La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT
© Johan Jacobs

The Opera House

1695 Gio Paolo Bombarda, owner of the theatre at the Hooikaai, banker and financial counsellor to Maximilian II Emmanuel of Bavaria and governor of the Spanish Netherlands, decided to build a public theatre for opera, theatre and ballet performances.

1700 This theatre was built by the architects Paolo and Pietro Bezzi on the site of the former ‘Herberge van Oistervant’ mint (‘La Monnaie’ is the French word for ‘coins’). It was considered one of the most beautiful theatres outside Italy.

1800 Napoleon decided to build a new theatre.

1819 Inauguration of the new theatre designed by the French architect Louis Damesme.

1830 King William of the Spanish Netherlands lifted the prohibition on the staging of Auber’s opera The Mute of Portici. This work played an important part in Belgium’s struggle for independence.

1853 Repertoire restricted to opera and dance.

1855 The interior of the theatre was destroyed by fire. Only the pediment (Eugene Simonis ‘Harmony of Human Passions’), the colonnade and the outside walls were left intact.

1856 Inauguration of the third theatre by architect Joseph Poelaert.

1876 Gédéon Bordiau added an extra floor and installed the building’s first sophisticated air-conditioning system.

1963 ‘La Monnaie’ became a national institution, having first been run as a private concession and then by the City of Brussels.

1985 The Department of Public Works decided to renovate the building for technical, safety and aesthetic reasons.

1986 Inauguration of the restored building.

1998 To mark the 300th anniversary of La Monnaie, the stage organ was restored and the restored paintings on canvas were reinstalled on the cupola of the auditorium.

2000 Inauguration of the New Monnaie workshops in the ancient Vanderborght buildings and the neo-classical building at no. 23 Leopoldstraat just behind La Monnaie. An exhibition entitled Opera. Tangible Emotion was mounted in the renovated buildings.

The Façade

Designed by Louis Damesme in a neo-classical style, the façade of the theatre dates from 1819. In 1854 Eugène Simonis put the finishing touch to the façade in the form of a pediment with a bas-relief representing ‘The Harmony of Human Passions’. A dark-blue enamelled, plate steel ‘frieze’ serves to emphasize the top two floors and is a post-modern touch added during the renovation works carried out in 1985-86.

Entrance and honorific staircase

The staircase is embellished with a monument (1910) by the Belgian sculptor Paul Dubois honouring the manager and musical director Dupont, and with a number of monumental paintings (1907-1933) by Emile Fabry. The Liège architect Charles Vandenhove created a new architectural concept for the entrance in 1985-86 and commissioned two American artists to execute his ideas: Sol Lewitt designed a fan-shaped floor in black and white and Sam Francis painted the triptych on the ceiling.

Main Auditorium

Built by Joseph Poelaert in an eclectic style, the auditorium combines French and Italian features. It can seat 1,152 people and is a magnificent example of European theatre architecture. In 1999 the restored canvas by the Parisian set designers François-Joseph Nolau and Alfred Rubé was reinstalled on the cupola. It represents Belgium as the protector of the arts.

Stage and orchestra pit

The most radical alterations made by architects URBAT and A.2R.C during the 1985-86 renovation work were to the stage. The nine-storey stage tower was completely dismantled and reconstructed within the existing walls. To facilitate set changes, the old system of pulleys and hand-operated tackle was replaced by a computer-operated iron truss (although one-third of all operations are still manual). The size of the stage was left unchanged; it is 12.6 m long (41.3 ft) and 11 m (36.1 ft) high. The perfect evolution of an opera behind the scenes is the responsibility of a team of 4 directors, 5 stage managers, 26 stage hands, 9 light technicians, 4 sound technicians, 6 dressers and 5 make-up artists and hairdressers. The orchestra pit, which is situated three meters below the stage, can be raised to stage level. The la Monnaie Symphony Orchestra has about 90 permanent musicians.

The Royal Box and Royal Salon

This box is on the same level as the first balcony (‘côté cour’) and is decorated with red velvet and gilt stucco. It bears the royal emblem and was used regularly by the royal family. Nowadays the box is sometimes used as an extension of the stage. During the intervals between the performances, the royal salon used to be a drawing room reserved exclusively for the royal family and their guests. Today sponsors and VIPs use it as a reception room. This little salon (8 m (26.25 ft) by 4.2 m (13.8 ft)), covered entirely in marble, was redesigned in post-modern style during restoration work in1985-86: Daniel Buren’s floor and Giulio Paolini’s sculptures enhance Charles Vandenhove’s architecture.

The Grand Foyer

With the exception of the ceiling painting by Thierry Bosquet (ca. 1970), the interior decoration of the Grand Foyer dates from 1856. Designed by Poelaert, this room is a good example of the eclectic style. As well as being used for serving refreshments, the foyer is also used for chamber music concerts and as a lecture hall where introductions to the operas are given.