One day I will go to the opera. Its on my bucket list. This weekend in Paris I discovered that the places and rituals of opera goers of the past are just as fascinating as the actual opera’s themselves.
You can visit the opera house and take in the stunning interiors previously only seen and enjoyed by the elite aristocrats of Paris and Europe.
Going to the opera was not a rare treat it was like the play houses of Southwark (but for the posh) it was the entertainment of the day. The operas reflect story lines not unlike many of today’s soap operas.
The term fashionably late could have been coined by the patrons as they would all arrive late to prove that they had full and busy lives and were in high demand. The opera directors would therefore insure that all the best entertainment such as the ballet took place later in the evenings programming so that they would all be there to see it.
The seating in the auditorium reflected status as well, the most exclusive seat were in the boxes which also acted as places for social calls to take place. Ladies chaperoned by a male family member could take visitors to her box providing that she was not alone.
The opera house it self was a place to mingle. The rich would flaner pose and show of he latest fashions in the grand galleries and entrance hall – 19th Century Facebook without a computer or iphone.
The opera house takes its name from the architect who designed this opulent, luxurious and gold embossed 19th century gem in the north west of Paris’ fashionable shopping area in the 9th Arrondissement. Charles Garnier won a competition set by Napoleon III to design the opera house of Paris. Construction was slow and was delayed several times. During its construction, the half finished oprea house was used as a military store warehouse during the 1871 Paris Commune.
The first gem that you find yourself in is the Grand staircase. This is a most ceremonial entrance. I felt like Cinderella walking up them and could image many a slipper falling off the feet of ladies in grand ball gowns.
The show stopper of the building is the Grand Foyer. Garnier wanted to emulate the hall of
mirrors at Versailles and in my humble opinion, he has more than surpassed himself. The gold leaf and crystal chandlers and painted ceilings make feel it like you are walking into a Fabergé egg. Close your eyes and image that it is evening and lit by candles in the crystal candlers and the light glittering off the gold, the room full of silk gowns, fans, wigs and shoe buckles. It is a a real time travelling experience.
The auditorium’s capacity is 1,979 in the traditional horseshoe shape. The opera boasts the biggest stage in Europe and a staggering 450 actors and singers can be on the stage at one time! The ceiling we see today was painted by Marc Chagall in 1964 on removable panels.
For me the exterior of the Opera is just as delicious as the interior. The symmetrical white front with its stairs and the numerous classical statues and angels that adorn the building are just as beautiful to me as the Grand Foyer and its gold and marble.
The Bibliotheque-Musee de l’Opera situated in the opera is no longer cared for or managed by the opera but the national library of France, Bibliotheque nationale de France (BnF). Its primary purpose is to house the volumes of works that are created and put on by the opera house from scripts scores and even set designs from the numerous operas and ballets shown there over the years. The museum that is also in the space shows some of the more elaborate costumes from the archive. The admission fee alone is worth it to see these.
The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Phantom of the Opera was set in the Palais Garnier and adapted from the French novel, le Fantome de l’opera by Gaston Leroux.
I highly recommend an hour or two in this iconic Parisian landmark, the space is magical. Guided tours are available (sadly only in French the day I went) but there are audio guides. Be warned though you will need to leave a document (bank card, passport, Drivers licence as insurance when hiring the audio guide). The all important gift shop was well stocked if a bit narrow I would hate to see what that is like in peak tourist season.
One day I hope to go to the ballet there and enjoy the splendour as the 19th century patrons did, with the gold sparkling, the chandlers lit and the music vibrating around the marble staircases.