Massy is the only suburb of Paris which has its own opera house.
Admittedly the opera house does not look very prestigious from the outside. In fact, I would call it a prime example of late twentieth-century jerry-built architecture, which is sad because I’m sure the founder and his supporters put in countless hours of effort and persistent campaigning in the 1990s to get it built at all.
Inside it is welcoming and comfortable, in any case. And they do perform full-scale operas there, as well as operettas, musicals, concerts and recitals.
Despite its unprepossessing outward appearance, the Opéra de Massy is an important and popular institution not only for Massy itself, but for all the surrounding towns south of Paris.
The slogan L’Opéra autrement means “The opera in a different way”. This refers not to the staging, which is quite conventional, but to their outreach activities designed to attract people who do not have much acquaintance with opera and perhaps have never been to an opera before. Sometimes they offer free admission to their dress rehearsals for local residents, and sometimes for pupils at secondary schools in the region.
The man behind the counter here in the entrance hall is the founder and director of the Opéra de Massy, Jack-Henri Soumère.
This is their season brochure for 2015/2016, announcing staged productions of Otello by Giuseppe Verdi, La Chauve-Souris (= Die Fledermaus) by Johann Strauss, Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti, L’Italiana in Algeri by Gioacchino Rossini and La Petite Renarde Rusée (= The Cunning Little Vixen) by Leos Janacek.
For the 2018/2019 season, their schedule includes Samson and Dalila by Camille Saint-Saëns, The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, Amadigi by Händel, Orphée et Eurydice by Gluck, Madame Butterfly by Puccini and Rigoletto by Verdi.
The first time I went to Massy was to attend an introductory lecture on the opera The Magic Flute (La Flûte Enchantée in French, Die Zauberflöte in the original German) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).
This is an opera I have seen many times during the past quarter century, so I was not in any dire need of an introduction, but since I teach opera appreciation courses myself I wanted to hear how they would present it to an audience that presumably knew little or nothing about it.
Admission to the lecture was free, but it was necessary to reserve a place in advance by telephone, starting fifteen days before the date of the lecture. So on that day, when my reminder popped up on Outlook, I rang up from Germany and reserved a place. The lady on the phone gave me a reservation number, 146, which she said I would need at the entrance to the “Auditorium” in the basement of the opera house. I found this number surprising, since I had read that the Auditorium only had 130 seats, but she assured me that the number was correct. Apparently they didn’t start counting from 1, or they assigned numbers at random.
She also wanted to know my e-mail address, which was a slight problem since I had forgotten how to say “hyphen” in French, and my e-mail address contained one. But somehow we got that sorted out, and after hanging up the phone I realized I should have said tiret or perhaps tiret-court or trait d’union. (The Germans insist on saying “minus” for a hyphen in an e-mail address, but I don’t think I have ever heard that in French.)
Also I had forgotten the French word arobase for the “@” symbol, but she understood à just as well.
When I arrived at the Auditorium they did indeed ask for my reservation number at the entrance.
When all 130 seats were occupied, mainly by people of my generation, the speaker introduced himself as Ricardo Nillni, a composer and musicologist. His talk was clear and well-structured, and included musical examples on video from a surprising source that I had never even heard of, namely a film of The Magic Flute from the year 1975 by the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), sung in Swedish with French subtitles.
To me it sounded funny, in a cute sort of way, to hear this familiar music sung in Swedish instead of German. But I found the film quite beautiful and I think it was a good way to introduce the opera to people who were probably unfamiliar with the plot and the music.
The entire talk, including the film excerpts, was recorded and is still available on vimeopro.com. A short excerpt from Bergman’s film can also be seen, in better quality, on YouTube (in Swedish with Russian subtitles).
Here, on the lower level, is the entrance to the Auditorium and to two smaller halls named after the composers Bizet and Offenbach.
A few days after the introductory talk I went back to Massy and saw a staged performance of The Magic Flute, sung by an international cast in the original German, with French surtitles.
This was the second performance of The Magic Flute that I have seen in France. The first was an open-air performance in Paris ten years earlier, in the year 2006, which I have described near the end of my post Ten days, eight operas, seven venues.
The singers in both Paris and Massy had no trouble singing in German, since most professional singers can sing in any language if they are well enough prepared. But The Magic Flute also includes some spoken dialogues. In Paris there were no German speakers in the cast, and the spoken dialogues sounded to me like “a class play after an intermediate German class”. As I wrote at the time, “I would have given the tenor a B- and flunked everybody else.”
In Massy the cast included one native speaker of German, the Austrian baritone Thomas Weinhappel, who played the role of Papageno. Both his singing and his spoken dialogues were excellent — even when he switched to French for a couple of words in a particularly funny scene. Also he was by far the best actor in the cast, and quite rightly got the most applause at the end.
The other singers, from several different countries, were also fine as long as they could sing and didn’t have to talk. Sonia Bellugi did fine as a very young-looking Queen of the Night, hitting all the high notes with no apparent effort. As sometimes happens in opera casting, she looked much younger than her daughter Pamina, played by Francesca Bruni.
The staging in Massy was conventional but effective. It was done by a company called Opera 2001, which “organizes and produces lyrical performances in Spain and France and plans to expand soon to other countries like Japan.” The company says its mission “is to keep alive the most famous plays in the operatic repertoire, so that younger generations can learn to love them live on stage in theaters.”
The large hall of the Opera Massy has 799 comfortable red plush seats, all of which were occupied the night I was there. The audience was responsive and enthusiastic, and honored the cast with prolonged rhythmic clapping at the end of the evening.
After four performances in Massy, this production of The Magic Flute was also shown once in the Théâtre Montansier in Versailles, once in the Théâtre du Vésinet and once in the Théâtre Alexandre Dumas in Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
My photos in this post are from 2016. I revised the text in 2018.
See more posts on Operas in France (outside of Paris).