From Union Hall to Opera Stage
Opera has come to Millau

[Marriage of Figaro overture, Riccardo Muti & Wiener Philharmoniker]

In today's Culture in France we head south, away from Paris to Aveyron- the region famous for, among other things, Roquefort cheese. Until a few years ago no one had thought much about Millau the region's second biggest city, with 22-thousand residents, and over a million sheep. But in 2004 President Jacques Chirac inaugurated the Millau Viaduct, which brings the highway above the Tarn river valley, above the town. It's the tallest bridge in the world. And since it opened it already attracted a million visitors. Jacques Godfrain is the Mayor of Millau

Godfrain: When you have one million of visitors per year. You cannot give to their eyes only concrete and beautiful monument. You have to have dance for the eyes and music and theater for the ears.

[Marriage of Figaro overture]

That's where the opera comes in: last October the Maison du Peuple theater was re-opened, after extensive renovations. Formerly a union hall, the Maison du Peuple, or House of the People, is now a 500-seat theater. Francois Leyge, the culture director in Millau gave a tour of the building. The original Maison du Peuple was built in 1904. By the late 1990s, the city realized that the building wasn't meeting fire codes

Leyge: So we had to uh- to destroy it. All the inside has been redone, has been built in new The entrance of the theatre is here on our right, [walking, door opening] So in this hall are 500 seats. The architecture is a wooden architecture with blue seats

Renovations quadrupled the size of the stage.

Leyge: What is important is to show all the types of the performances. So dance, with ballets, or modern jazz dance, or all the international companies

In its first season the Maison du Peuple has produced Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Puccini's Gloria along with Indian dance, African stories and small circus acts. It's a mix: along with classical plays and music, the theater has also welcomed pop singers, like Olivia Ruiz

[La Femme Chocolat, Olivia Ruiz]

[walking, door opening outside, cars]

We walk across the stage, to the wings, and out a door behind the stage, onto the street.

Leyge: Here is the fašade

This is the old fašade, with columns and the city's coat of arms above the door. But it's the stage door. The large openings behind the stage allow theater troops to bring in scenery. The audience enters the building on the side.

Leyge: We kept only the old fašade to get the history and the memory of the place you know. At the origin it was a union room. All the unions of the glove makers of Millau met here.

Through the 1960s Millau was the capital of the French tanning and glove making industries. At its peak there were 80 tanners and 20 glove makers in the area, employing 6,000 people.

Leyge: And all the great strikes about gloves, settled here, in this house. It's why it was very difficult to destroy it at the time, because all the workers' memory was in this building.

It wasn't just memories blocking the renovation. With its 6-million Euro price tag, re-making the Maison du Peuple was a gamble.

Leyge: We started this project in 1998, and it was an adventure, because all the minds were not prepared to have this theatre in the town. Today I think everybody is absolutely delighting about it

The Maison du Peuple has the potential to draw audiences from around the region, since it's the only properly equipped theater for kilometers around. The town and directors are hoping that the enthusiasm will continue beyond the novelty factor of the first season. Mayor Godfrain is optimistic. He says that for a small town like Millau, having a world-class theater is something to be proud of.

Godfrain: The tradition of Millau is to be proud, and they are proud of the Maison du Peuple.

With Culture in France, I'm Sarah Elzas

This piece aired April 8, 2007 on Radio France International.

Producer: Sarah Elzas
Recorded in Millau, France