Lyon’s unmistakable opera house

One thing I’ll say for the Lyon opera house: you can’t mistake it for any other building in Lyon, or for any other opera house in the world that I know of.

Opéra de Lyon

Or do you know of any other building that has a nineteenth century façade topped by a huge black vault shaped like a half barrel?

The nineteenth century façade is left over from an older opera house that was used for over a hundred and fifty years before being radically redesigned by the French architect Jean Nouvel (born 1945).

So the building is an unusual combination of old (1831) and new (1993) components, which means you can’t confuse it with any other building in Lyon or probably the world. Although the interior color scheme is rather off-putting (black, black and black), I immediately felt right at home when I went in, as do the people of Lyon and vicinity, who have voted the Opera the most popular cultural institution in the city. 

The Lyon Opera House, as re-designed by Jean Nouvel

When Jean Nouvel redesigned the Lyon opera house, he retained the old nineteenth century façade on all four sides of the building, plus the upstairs foyer at the front side. But everything else is new.

Since the ground area was restricted by the size of the original building, he made more space by digging deeper and making five levels underground, and by adding six levels at the top of the building under the new black vault. So there are now eighteen levels altogether, providing three times as much usable space as was available in the old building.

The Lyon opera house at dusk

Here in this twilight photo you can see into the nineteenth century foyer, through the seven big windows of the old façade. The statues of the eight muses are lit up from behind by red or pink lights. (The ninth muse was left off because she would have disrupted the symmetry of the building.)

In the opera house lobby

This ornate lobby is left over from the original building from the year 1831. While this is an attractive lobby, it is also quite small. The opera house seats over 1,100 people, but only a small fraction of these can be in the foyer at any one time. For this reason, a lot of people remain in the large auditorium during intermission, which is not the case in most other opera houses.

People in the lobby at intermission

I’m told that the backstage and side-stage areas are also very small in comparison with other modern opera houses, because of size constraints imposed by the walls of the original building.

Metal stairs in the opera house

The stairs in the opera house are not directly connected to the auditorium where we spectators sit, because the auditorium is not attached to the main building but is (amazingly) suspended from above.

Red padded sound locks

In front of each door to the auditorium there is a red padded room that reminded me of an air lock in a space ship but is probably more like a noise lock. I’m not sure exactly how it works, but somehow these noise locks allow us to go to our seats even though there is no firm connection between the large hall and the rest of the building, which seems to improve the acoustics and the soundproofing.

I know of two other (newer) opera houses which also have the spectators’ hall suspended from above rather than attached to the rest of the building. These are the new opera house in Erfurt, Germany, which was completed in 2003, and the Operaen in Copenhagen, which opened in 2004. (See my post Wagner at Operaen.) In Copenhagen the auditorium is sometimes referred to as “the Conch” because of its shape. It appears to be floating in the foyer, to which it is connected by bridges.

Seating in the Lyon opera house

Inside the auditorium of the Lyon Opera House the color scheme is very simple: black, black and black. The walls are black, the seats are black, the balconies are black, everything is black.

Well, almost everything. The little blobs of red that you can see at each level are the air locks or noise locks that I have just mentioned. When the (black) doors are closed, these blobs of red will no longer be visible. But there are still some little green lights to mark the exit doors.

If you look at the people in the photo just above, you can see that they are quite casually dressed. I’m a bit older, so I was wearing a tie, but I was part of a small minority. I didn’t see anyone under fifty wearing a tie, and not many over fifty.

On its website, the Lyon Opera has this to say about the dress code: “Jeans or long dress, jacket or T-shirt, sneakers or fancy shoes. There are no rules, what matters is to be comfortable and have fun. It’s your evening, after all!” 

Looking up at the black balconies

The only other opera house I know that has black interior walls is the Musiktheater im Revier (MiR) in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. But the Gelsenkirchen opera at least has off-white balconies and floors, whereas in the Lyon Opera nearly everything is black. (Gelsenkirchen is a former coal-mining town, by the way, so they have a plausible reason for painting things black; see my post Operas and cycling in . . . Gelsenkirchen?)

Program book from the Lyon Opera

The opera I saw in Lyon was Luisa Miller, the fifteenth opera by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). This is one of four Verdi operas that are based on plays by the German dramatist, poet and historian Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), the others being Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc), I masnadieri (The Robbers) and one of the world’s greatest operas, Don Carlos.

In Luisa Miller, the title figure is a virtuous middle-class girl (the daughter of a musician, as it happens) who is driven to suicide by the lust and machinations of the ruling aristocrats. The original German title of Schiller’s play was Kabale und Liebe, meaning “Intrigue and Love”.

I have also seen Verdi’s Luisa Miller several times in Frankfurt am Main, in a staging by Christoph Marthaler that premiered in 1996.

Queuing for a free lunch concert

One day I went into the Lyon opera house at around noon to pick up a ticket I had ordered on the internet, and there was a long line of people waiting for something. I asked and was told there was a free piano recital downstairs in the amphitheatre.

So I got in line too, and went down with about two hundred other people to hear a Korean pianist named Mi Yong Lee of the “CNSMD de Lyon”, playing classical piano works by Johannes Brahms, Claude Debussy, Franz Liszt and Jean Françaix. “CNSMD” stands for Conservatoire National Supérieur Musique et Danse.

Mi Yong Lee is indeed an impressive pianist who has won first prizes at various competitions. Her noontime recital in the amphitheatre was part of an ongoing series of 45-minute concerts called Amphimidi, a combination of the words for amphitheatre and noon.

In addition to classical music, this noontime series of free concerts includes jazz, gospel, rap and French chansons.

The amphitheatre is a round black room in the first basement level. Seating is on five semi-circular rows of padded black benches with black benches, with each row being higher than the one before so everyone has a good view. The walls are black, the doors are black, the ceiling is black, the floor is made of black marble and of course the piano was also black. No photos are allowed in the amphitheatre, but they wouldn’t have come out anyway because of all that blackness.

Les Muses de l’Opéra

On the seventh floor of the Opera House there is a restaurant called “Les Muses de l’Opéra” (The Muses of the Opera), with both indoor and outdoor tables.

The restaurant is open for lunch Monday-Saturday from 12:00-14:00 and in the evenings from 20:00-22:00, also after the opera performances by reservation only. There is a special elevator from street level to the restaurant, so it is also accessible when the rest of the opera house is closed.

The outdoor tables are on a terrace behind eight statues of the muses. As I have mentioned, there are only eight muses, because a ninth statue would have spoiled the symmetry of the building. So you won’t find a statue of Urania, the muse of astronomy, but her eight sisters are all there: Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore and Thalia, not necessarily in that order.

Sorry to be a bit vague about the gastronomical details, but I have forgotten what I ate at Les Muses. I went for lunch and had their “Plat du jour” for fifteen Euros, plus a drink, dessert and coffee. I’m sure the food was satisfactory (though not very memorable, obviously), but I’m afraid I have to agree with most of the reviewers on the local websites that the service was slow and inattentive.

That didn’t really bother me, however, since I was up there for the view, more than for the food or the service.

View of the Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière from Les Muses

View of City Hall from Les Muses

Les Muses poster at the opera house, by the elevator


Looking up at the eight muses from street level

Front arcade of the Lyon opera house

The arcade at the front of the opera house combines the old (arches, lamps and the painting on the ceiling) with the new (glass and metal inner walls and a black marble floor. I took this photo in April when nothing was going on, but in the summers this arcade is turned into a café with jazz concerts six evenings a week (Monday to Saturday), featuring la crème des jazzmen de la région Rhône-Alpes.”

At other times of year the arcades are often used by break-dancers aka b-boys (and a few groups of b-girls) from the “problem-area” suburbs, who find the smooth marble floors ideal for practicing their dance/sport. The opera encourages this. In the summers, when the front arcade is used as a café, the more active break dancers are allowed to practice downstairs in the amphitheatre, which has the same sort of marble floor. Choreographers from the opera have even helped them prepare for the national and world championships (which they won in Seoul, I believe, in 2007), and later helped them work out a break-dance choreography which they presented on the opera stage in October 2009.

With this kind of outreach activities, it’s no wonder the Lyon Opera has an unusually young audience, with 25 percent of the audience being under 26 years old — a record most opera houses can only dream of.

Side view of the Lyon opera house

Update 2017: Each year the German opera magazine Opernwelt commissions fifty well-known opera critics, mainly from German, Austrian and Swiss publications, to decide on a number of accolades, the most prestigious being “Opera House of the Year”. This year, for the first time ever, they chose a French opera house for this honor, explaining that “Serge Dorny has been running the Opéra de Lyon for 14 years, and has changed it from a stodgy subscription temple to a popular laboratory of the performing arts.”

My photos in this post are from 2011. I revised the text in 2017.

Historic photos of the Lyon opera house on Carthalia.

For two more buildings designed by Jean Nouvel, please have a look at my post on the new concert house Koncerthuset in Copenhagen, Denmark, and the one on the new Philharmonie de Paris

7 thoughts on “Lyon’s unmistakable opera house”

  1. Wow, thanks for the insights! I’ve been to Lyon several times in the past few years and have passed the Opera more than once, but I never took the time to visit it, let alone attend a show! I had no idea the interior decoration was so “special”, to say the least.

    1. Cécile, thanks for your visit and nice comment. Do see a show at the Lyon opera if you get the chance. It’s one of my favorite French opera houses, along with Lille, Nancy, Toulon and four or five of them in Paris.

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