The Gaîté Lyrique Swaps The 19th For The 21st Century

Vingt Paris Magazine, 16/02/2011

The Théâtre de la Gaîté Lyrique first opened in it’s current location on the rue Papin in 1862. That incarnation was itself a reconstruction of the original Théâtre de la Gaîté, which had opened on the boulevard du Temple in 1808, but was destroyed in the construction of the boulevard Voltaire. That itself had been what would nowadays be termed a “rebranding” of the first theatre to be erected on that spot, the Théâtre des Grands-Danseurs du Roi, which first opened in 1792. Which, we can all agree, is a very long time ago.

Over the years the Gaîté played host to numerous premieres, from the first operettas of cellist Jacques Offenbach to the ballets russes of Serge Diaghilev, as well as productions by Willy Thunis, Patrice Chéreau and concerts by the tenor Luis Mariano. In 1974 the actress Silvia Monfort turned the Gaîté into Paris’ first centre for street theatre. In 1989 it briefly became an ill-fated, science-themed amusement park, following which, bankrupt and in near-fatal disrepair, it lay dormant for 20 years.

In many other cities that would have proved the end of the story, but as it’s sometimes too easy to forget, this is not just any other city. In 2010 mayor Bertrand Delanoë, perhaps influenced by rue Papin’s proximity to VINGT HQ (i.e. the cultural centre of the known universe) declared the renovation of the crumbling Gaîté one of his 3 “great projects”, alongside the CentQuatre and the Maison des Métallos. Manuelle Gautrand, the architect he charged with orchestrating the project, spoke of “the suffering of a building” that she had come to think of “as a living being”.

Thus in March the new Gaîté Lyrique will reopen its doors to the public once again. While its original facade and entrance have been restored, inside it has been thoroughly renovated and modernised. Futurised even (it’s a word, it just hasn’t been invented yet). It has been transformed into Paris’ preeminent centre for digital media and musical performance, fitting for a building with its history of premiering new forms of performance.

If you can decipher the marketing techno-babble on its website, the project does look genuinely exciting. The new Gaîté will feature a concert hall, artist’s studio, galleries, “sound spaces”, a gaming area (nice), an auditorium, a media centre, film and music production studios, two cafes and even a boutique, presumably selling glowing neon orbs that emit soothing blasts of techno depending on your mood.

They will produce, host and broadcast concerts, talks, screenings, performances, interviews and workshops, incorporating an “energising mix” of music, multimedia performances, design, fashion, architecture and new media. Interestingly, the long-term programming will be interspersed with “spontaneous events” involving guests that happen to be passing through Paris. Their corporate backers will also stump up the cash to provide for 15 artist residencies each year. There’s also vague intonation of using the website as a “content aggregator and producer”, and partnerships with major news sites and social networks.

For the moment its possible to book free tickets to a series of performances running from March 2 to 6, if you can negotiate the slightly glitchy and counterintuitive online booking system. Throughout the year there will be a steady programme of multimedia performances and concerts, including the Berlin Next! festival, highlighting the best of the new wave coming from the German capital.

In April the Gaîté will play host to the Super Mon Amour festival featuring Jose Gonzalez, Deerhunter, Dan Deacon, Lower Dens, Architecture In Helsinki and VINGT favourites Baths. It’s exciting to imagine what a technological prankster like Deacon could get up to with all this cutting edge equipment to play with.

Next year the Gaîté Lyrique will celebrate it’s 150th birthday. It has survived by adapting to the times and embracing new forms of expression, whilst maintaining a sense of its history. Much like Paris itself.

Image: Jason Whittaker CC BY-NC-SA

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