Bizet’s Carmen in Marseille

The sun never shines on the façade of the Municipal Opera House in Marseille because the building faces north (or more precisely north-northwest). So whatever time of day you take a picture, it will always be in the shade.

This was not seen as a problem in 1786, when the façade was first built, because photography at the time had not been invented or even thought of.

Actually they built an entire theater in 1786, the Grand Théâtre de Marseille, which served its purpose for over 133 years before being destroyed by fire in 1919.  The fire spared only the front columns, the outer walls and the frieze surrounding the stage, so these were preserved and incorporated into the new opera house which was built starting in 1920. The architect at that time, Gaston Castel (1886-1971), preserved the eighteenth century colonnade but added elements of the Art Deco style that was popular in his day, so now the building is an unusual (not to say bizarre) mixture of the two styles.

Rear and side views of the opera house, with sunlight

Of course it is entirely possible to take sunshiny photos of the rear and side walls of the opera house, but these are even less impressive than the front façade. 

Stage entrance on Rue Corneille

What interested me particularly about the stage entrance on Rue Corneille was that it had a typical feature of Marseille, namely loose electrical cables dangling around at odd angles. I also noticed this later at the ice cream shop on Place de Lenche and at several other places that I neglected to take pictures of. (Perhaps this is perfectly normal and I’ve just been living in Germany too long, where cables are usually out of sight or at least routed inconspicuously through some sort of cable shafts.)

Bronze Art Deco medallions at the front of the opera house

The steps in front of the opera house are normally closed off by a fence decorated with bronze medallions in the Art Deco style that was popular in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

These medallions, which are attributed to the architect Gaston Castel, are said to show allegorical designs on the topics of dance and music. I suppose the young man in the lower left-hand picture is Orpheus with his lyre, but I don’t know who the lovely ladies in the other three designs might be. (Perhaps someone can help me out here?)

Foyer of the Municipal Opera in Marseille

The ceiling of the opera foyer was painted by an artist named Augustin Carrera (1878-1952). The center panel of the ceiling shows Orpheus charming the world with the irresistible music of his lyre. The other two compositions represent Orpheus losing his lovely bride Eurydice, and Orpheus being torn apart by Maenads.

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice was the topic of what was probably the world’s first full-scale opera, L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643).

Actually Augustin Carrera painted two ceilings in the Marseille Opera House. The one in the foyer is still visible, but the one in the main auditorium no longer exists because it collapsed during the night of February 16-17, 1969, after a performance of the opera Otello by Giuseppe Verdi.

Seating in the Municipal Opera in Marseille

Currently the opera house in Marseille seats 1,800 people. It has three rings of boxes, two balconies and a gallery.

Although Marseille is now the second largest city in France, its opera schedule is extremely limited. For example, the opera season 2012/2013 in Marseille consisted of only eight productions, each of which was performed four or five times, so there were fewer than forty staged opera performances per year.

In the same season, the Lyon Opera put on 71 performances of eleven different operas, and the Frankfurt Opera did 194 performances of twenty-eight different operas. So Frankfurt has five times as many performances as Marseille, of three and a half times as many different operas. (These figures are for staged opera performances only, not including concerts.) 

People entering the Marseille opera house for a Sunday afternoon performance


Carmen by Georges Bizet

The novella Carmen by Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870)

When I was in southern France in October of 2012, it happened that the opera houses in Marseille and Toulon were both playing the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet (1838-1875). So I saw this opera twice within three days (on a Sunday afternoon in Marseille and the following Tuesday evening in Toulon), which was fine because they were two different productions and Carmen is deservedly one of the world’s most popular operas.

The one I saw in Marseille was a production that originated at the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse. The stage director was Nicolas Joël, who for several years was the head of the National Opera of Paris, the organization that runs both the Opéra Bastille and the Opéra Garnier.

I have also seen Carmen in Bad Hersfeld, Bad Orb, Bremen, Coburg, Düsseldorf, Weikersheim and of course in Frankfurt am Main in the brilliant staging by Barrie Kosky.

People in the foyer of the Marseille Opera during the intermission aka interval

When I was a child, my introduction to Carmen was a snippet that I learned on the school playground:

Don’t spit on the floor
Use the cuspidor
That’s what it’s for

Program book for Carmen in Marseille

We grade school twerps found this hilarious, even though we had never heard the opera Carmen and had never seen a cuspidor. (Cuspidors aka spittoons had fortunately gone out of fashion before we were even born. They have long since disappeared from most places, but can still be seen in the Senate Chamber of the United States Senate, and in the U.S. Supreme Court.)

Later in my childhood I acquired a phonograph record entitled “Carmen Murdered – Spike Jones Suspected”, which as the name implies was a parody by Spike Jones and his City Slickers. I no longer have the record, but I’ve just been listening to it on YouTube.

When I finally heard Bizet’s opera many years later, I was surprised to learn that Carmen worked in a cigarette factory, not a bubble gum factory. And that she was not at all ticklish.

Applause after Carmen in Marseille

In the cast in Marseille there was one singer I had often heard in the 1990s. That was the tenor Luca Lombardo, a native of Marseille who often used to sing in Frankfurt am Main. In Carmen he sang and played the role of Don José, Carmen’s unhappy lover who stabs her in the last scene.

Applauding the cast and chorus

Here the orchestra conductor Nader Abbassi is applauding the cast and chorus of Carmen at the Marseille Opera. Nadar Abbassi at that time was the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Cairo Opera Orchestra and the artistic director of the “Orchestre pour la Paix” (Orchestra for Peace) in Paris. In addition, he had just been appointed Artistic and Musical Director of the Katara Culture Foundation in Doha, Qatar.

More applause after the performance of Carmen in Marseille

Location, aerial view and photo of the Marseille opera house on

My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2017.

See more posts on Marseille, France.
See more posts on Carmen and the composer Georges Bizet.

4 thoughts on “Bizet’s Carmen in Marseille”

  1. Carmen – one of my favorite operas! (mostly because of the juicy arias that are fit for alto/mezzos, so I can sing them… since I’m definitely not a coloratura soprano) I still have yet to see it live. My two opera wishes are 1) to see Elina Garanca as Carmen and 2) see/hear Diana Damrau sing pretty much anything.

    1. I hope your two wishes will come true. Elina Garanca and Diana Damrau are both former members of the Frankfurt opera ensemble. I knew them both at the time, and Diana Damrau even came as a guest one evening to one of my opera appreciation courses. Two more suggestions: try to see Gaelle Arquez as Carmen and Brenda Rae in just about any role.

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