The first professional performance of an Andrew Lloyd Webber show that I saw was Phantom of the Opera at the Manchester Opera House circa 1993/94. I fell in love with the show, so much so that we used some of the music at our wedding. (All I Ask Of You, just in case you were curious.)
Manchester Opera House was also the first opera house that I had visited. We had gone with a friend who had bought the tickets at the last minute. The seats were high up in “the Gods” and in fact we were so high up that we were above the chandelier!
Over the years, I’ve seen the show several times, including twice in London where we were seated right beneath the chandelier’s path and were so close, we felt the draft as it swung past!
This year, as I explored out options for places to visit while we were in Paris, the Palais Garnier caught my eye. It was the first tour that I booked. In fact, our whole schedule ended up dictated by when we could do that tour and it was in fact the first of the trip.
So, what’s the connection? Where’s she going with this? I hear you muttering.
The Palais Garnier, the National Opera of Paris, was the inspiration behind Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom Of The Opera.
Now, I’m not about to turn this into a history lesson…whew!… but its impossible to write about the Palais Garnier without including the basics, so humour me please.
According to our tour guide, prior to the Palais Garnier being commissioned, opera houses in Paris were built from wood. They were lit by oil lamps and/or candles and as you can imagine were prone to burning down. In 1860, Napoleon III launched a competition to design a new opera house for the city. The competition was won by the then unknown architect, Charles Garnier. In fact, according to our lovely guide, it was his first commission. In 1861 construction began. Garnier designed everything himself as well as personally selecting the collaborating artists and sculptors. The opera house was finally completed in 1875. Napoleon III never visited his opera house. He died two years before it was completed.
The result is stunning both inside and out!
We entered the building to meet our tour guide via the entrance that was reserved in the past for season ticket holders, finding ourselves in an ornate vaulted rotunda, themed along the signs of the zodiac. Our guide led us through to the grand staircase, past the beautiful statue Pythonisse by Marcello.
The grand staircase is breathtakingly ornate. There are 30 different kinds of marble and stone involved in its construction. It doesn’t take much imagination to visualise the Paris elite of the 19th century sweeping up and down the marble stairs in their finery. I felt suitably under-dressed in my t-shirt, crop trousers and converse!
The main auditorium is stunning in its red and gold colour scheme. Red was chosen as that’s the colour that was most flattering to a lady’s complexion and ladies came to the opera house to be seen and admired by potential suitors. Its in here that the main inspiration for Leroux’s novel can be found. The theatre is steeped in history but let’s dispel a couple of myths.
There is no lake under the opera house. There is however a huge water tank/cistern to help balance out the weight of the building which was constructed on swampy ground.
The 7 tonnes chandelier is beautiful but its never fallen to the ground. But, in 1896, one of the lead counterweights fell. The 300lbs weight landed on a woman in the audience. As our guide quipped “she became a crepe”. The poor unsuspecting woman had been sitting in seat #13.
As for the phantom himself, he’s never been seen but box #5 is kept empty…just in case.
We were unable to see the full stage during our tour as it was being readied for the opening of Fin de Partie, an opera adapted from Endgame by Samuel Beckett. Our guide informed us that the stage is one of the largest in Europe and reaches a height of 65m. The Arc de Triumph would apparently fit on it!
The ceiling of the auditorium is a bit of a bone of contention with many Parisians. The original ceiling painting was replaced in the 1960’s by a new bright modern one by Chagall. It’s not popular and is noticeably out of keeping with the rest of the theatre. The good news is that the original still lies beneath it… funding just needs to be found to restore it. There’s a small replica of it on display and having seen it, I truly hope that funds can be found to restore the original artwork as Garnier intended it to be seen.
The most spectacular room in the opera house is without a doubt the Grand Foyer hall. Entering it really was a WOW moment. The room is 18m high, 154 m in length and 13 m wide and is as ornate if not more so as the palace at Versailles. This was effectively the opera house’s drawing room. The gold and mirrors accentuate the size and I honestly think it’s the most impressive room I have ever been in. The Grand Foyer also affords access to the opera house’s balcony and offers an uninterrupted view down Avenue de l’Opera.
As our guide explained, visiting the opera was more about being seen to be there than to watch the performance. The show was almost incidental. This need to be seen extends beyond the stone walls of the Palais Garnier. The Avenue de l’Opera is the only one of the city’s main thoroughfares to be void of trees, allowing a clear view for those watching of the people arriving and leaving the opera house.
During our short stay in Paris, we passed the Palais Garnier daily. (It was across the street from our hotel, so it was hard to miss it.)
On our last morning in the city before our taxi to the airport arrived to collect us, we went for one final walk round the opera house’s perimeter. As I stole a last look up at the balcony, I could just imagine the phantom watching from the window of the Grand Foyer, searching for Christine among the throngs of tourists outside.
For more info on the Palais Garnier see links below