I was recently reviewing some photos I took during a visit to Paris when I came across a selection taken during a highly enjoyable afternoon wandering around the magnificent interior of the Paris Opéra. Peter had wanted to go to a computer tech store down the road, so, as he’d previously visited the Paris Opera, we each went our own way.
There is an official guided tour that you can take, which would no doubt provide a lot of information that I missed. But that afternoon, I preferred to just meander around at my own leisurely pace, and soak up the opulent atmosphere. It wasn’t my first visit to the Paris Opera. Many years ago, I’d been fortunate enough to go to a ballet there and see the great Rudolph Nureyev dance. At that time, I’d been with a group of people and hadn’t had a chance to see much of the building itself.
The Palais Garnier first opened in 1875, 14 years after Napoleon III commissioned architect Charles Garnier to design the building.
It became the principal venue for the Paris opera until 1989, when the Opéra Bastille opened. Nowadays, it is home to the Paris Opéra Ballet, but it’s also well known as the setting for Gaston Leroux’s novel “The Phantom of the Opera” published in 1910.
The Grand Staircase
Resting under a sumptuous 30 metre high ceiling adorned with colourful frescos, the Grand Staircase is spectacular with its magnificent marble circular staircase illuminated by glittering chandeliers.
Next stop on my slow tour was the beautiful theatre auditorium. I discovered later that the plush red stage curtain is actually a trompe l’oeil; its elaborate folds and draping an illusion created with paint. Ornate gold boxes flank the horseshoe-shaped auditorium, making it clear that not only the onstage performers were there to be seen. The audience wanted their share of the spotlight too. Apparently, the stage is the largest in Europe and can fit up to 450 artists. You can’t see that when standing in the auditorium, but you can take a virtual tour (check the link below) and then you’ll appreciate the size and scale of the space behind the curtain. To my excitement, while I was there the curtain opened to reveal the backstage crew setting up for a performance.
For me, the highlight of the theatre is the colourful ceiling painted by one of my favourite artists, Marc Chagall. Paying homage to major composers, it comprises twelve canvas panels around a central panel and covers 240 square metres (2583 square feet). No mean feat when you consider Chagall was in his 70s, back in 1964 when he did the work. Thankfully, he didn’t have to climb high scaffolding and work directly on the ceiling like Michaelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. The panels were painted in studios around Paris and then installed on the ceiling, covering up the original work by the 19th century artist Jules-Eugène Lenepveau. Interesting fact; Chagall did not accept any payment for his work.
The Grand Foyer
One of the most spectacular parts of the Palais Garnier is The Grand Foyer. Stretching 54 metres long (177 feet), it is located close to the most prestigious category of boxes in the auditorium. This gave the occupants a place to rest and stroll between performances, but also to be seen and to mingle with high society.
The ceiling is incredible. Painted by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, it features various themes from the history of music. I had a sore neck by the time I’d walked from one end of the Grand Foyer to the other.
The Phantom of the Opera
Gaston Leroux was a reporter with L’Echo de Paris when he wrote the Phantom of the Opera, published in novel form in 1910. There are many aspects of the Phantom of the Opera that have some grain of truth. There really is a lake under the Palais Garnier. It is apparently now used to train firefighters to swim in the dark. They also based the famous chandelier crash on fact. But whether the Phantom existed remains unproven, although rumours circulated that the building was haunted.
The entrance to the Palais Garnier is on the corner of Scribe and Auber Streets, 75009 Paris.
Metro: Opéra station (lines 3, 7 & 8)
For tour details, opening hours and entry conditions consult the official website per the link below.
If you can’t get there in person, check out this amazing virtual tour courtesy of Google Arts and Culture.
If you love ballet, you may enjoy this You Tube video by performers from the Paris Opera ballet when they were locked down due to Covid 19. Even some of their kids get involved. Very cute!