A symbol of what makes Paris Parisian, the Opéra Garnier embodies the elegance and opulence of the Belle Époque. Also known as the Palais Garnier, it is located on Boulevard Haussmann, across the street from the equally opulent Galeries Lafayette.
Lining the wide, namesake boulevard are Haussmann’s five story buildings, all neat and orderly, with upper floors filled with apartments and lower floors home to high-end shopping venues. The Opera neighborhood has been home to Paris’ elite for over a century.
The Phantom of the Opera
In 1909 -1910, Gaston Leroux published a serial novel named The Phantom of the Opera. The French author took inspiration from events that happened at the opera house, but much of it comes from the author’s imagination.
In the center of the auditorium’s ceiling, there is a large chandelier weighing seven tons. In 1896, one of the fixture’s counterweights broke, causing the chandelier to fall on a concierge and kill him. One of the most dramatic scenes in The Phantom of the Opera is based on this event.
In 1986, Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote a musical based on the novel, bringing its popularity into the 20th century. The musical still garners a sell-out crowd today.
Although the Paris Opera had been in a temporary building since 1821, finding a new site and constructing a new building was not completed until the second half of the 19th century. Political unrest and changes in leaders, made it difficult for prefects or architects to follow through with their plans. George-Eugene Haussmann was appointed prefect in 1852, and following the attempted assassination of Napoleon III at the entrance to the opera’s temporary home, he made looking for a new location a priority. In 1860, Haussmann announced the newly selected site. The site was on the the awkward intersection of a couple of streets, one of which later became Boulevard Haussmann.
Architect Rohault de Fleury expected to be commissioned with the building’s plan, but another change in office gave more weight to the plan by Viollet-le-Duc. In order to avoid making the decision, Count Waleski decided to offer a competition. 170 architects entered their plans, and in the first round both de Fleury and le Duc lost out to the seven finalists.
The legend is that Napoleon III’s wife Eugenie questioned Garnier about what style his plan was based on, since it seemed not to follow any style. When Garnier answered it that it was in the style of Napoleon III, Eugenie was sold, and used her influence to select the relatively unknown architect to build the new opera house.
Building began in 1862. As the construction crew began to excavate and lay the foundations, there was a problem with the water table. It was so high that even pumping for 24 hours a day couldn’t dry it out. Garnier reworked the plan to include a cistern system under the foundation. This event started rumors that the opera was built on a lake – something Gaston Leroux used in The Phantom of the Opera.
Construction was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War, and the revolt by the Paris Commune, but eventually it started again. In late 1873, the opera’s temporary home burned to the ground. Garnier was instructed to finish the new building as soon as possible. The new opera house was inaugurated in January of 1875.
The Palais Garnier features a large staircase made of several types of marble. During the Belle Epoque, attendees would ascend and descend the stairs, parading the latest designer fashions. The staircase divides into two separate flights of stairs and leads to the Grand Foyer.
The Grand Foyer is over 500 feet long. Before, after, and during the intermissions of the shows, Paris’ social elites filled the room to mingle and gossip.
The elegant room is decorated with velvet, gold leaf, and sculpture. The ceiling of the Grand Foyer was painted by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry showing the history of music.
The auditorium can seat 1,979, while the large stage can hold up to 450 artists. The stage curtain was painted to look like a draped curtain, complete with tassels and braids. The curtain has been reproduced a couple of times during the restoration processes.
Restoration work and updates have been done throughout the years – electricity was added in 1881, elevators in the 1950s, and from 1994 to 2007 a complete restoration was carried out.
The most notable update, though, was made to the ceiling in the auditorium. In 1964, André Malraux, France’s Minister of Culture, asked Marc Chagall to paint the new ceiling. It was painted on large panels and installed over the original ceiling. The colorful work includes renditions of Chagall’s favorite composers, actors, and dancers including Mozart, Wagner, Mussorgsky, Ravel, and more.
The ceiling was not loved by everyone, but the controversy served to increase the popularity of the opera. Everyone wanted to see the new update, so they booked tickets to the next show. The resurgence helped to carry the organization through for many more years.
In 1989, then President Francois Mitterrand began a large building program- one of his projects was a new opera building. It was built on the location of the former Bastille, in hopes that the new project would make opera more accessible to common people, rather than just the elite.
The Bastille Opera was supposed to take over all the opera performances, leaving the Palais Garnier for ballet. These objectives were only partially met, as the Palais Garnier now presents both ballet and opera, while the Bastille Opera offers mostly opera performances with a few ballets and some symphony concerts. The operas in both venues are attended by a variety of people, but a heavy attendance by common people has not come about.
Visiting the Opera Garnier
If you would like to watch the performance of an opera or a ballet, visit the Paris Opera website. There you will find the schedules for both Palais Garnier and Opéra Bastille.
If you are only interested in seeing the building, however, you can take a self-guided audio tour or a personally guided tour. Tours in English are given twice a day – at 11 am and 2:30 pm. The cost is €15.50 for adults with discounts given for students and children.
When my daughter and I visited earlier this year, we opted for the guided tour and thoroughly enjoyed our (Dutch) guide. The tour was interesting – our guide related facts, stories, history, and legends. In addition, with the guided tour, a better view of the auditorium is accessed than with the audio tour. If you visit the the opera house without seeing a show, I recommend the guided English tour.
Be sure to visit the Palais Garnier the next time you are in Paris!