin. I was delighted to discover that the flowers were a perfect match to the tinsel and chenille Lesage embroidery on the lapels of my custom Schiaparelli suit of eggplant velvet that Bertrand Guyon had adapted for me from an archive document which the famed embroidery house had once presented to Schiap herself. (The House of Schiaparelli and Rolex were the evening’s principal sponsors).
The eclectic audience included best-dressed actress beauties Golshifteh Farahani, Amira Casar, Aymeline Valade, Meg Ryan, Clotilde Courau, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as well as the fashion world’s Sarah Andelman (guru of Colette), Michel Gaubert and Ryan Aguilar, Gaia Repossi, and Kiddy Smile (Pierre Hache)—who was part of the fun group who walked the Portela Samba School parade with me in Rio earlier this year—dressed in a stately white satin caftan depicting Elsa Schiaparelli’s giant face on the front.
The stage was set with a backdrop image of the opera house’s famed trompe l’oeil curtain and fringed with flowers, and the glorious orchestra of the national opera, led by the gifted (and absurdly handsome) young conductor, maestro Lorenzo Viotti (whose father was the celebrated Marcello Viotti), led soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Yusif Eyvazov in their grandstanding performances.
The Paris Opera Ballet’s director Aurélie Dupont’s innovative ballet galas are a highlight of that city’s fall season. Stéphane Lissner is the opera’s director general, and—in contrast to Dupont’s fireworks—the surprisingly traditional programming and format of the opera gala largely highlight the bel canto repertoire of the 19th and early 20th century. This material was beautifully showcased by both Eyvazov’s rich tenor and Netrebko’s sumptuous voice and histrionic skills (seen to staggering effect playing the blind heroine in Tchaikovsky’s moving “Tvajo malchan’je nepan’atna” from his Iolanta). But although I can happily listen and weep to Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca or “Nessun dorma” from Turandot until the house lights come on (and I was delighted to discover Gustave Charpentier’s Louise and, indeed, Iolanta), we were after all celebrating the opera’s three-and-a-half centuries of existence, and I was a tad surprised to discover that there was no music from the 17th or 18th centuries—and nothing post-1926—in the program.
Netrebko looked every inch the diva that she is, dressed by Schiaparelli for the first act in a cape of dark tulle embroidered with a silvery constellation and shadowing a gown of midnight watered silk, and for the second in a Watteau-backed dress of gilded peach brocade. She certainly stirred me out of my jet lag.
Dinner was served in the Grand Foyer of the opera house, always a dazzling sight but absolutely astonishing this evening with pretty tables set with miniature woodlands of shocking pink and mauve flowers. Superstar chef éric Fréchon (of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Epicure at Le Bristol) had concocted an appropriately grand menu, and I was fortunate in my placement at a table set before the grand gallery’s epic chimneypiece so that I had the room’s entire gilded immensity stretching before me—and was delighted to sit with guests including Haider Ackermann; Vanessa Seward and her husband, Bertrand Burgalat; and the always exquisite Setsuko Klossowska de Rola (widow of Balthus).
After dinner, guests—for the first time in the opera house’s history—could walk through the unassuming stage doors that flank the auditorium on either side of the stage. These open onto surprisingly narrow backstage corridors that bring you, as I discovered to my amazement, right onto the stage. Here, blinking in the semi-darkness, I realized (with heart in mouth) that I was facing the theater’s magnificent tiered arc of crimson and gold chairs, lit by Chagall’s sunny 1964 ceiling. A starring role at last!
On the very broad, steeply raked stage (which made me appreciate the Paris Opera Ballet dancer’s exertions still more), Pierre Hache, aka Kiddy Smile—now attired in Schiap’s shocking-pink poet’s blouse and wide-legged pants—stood at his turntables framed by a room washed in pink light and spun one danceable number after another through the night. The stage was soon heaving with merrymakers inspired by a troupe of Hache’s ballroom community performers in leopard unitards and pink wigs strutting their inspirational moves to the beats. The independent filmmaker Gaspar Noé, who cast the DJ in his movie Climax, told The New York Times that when Hache is “playing his music with all these people around him, it’s like fire. You feel like you’re in a volcano of joy.” The opera house can never have seen anything quite like it.