The Opéra Garnier, aka Palais Garnier, made such an impression on me as a first-time visitor that I cannot say what I liked best about it: the grand facade? The grand staircase? The Chagall ceiling? The grand foyer? I admit, I can’t decide, it was all overwhelming and so beautiful! We probably barely scratch the surface all of the things that can be said about the Opera Garnier this episode, but I hope we convince you to go in next time and enjoy its grandeur. The interview starts at 5’44”.
Related Episode: From Ballet to Cabaret, Episode 53
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The Opera Garnier or Palais Garnier in Paris
When it comes to how you spend your time in Paris, you have to make all sorts of choice. That is why I had walked past the Opera Garnier many times and never went in. I was always on my way to something else. Boy, was I wrong! I would even say it would be a shame not to take a tour, there is so much to learn there!
How the Opera Garnier Came to Be
The Opera Garnier is in the 9th Arrondissement on Place de l’Opéra. The Metro stop is also called Opera one of the few instances where French people like to keep it simple! For the longest time this opera was called the Paris Opera but then when they built the new Opera on Place de la Bastille they started calling it by the name of its main architect Charles Garnier. As a matter of fact they don’t produce a loss of operas anymore in the Opéra Garnier. This has become the home of the Paris ballet, and what a home it is!
1875, a Grand Year
In 1875, when the Opera Garnier was completed, people went to the opera frequently. As matter-of-fact there was an attempt on Napoleon’s life while he was attending an opera and so he wanted to make sure that the next opera house would include better security for him. This is the 1860s in Paris writes in the middle of the Haussman era. The competition for the design of a new Opera house was launched and 171 architects submitted projects among them Charles Garnier who was pronounced the winner of the competition unanimously. He was only 35 and this when it was a big surprise. They loved his drawings and his ideas but he really had built anything of that scale yet so he was completely untested. Yet he was a genius. He was able to bring together the need for a technically solid design and great beauty.
A “Bad” Plot of Land
Garnier also have to make do with a less than desirable plot of land. The area is diamond shaped and not symmetrical. Garnier made several requests so that the plot of land would be modified somewhat but Haussman did not grant him any of his requests. And you also remember that Napoleon wanted an easy way in and out of the opera house for security reasons. There were many constraints and Garnier integrated them all into his design. Of course Garnier did not draw everything himself, he was surrounded by artists, designers, painters, sculptors, and the best of every craft.
Water Under the Palais Garnier
They ran into some technical problems also, for instance they had to install water pumps that run day and night because the water tables are too high. Construction took 15 years and for that whole time they were very careful to hide the façade because they wanted it to be a surprise for the people of Paris. The building was completed in 1875 and has come the archetype of the style of the time. They also ran out of money several times and had to slow down the construction for various reasons including war.
But in 1873 a fire destroyed the previous opera house which became unusable and that was the impetus for hurrying up and finishing the opera Garnier. And of course when you inaugurate an opera house you have to do it in style with the creation of original productions. All of the ones that graced this opera the first year have been long forgotten save for William Tell by Rossini (I’ll play a little bit in closing because it’s such a fun piece, I’m sure you’ve all heard the “charge” as it’s called).
In those days the opera house was lit by candlelight and this one was particularly well lit, so well that people who brought their score to the opera house noticed errors in the libretto. Only a professional musician with a wicked good memory for score could do that today I think!
It’s very difficult for me to describe how beautiful this place really is. I took a lot of photos and I will put several of them on the website but this is just the kind of place that you have to see for yourself. It is overdone in many ways but always tactful.
Why the Paris Opera Company Had to Move
The house had become too small and too old to put on modern operas. Opera sets are so intricate these days that they go around the world and are being reused by many companies. It used to be that each opera created everything from scratch. That is rarely the case today. But what this means is that the opera house has to meet certain technical standards or it cannot rent these fancy sets. That’s one of the main reasons why the Paris Opera moved to Bastille. It is an otherwise absolutely wonderful place.
Listen to the episode for the rest of the story, but you should really make a point to go see the Opera Garnier for yourself. I guarantee, whether you enjoy the opera or the ballet personally, you will get a greater appreciation for the beauty of the building and the craft and talent it took to put it together.
PS: As to the question we ask around minute 26, the answer is the Third Republic!