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  • Writer's pictureTer Hollmann

A Brief History of the Palais Garnier in Paris

What is the Palais Garnier?

The Palais Garnier, or the Opéra Garnier, is an elegant 19th-century opera house and setting of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’.

Palais Garnier

Palais Garnier History

Palais Garnier, this opera house comfortably seating 2,000 people, contains an elegant, opulent auditorium. The richly decorated space is coloured in red and gold, decked with velvet, mirrors, and chandeliers. The hall, constructed in the traditional Italian horseshoe shape, boasts a ceiling covered with magnificent murals, completed in 1964, by modernist painter Marc Chagall. Hanging from the roof, an enormous chandelier illuminates the room. It weighs 8,000 kilograms.

In 1896, one of the chandelier’s counterweights broke free and fell through the ceiling, killing a concierge. This event served as inspiration for one of the key scenes in Gaston Leroux’s gothic novel The Phantom of the Opera, famously adapted by Andrew Lloyd-Webber into a hit musical. In this gruesome scene, set here at the Palais Garnier, the auditorium’s chandelier comes crashing to the ground, killing a spectator as a result.

It was Napoleon III who commissioned the opera house, intending it as the epitome of his grand ambitions for the Second Empire. Charles Garnier, who gives the structure its name, won a competition to design the building, beating around 170 other submissions. Garnier’s design, finally completed in 1875, was a conflation of architectural styles, built with Baroque curves and elaborately adorned, yet punctuated with Corinthian style columns and decorated with classical masks and statues. He claimed the building was representative of Napoleon III style. Whatever you want to call it, it is a perfect example of opulence, elegance and ostentation.

With the collapse of the Second Empire and the death of Napoleon III in 1873, Garnier was not allowed to attend the inauguration of his greatest achievement due to his association with the monarch. Even architects were dragged into the political fray.

The Palais Garnier embodies the ambition of Paris in the 19th century. Yet it’s an earlier date, ‘Anno 1669’, inscribed into the fading red and gold pelmet above the stage, that memorialises the foundations of this splendid structure. This was the year that Louis XIV founded the Académie d’Opéra, the first permanent opera company in the world. Now known as the Opéra National de Paris, it divides its time between the Palais Garnier and the Bastille Opera House in the east of the city.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the building is the grand staircase, which rises over 30 metres. Diverging into a double stairway, it connects the foyer to the different levels of the auditorium. The ceiling above the staircase, painted by 19th-century French artist Isidore Pils, depicts four different scenes: The Triumph of Apollo, The Enchantment of Music Deploying its Charms, Minerva Fighting Brutality Watched by the Gods of Olympus, and The City of Paris Receiving the Plan of the New Opéra.

For fans of The Phantom of the Opera who might be wondering: yes, there is a man-made lake beneath the Opera House but sadly no Phantoms have been spotted there. Today, it is used as a training facility for the city’s firefighters.

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