This December, New Moon Opera will be performing the operas Bagatelle and Mesdames de la Halle by Jacques Offenbach. Mesdames de la Halle is rarely performed in the U.S., but it is done almost every year in France. Part of the reason may be because the opera takes places in the storied Les Halles, an open air market in the heart of Paris, which is held dear to Parisians and has been a source of discourse on how Paris should look for over a thousand years.
Les Halles was started in the 12th century on one of the marshes along the Seine. It was so successful that in 1183, the king built two covered wooden buildings to protect the more delicate wares. More merchants set up around the covered buildings, and commerce (including prostitution) even took place in the Cemetery des Innocents nearby!
In the 18th century, new structures were built to replace the old covered wooden buildings, the cemetary was closed, and a new road system was built; but by the 19th century, Les Halles was extremely crowded and full of crime, sex, and disease. As part of a plan to clean up Les Halles, new pavilions were built and the bodies from the Cemetery des Innocents were moved out, causing an even worse stench than before! However, Les Halles was also full of bustle, energy, and excitement. Everyone shopped at Les Halles, from the poorest peasant to some of the wealthiest residents, and the market was in operation all day and all night with people selling fruit, vegetables, meat, butter, eggs, clothing, flowers, and more. This is the storied Les Halles that librettist Armand Lapointe and composer Jacques Offenbach portray in their Mesdames de la Halle.
The text and music of the opera absolutely depict the energy and spectacle of the beloved Les Halles that Parisians hold in their hearts. In the opening scene, all the merchants are hawking their wares as if the day has just begun. Each merchant sings out their special deals of the day, and eventually all the exclamations are layered on top of one another, until you almost feel like you are really in “the belly of Paris,” as author Emile Zola referred to it in 1873.
Over the years there has been much debate about Les Halles and how to modernize it (or not), but by 1969 Les Halles was dispersed out to a southern suburb of Paris. In 1973 the last meat seller had left, but the “battle for Les Halles” was still ongoing for some Parisians. In 1979 the Forum des Halles opened: a modern mall with art, a museum, and the RER railroad underground.
We hope you will join us on December 2, 3, and 4 to soak in the spectacle of Mesdames de la Halle and Bagatelle! Visit newmoonopera.org to purchase tickets or to donate to our season fundraiser.
Huard, Michel. “Accueil - Atlas Historique De Paris.” Accueil - Atlas Historique De Paris, Atlas Historique De Paris, 1 Mar. 2011, paris-atlas-historique.fr/.
Wakeman, Rosemary. “Fascinating Les Halles.” French Politics, Culture & Society, vol. 25, no. 2, Jan. 2007, doi:10.3167/fpcs.2007.250205.
*Photo: W, Roger. “Paris - Les Halles.” Flickr.com, Paris, 11 May 1960