On my last evening in Paris in June 2006 I was walking to the Opéra Bastille, feeling somewhat sorry for myself because I had already turned in my bicycle to the rental place, and would have to leave Paris the next morning.
I was walking through the Place des Vosges, which is close to where I used to live in Rue des Rosiers, when I heard a soprano voice singing an opera aria. Then that one stopped and another one started. I followed the sound and came upon two young ladies standing under the arches at the entrance to the Rue de Birague (great acoustics!), taking turns singing arias from a dozen different operas, interspersed with an occasional duet like the one between Susanne and the Countess from the third act of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.
From their voices and technique, I thought at once that they must be trained singers, which indeed they are. Their names are Florence Gelas (on the left) and Olivera Topalovic (on the right). Both, at that time, were recent conservatory graduates who had already sung their first opera roles and were trying to get started in professional singing careers. (Their boyfriends were both with them, standing unobtrusively off to one side.)
After they were finished singing I had a chat with them, and when I got home I mentioned this encounter on the now-defunct website VirtualTourist (VT). From the reactions I learned that at least seven other VT members (three of whom I am still in touch with) had heard music of various sorts performed live under the arches of the Place des Vosges when they were in Paris:
- VT member stevewall from Chicago said he had seen a “Django Reinhardt style gypsy group” performing there.
- tini58de from Karlsruhe wrote: “if you are lucky you will be able to listen to a fantastic Mozart concert given by a group of young people — that was my very personal highlight!”
- ptitetoile also heard “musicians playing classical music…the acoustic is wonderful!!!!”
- jakiline wrote: “Go to Place des Vosges, walk around the arcades, and there you may enjoy a free lovely concert: might be classical music, or jazz, or chanson française…The acoustic under these passageways is really good.”
- Beausoleil, a retired American musician who often stayed at a small hotel on Rue de Birague, wrote enthusiastically about “classical music played under the arcades!”
- tiabunna, from Australia, “came across a group of young musicians playing one of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos to an appreciative audience — and doing an excellent job of it.”
- sachara wrote in a comment: “And yes, I heard classical music under the arches of Place des Vosges as well.”
A year later, in June 2007, I went back to the same corner of the Place des Vosges and found it completely transformed, with a new café and restaurant under the arches where Florence Gelas and Olivera Topalovic had sung the year before.
Since then, Florence has sung at the Anger-Nantes Opéra and the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse, and for several years now she has been a chorus member at the Opéra National de Paris, the opera company that performs at the Opéra Bastille and the Opéra Garnier — when it is not shut down by strikes, as in 2019, or by the coronavirus pandemic, as in 2020. Florence can be heard on YouTube, singing for instance O mio babbino caro from the opera Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini.
In 2015, I unexpectedly saw Olivera Topalovic on the stage of the Théâtre du Châtelet, where she was a chorus member in a marvelous performance of Jacques Offenbach’s operetta La Belle Hélène. She has also sung solo roles at the opera houses in Bordeaux, Toulon and Saint-Étienne, and can be heard on YouTube, singing for example an aria from La Fille du Regiment by Gaetano Donizetti.
As of 2020, Olivera is teaching voice at the conservatory in Saint-Denis — not the Saint-Denis near Paris, as I initially assumed, but the other Saint-Denis, which is the capital of the French ‘overseas department’ of Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean some 700 km east of Madagascar and 200 km west of Mauritius.
Location and aerial view of Place des Vosges on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2006 and 2007. I revised the text in 2020.
See also: Louis XIII at the Place des Vosges.