If you’ve ever read the book or watched the musical The Phantom of the Opera, then you have some knowledge of the Opéra Garnier. This fantastic architectural marvel is the most famous opera house in the world, in large part due to the book and musical. I’ve never been to an opera before, and I’ve never even seen the Phantom of the Opera performed, but I could not pass up the opportunity to tour such a marvelous historic masterpiece during my time in Paris.
Built between 1861 and 1875, the Opéra Garnier takes its name from the architect Charles Garnier. Garnier won a competition for the design of the new opera house after Emperor Napoleon III initiated a great reconstruction of Paris. Garnier was relatively unknown in Paris at the time. The selection of his design turned some heads, particularly the Emperor’s wife according to legend. She supposedly asked Garnier “What is this? It’s not a style; it’s neither Louis XIV, nor Louis XV, nor Louis XVI!” to which Garnier replied, “Why Ma’am, it’s Napoléon III, and you’re complaining!” The style of this building is typically called Beaux-Arts, with use of axial symmetry in plan, and its exterior ornamentation.
The back of the Opéra Garnier as seen from the roof of the Galeries Lafayette
One of the extremely “modern” design elements that Garnier used was red velvet interiors as opposed to the typical blue color associated with kings. He thought the red was nicer for women to sit on. In the opera of the 19th century, women, with their giant bustled skirts, could not sit in the traditional auditorium seating so they were relegated to the boxes. This was not considered a punishment though, as the boxes were the place the be seen during this time. Ordinary folks could purchase individual tickets for the opera but a box was purchased for the entire year (at the equivalent of today’s 20,000 euro price) and the main reason for attending such events wasn’t to see or hear the opera but rather to show off one’s social status.
If showing off is what you are looking to do, then walking through the main staircase of the Opéra Garnier will give you ample opportunity. In those days, Paris’ elite would amble about on their way in, making sure everybody saw them arriving through the main doors. There was no chance of running into the Emperor though, he made sure the design included a separate entrance for his security after an assassination attempt was made going to the previous opera house. The entire left side entrance and rotunda (shown below) were for the Emperor. His carriage could pull into the building so that he was never subjected to potential threats. Now this entrance is used for anyone visiting the opera on a tour, so I got to walk in just like Napoleon III (although I didn’t arrive by carriage).
The staircase is made entirely of marble, 72 different types to be precise. The marble has been collected from all over the world and in a variety of colors and designs. Paintings of Greek gods and goddesses adorn the ceiling while gold leaf embellishments are everywhere. Obviously the current lamps are illuminated by electricity so they do no damage to the interior, but the original gas lamps created a dark smoke stain on the ceiling that had to be cleaned routinely.
Once you enter the auditorium you will immediately notice the colorful ceiling and fantastic chandelier. The original painting was so dirty that instead of cleaning it the opera house decided to build a second ceiling just under the previous and commission a new piece of art. Marc Chagall painted this brightly colored canvas in 1964 at the ripe age of 77. The original 8-ton chandelier highlights the ceiling and illuminates the entire auditorium. Unlike in the book and musical, this chandelier has never fallen on anyone and killed them.
The layout is a typical Italian opera house style, with boxes all around the perimeter. Emperor and Empress boxes are closest to the stage, offering a terrible view of the show but making sure that everyone can see them. Garnier employed the use of iron as opposed to wood for most of the interior construction, as a precaution for fire. There are just under 2000 seats although only about 1700 are used nowadays, keeping the ones with little to no view of the stage out of use. Prices for performances range from just 12 euros for third tier seats in boxes to 180 euros for front row.
Because singing opera every day is extremely unhealthy for the performers, the Opéra Garnier does a mix of performances. Usually the opera and ballet trade off days with occasional music concerts in between. When a new opera is proposed, the process begins 5 years in advance. This is because EVERY single element is produced in house. From the costumes to the set design. And likewise a new opera will not just be performed one year and then never performed again. Due to the high investment, they will continue to perform it off and on for years. The opera season is from September through June. Like the rest of Paris, dancers, singers and crew have vacations in July and August so don’t come to Paris during either of those months!
Although advances in technology have eased the process of changing sets around, an intermission is still needed in current times. But today’s intermission is between 20-30 minutes while the intermissions of 19th century Paris were much longer. Opera attendees did not mind though, as this gave them extra time to mingle and be seen. The perfect place for such intermission is the Grand Foyer, a nod to the Versailles Hall of Mirrors. This spectacular room is adorned with gold leaf, numerous chandeliers and fireplaces and a series of exquisite ceiling paintings, compared to the likes of Michelangelo when they were first unveiled!
At a cost of 36 million francs in 1875, the Opéra Garnier was the most expensive building constructed in Paris during its time. One look at the extensive marble and gold will prove precisely why it cost so much. Charles Garnier had spent a great deal of time in Italy and wanted to include Italian mosaics as a design feature on the ceilings all throughout the building but was told it would cost too much. His compromise was to include mosaic ceilings only in a small portion of the main hall. What they lack in grandeur, they make up for in beauty. Naturally, gold is everywhere in the mosaics as well.
I would be remiss to not mention the phantom in my Opéra Garnier post. Since the phantom’s box was number 5 in the book, they have included an honorary plaque for him outside box 5. Nobody has ever seen a “real” phantom at the Opéra Garnier, but the truth about an underground lake is somewhat realistic. To counter the extreme weight of the marble staircase in the front and the complex stone sets in the back, a pool of water was constructed under the relatively light-weight stage area. Someone had the brilliant idea to introduce fish to this pool many years ago so now they must provide artificial light, oxygen and food for the ever-growing fish daily at the opera.
I don’t plan to see an opera while I’m in Paris this time around but perhaps I’ll take one in on my next visit. Regardless, it was wonderful to learn the history of this gorgeous building. Perhaps this will finally prompt me to see the musical as well!