I have a new destination to add to my recommendations for “What to do in Paris.” I often get asked for tips and have learned it is good to have a ready list.
What am I newly excited about? The Paris Opera. Well, the name is a little confusing. When built, it was called the Paris Opera, but in the 1970s, a new and improved Opera House was built near the Bastille so now it is frequently called Palais Garnier or Opera Garnier.
When you see it, you won’t mistake it for anything else. Yikes. Talk about gold and gilt and over the top ornamentation. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a plain and simple surface. It gives a whole new meaning to the word Bling.
The structure was built in the mid 1880s–the peak of lavishness in Paris if you don’t count Versailles which is actually outside of Paris. The Urban Renewal program of Baron Haussmann resulted in the wide boulevards perfect for strolling and showing off the clothing created by newly developing haut couture business. This was the era of the Impressionists who painted beautiful street and cafe scenes.
It was the beginning of the Belle Epoch–the Golden Age of Paris. The Opera Garnier certainly typifies the excesses of this time period.
Thirty-five year old Charles Garnier, who won a competition to design the building, used a hodgepodge of design elements–all three of the Louis (Louis XIV, XV and XVI) plus Italian, Greek, Roman and everything else in his Design Dictionary.
When the Empress Eugenie–reigning fashionista and party planner extraordinaire asked “What style is it?” the savvy architect replied, “Why, your imperial highness. It is your style.”
She must not have been a minimalist.
The structure is 17 stories, seven of them beneath the stage. It seats 2,200 spectators, many of them in sizable boxes. While people went to see the opera, most went to see and be seen. Here are some Impressionist paintings depicting going to the Opera during this era.
It is interesting that the Palais Garnier is the inspiration for Phantom of the Opera. The structure actually has a lake underneath it–built to control the water that naturally occurs there. And in 1896 one of chandeliers fell, killing a member of the audience. These two elements became inspiration for the gripping and haunting story.
There are two ways to see the Palais Garnier. One would be to book a concert, ballet or performance. We did this and loved the soprano/harpist performance. I also loved meandering the lobby and balconies during the intermission, seeing people dressed in cocktail finery. It was rather posh.
You can also go on an guided and unguided tours. www.operadeparis.fr.
You might also enjoy reading more about the Palais Garnier in a great little book called “Chronicles of Old Paris” by John Baxter. He presents tidbits of Paris history in a very readable and lively fashion. I also like the walking tours he lays out.