The actual name is Opera National de Paris Palais Garnier, a 1,979-seat opera house, on Boulevard des Cappucines in the 9th arrondissement. It’s one of the icons of Paris, made doubly famous as Gaston Leroux used it as the setting for his 1911 novel The Phantom of the Opera (and its adaptations into films and a popular musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber).
A tour of the Opera House, a monument in its own right, is something that we’ve somehow managed to miss in all these years that we’ve visited Paris and lived here. But we finally did it! There’s open touring throughout the day (7 euros), but it’s well worth taking the guided tour (in English at 11:30am and 2:30pm, 13.50 euros/adult) as you learn so much more and realize the significance and details of what you’re looking at—and the whole building is covered in details and symbols from top to bottom. All the ornamentation was symbolic and carefully chosen, at great cost for those days.
If you’re lucky you’ll have Emmanuel as your guide, an expressive young man who’s a walking encyclopedia of information about the Opera that he conveys with passion. It’s one and a half hours of concentrated history and facts.
We enter through the side of the building into the lovely Subscription Foyer, an entrance place where the special subscribers could enter, and designed to make them feel special. Emmanuel points out the writing on the ceiling, done in intricate script so you wouldn’t know if he didn’t tell you, with the dates of the beginning and end of the construction (1861-1875) and the name of the main architect-designer, Charles Garnier.
The whole tour is chock-full of details like this—-what the materials are
(lots of onyx); what the statues represent and why; the same for the paintings and frescoes. Many are allegorical and related to Greek gods and myths, especially Apollo and lots of lyres. Emmanuel peppers the tour with stats—cost, how many workers, how many performances a year, size of stage etc. It’s all too much to take in actually, but we do get a good sense of the size and grandeur of this opera building. It was built to impress and dazzle and I’m sure it would be hard to find anyone who isn’t totally dazzled and impressed by it. Almost everything is huge, grandiose and gorgeous, shining and colorful, with gold or goldleaf in abundance.
We sit in the sumptuous orchestra for a while and marvel at the Chagall ceiling, which is not in context with anything else there, so it’s different. But then, so was the whole theater at the time it was built. The curtain rises to show the first set for the final production of Hippolyte and Aricie (by Jean-Philippe Rameau). Magic. We hear stories about Napoleon 111’s box (which he never used) and the phantom’s box (Number 5, next to the royal one), and stories of the phantom—-based on some true events (like a chandelier falling down), and the existence of an actual lake way below. Hence, the “Phantom of the Opera”. Sitting here, in this fanciful place where magic happens in each performance, one can almost believe there might be a phantom, where the unreal becomes real briefly, where stories come alive.
Emmanuel explains how the subscription system has changed and now the French government puts in a lot of money. Subscribers and patrons were allowed to interact with the dancers, but that was stopped in the 1930s.
This opera focuses on dance now, while the Bastille Opera (which opened
in 1989) does the operas, plus the really big ballets. They try to balance the old and the new, traditional and contemporary.
Emmanuel talks knowledgeably about the writers and the composers and who did what for the inauguration of the Opera. We wander up the magnificent Grand Staircase, through multiple galleries—one of which is like a miniature Versailles without the mirrors—onto the outside gallery with its view down to the Louvre; that avenue was newly created at that time just for that view and for people to be able to walk or ride up to the Opera. And everywhere we marvel, our eyes out on stalks. Some people may say it’s all over the top rather but sometimes fairy tales and fantasy do have a place in our lives, sometimes beauty just for beauty’s sake is okay.
All the people in our group, except for just one negative guy, were very excited to see and hear all this, and thought it was great.
This is a perfect activity for any afternoon, but especially a rainy one (as we had).
It’s well worth buying the small Opera booklet for 7 euros for extra information.
Or go to Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palais_Garnier