The Palais Garnier is one of the most famous buildings in Paris but it often gets overlooked by tourists who try fit seeing the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and other monuments into a visit of only a couple of days. However, for lovers of the arts, especially ballet and opera, this building is a must-see.
The 1970-seat Palais was built between 1861 and 1875 as part of the reconstruction of Paris by the Baron Haussmann ordered by Napoleon III. Named after its architect, Charles Garnier, the building served as the home for the ballets and operas presented by the Paris Opera company. Now, the Paris Opera occupies two separate buildings: the Opéra Bastille, an impressive contemporary building, which serves as the home base for the Opéra national de Paris, and the older Palais Garnier which is used primarily for ballets and some classical operas.
Haussmann’s Palais was in fact one of the most expensive and expansive construction projects undertaken during the Second Empire. Approximately 12,000 square meters of land were cleared for the building. The Palais itself takes up only a fraction of this space with the giant Place de l’Opéra around it accounting for the rest. Haussmann also created several large avenues leading directly towards the Opera, one of which led straight from Napoleon III’s palace in order to assure his safety and convenience.
The Palais Garnier is widely known as the setting for Gaston Leroux’s 1911 novel The Phantom of the Opera, which was further popularized by movies and musicals. Leroux draws from many legends about the Palais to create his story, including that of a large lake underneath the building, which serves as the home of the Phantom. In reality, “the lake” is a giant cistern and system of canals built during construction to control the seeping groundwater and prevent it from damaging the building’s foundation. The cistern serves a secondary purpose of providing large quantities of water to be used should a fire ever break out in the theater.
The elegance requested by Napoleon III is evident in the interior of the building. Upon entering, you encounter the majestic Grand Staircase, which provides access to all parts of the theater. It is especially notable for its height of 30 meters and the entire space is covered with different decorative materials such as marble, onyx and brass on the handrails, paintings, mosaics, and gold. Two statues of bronze candelabras at the foot of the stairs represent female figures holding electrical and gas lights.
The theater, too, is lavishly decorated. In the center hangs a large, 7-ton chandelier. Criticized when it was first installed for obstructing views, the beautiful gold and crystal chandelier has become one of the most famous parts of the building. It is largely known for a scene in Leroux’s novel in which the chandelier falls into the audience, an event inspired by an actual accident in 1896. While admiring the chandelier, you can’t miss the colorful murals on the ceiling. Painted by the artist Marc Chagall in 1964, the paintings depict scenes from 14 famous operas by Mozart, Wagner and Berlioz, among others.
The Grand Foyer is another location to explore in the Palais. This space was inspired by several chateaux such as the Louvre, Fontainebleu and Versailles. Serving mainly as a gathering space for spectators before the shows, it is ornately decorated from floor to ceiling with gold, paintings, and large mirrors (such as those in the galerie des Glaces at Versailles).
The Rotonde du Glacier, where refreshments are served during the performances, is notable for its colorful paintings by Georges Jules Victor Clairin and large tapestries depicting the sorts of things you can order at the bar.
If you want to visit:
The Palais Garnier is open daily from 10AM to 4:30PM. On a self-guided tour (9 euros) you can visit the Grand Staircase, the Foyers, the Museum and other exhibit areas, and the theater itself. However, if you want to learn more about the history of the building, take one of the guided tours that are offered in both French and English (13.50 euros). French tours are given Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 11:30AM and 3:30PM, while English tours are the same days at 11:30AM and 2:30PM. Be aware that the Palais Garnier is a working theater so often parts of it, such as the main theater, will be off-limits to the general public. However, if this is the case on the day you visit, you will be offered a free ticket to come back when these areas are open. On your visit, be sure to check out the museum to learn more about the history of the Palais and see some of the archives conserved there.
Better still, why not see a ballet or opera at the Palais and check out the building at the same time? Tickets for operas range from 9 to 180 euros and from 9 to 90 euros for ballets and the selection ranges from classical to contemporary, so there is something for everyone! Doors open 45 minutes before the show begins, so go a little early, get a glass of champagne and stroll through the hallways. The staff of the Opera will be more than happy to direct you to the Grand Foyer or Rotonde du Glacier. During intermission, be sure to check out the large exterior balcony as well.Palais Garnier Place de l’Opéra 75009 Paris Metro: Opéra / RER: Auber Bus lines 20, 21, 22, 27, 29, 42,
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