An Afternoon At The Opera

Facade of Palais Garnier in Paris

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to stroll along the boulevards of Paris, but it’s a city I’ve visited often. I even spent several months there as a student in my teenage years. Hopefully, I’ll be able to travel there again soon but in the meantime, I’ve been reminiscing by going through some of my old photos. I came across a selection I took during a very enjoyable afternoon visit to the Palais Garnier. Back in my teenage years, I remember going to a performance there and seeing the great Rudolph Nureyev dance but the distance of time had faded my memories of the place.

Possibly better known as the Paris Opera, the building opened in 1875 14 years after Napoleon III commissioned architect Charles Garnier to design the building.

Image dating back to October 1863 showing the construction in progress of the Palais Garnier. (Wikimedia Commons)
Construction on the façade October 1863 – Wikimedia Commons

It became the principal venue for the Paris opera until 1989 when the Opéra Bastille opened. Nowadays, it’s possibly better known as the setting for Gaston Leroux’s novel “The Phantom of the Opera” published in 1910.

Facade of Palais Garnier in Paris
Facade of Palais Garnier showing busts of Mozart (centre) Spontini (right) and Beethoven (left). The N in the frieze above is for the Emporer Napoleon III and E for Empress Eugenie.

Palais Garnier is the principal venue for The Paris Opera Ballet but this afternoon I wasn’t there to watch a performance. I was there to wander through the awe-inspiring rooms and soak up the atmosphere. The Palais Garnier also offers guided tours but I prefered to meander around at my own pace.

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The Grand Staircase

The first hint of the opulence that awaits is the Grand Staircase. Resting under a sumptuous 30 metre high ceiling, I felt like I’d stepped into a movie set as I walked up the magnificent marble circular staircase.

The Grand Staircase of the Palais Garnier - image by isogood via Wikimedia Commons
The Grand Staircase – image by isogood via Wikimedia Commons

Palais Garnier, Grand Staircase. Image by Zairon via Wikimedia Commons
Palais Garnier, Grand Staircase. Image by Zairon via Wikimedia Commons

Auditorium

Next stop on my tour was the beautiful theatre itself. Ornate gold boxes flank the horseshoe-shaped auditorium, making it obvious that not only the onstage performers are there to be seen. Apparently, the stage is the largest in Europe and can fit up to 450 artists. You can’t see that 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. 

The auditorium of Palais Garnier showing the magnificent tromp l'oeil stage curtain

At the time of my visit I didn’t realise the plush red stage curtain is actually a trompe l’oeil; its elaborate folds and draping an illusion created with paint. But 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 consists of 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. 

Palais Garnier ceiling of auditorium painted by the artist Marc Chagall

The Grand Foyer

The awe-inspiring Grand Foyer of the Palais Garnier

Saving the best for last, the most spectacular part of the Palais Garnier is The Grand Foyer. Stretching 54 metres long (177 feet) it is located near the prestigious level of the auditorium close to the top category of boxes. It was a place where people could rest, stroll and mingle with high society. Dazzled by the crystal chandeliers, mirrors and the gold decorative elements I had the beginnings of a sore neck by the time I’d walked the 54 metres to the other end after staring up at the exquisite artworks on the ceiling painted by representing themes from the history of music.

Detail of the ceiling in the Grand Foyer, Palais Garnier. Artist Paul Baudry.

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. The famous chandelier crash is also based on fact. But whether the Phantom existed remains unproven, although rumours circulated that the building was haunted.

Watercolour Painting by André Castaigne illustrating first American edition of the Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux 1911. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Information

The entrance to the Palais Garnier can be found on the corner of Scribe and Auber Streets, 75009 Paris.
Metro: Opéra station (lines 3, 7 & 8)
For tour details and other information consult the official website per the link below.

Official Website – Click here

At the time of writing, the Palais Garnier is closed due to the Covid 19 pandemic, but you can take a virtual tour thanks to Google Arts and Culture.

Link to virtual tour

Ballet Costume from Palais Garnier in Paris

And, if you’re interested in what the performers have been doing during their lockdown, take a look at this amazing You Tube video, which is just breathtaking. Even some of their kids get in on the act. Very cute!

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The Palais Garnier, otherwise known as the Paris Opera.
The Palais Garnier, otherwise known as the Paris Opera.
The Palais Garnier, otherwise known as the Paris Opera.
The Palais Garnier, otherwise known as the Paris Opera.

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