An Afternoon At The Paris Opera

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Façade of the Palais Garnier or Paris Opéra

It’s been a while since I strolled down a Parisian boulevard. Hopefully, I’ll be able to travel there again soon, but in the meantime, I’ve been going through my photos from previous visits. I came across a selection I took during an enjoyable afternoon in the Paris Opéra. I had been there before. Back in my teenage years, I saw the great Rudolph Nureyev dance, but the distance of time had faded my memories of the place.

Also known as the Palais Garnier, the building opened in 1875. This was 14 years after Napoleon III commissioned architect Charles Garnier to design the building.

Construction of the Palais Garnier took 14 years to complete
Construction on the façade October 1863 – Wikimedia Commons

It became the principal venue for the Paris opera until 1989, when the Opéra Bastille opened. Nowadays, it is home to the Paris Opéra Ballet, but it’s also well known as the setting for Gaston Leroux’s novel “The Phantom of the Opera” published in 1910.

Detail on the Facade of Palais Garnier showing busts of Mozart (centre) Spontini (right) and Beethoven (left). The N in the frieze above is for the Emporer Napoleon III and E for Empress Eugenie.
Facade of Palais Garnier showing busts of Mozart (centre) Spontini (right) and Beethoven (left). The N in the frieze above is for the Emperor Napoleon III and E for Empress Eugenie.

But this afternoon I wasn’t there to watch a performance. My aim was simply to wander through the awe-inspiring rooms and soak up the atmosphere. Others may prefer to follow one of the official guided tours, but I wanted to meander around at my own pace.

The Grand Staircase

Resting under a sumptuous 30 metre high ceiling adorned with colourful frescos, the Grand Staircase is spectacular with its magnificent marble circular staircase illuminated by glittering chandeliers.

The Grand Staircase of the Palais Garnier
The Grand Staircase – image by isogood via Wikimedia Commons
The Grand Staircase of Palais Garnier is magnificent, with its ornate gilded walls, marble stairs and glittering chandeliers.
The Grand Staircase of the Opéra Garnier nestles under a 30 metre high ceiling
Palais Garnier, Grand Staircase. Image by Zairon via Wikimedia Commons

The Auditorium

Next stop on my tour was the beautiful theatre itself. Ornate gold boxes flank the horseshoe-shaped auditorium, making it obvious that not only the onstage performers are there to be seen. The audience wants their share of the spotlight too. Apparently, the stage is the largest in Europe and can fit up to 450 artists. You can’t see that standing in the auditorium, but you can take a virtual tour (check the link below) and then you’ll appreciate the size and scale of the space behind the curtain. 

The plush red stage curtain of the Paris Opera is not all it seems. It's actually a a trompe l’oeil; its elaborate folds and draping an illusion created with paint.

At the time of my visit, I didn’t realise the plush red stage curtain is actually a trompe l’oeil; its elaborate folds and draping an illusion created with paint. But for me, the highlight of the theatre is the colourful ceiling painted by one of my favourite artists, Marc Chagall. Paying homage to major composers, it comprises twelve canvas panels around a central panel and covers 240 square metres (2583 square feet). No mean feat when you consider Chagall was in his 70s, back in 1964 when he did the work. Thankfully, he didn’t have to climb high scaffolding and work directly on the ceiling like Michaelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. The panels were painted in studios around Paris and then installed on the ceiling, covering up the original work by the 19th century artist Jules-Eugène Lenepveau. Interesting fact; Chagall did not accept any payment for his work. 

Palais Garnier ceiling of auditorium by Marc Chagall

The Grand Foyer

The Grand Foyer of the Palais Garnier stretches 54 metres in length (177 feet)

For me, the most spectacular part of the Palais Garnier is The Grand Foyer. Stretching 54 metres long (177 feet), it is located close to the most prestigious category of boxes in the auditorium. This gave the occupants a place to rest and stroll between performances but possibly more importantly, to be seen and to mingle with high society.

The ceiling of the Grand Foyer at the Palais Garnier, painted by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, features themes from the history of music.

By the time I’d walked from one end to the other, I had the beginnings of a sore neck through gazing up at the amazing ceiling. Painted by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, it features themes from the history of music.

The Phantom of the Opera

Gaston Leroux was a reporter with L’Echo de Paris when he wrote the Phantom of the Opera, published in novel form in 1910. There are many aspects of the Phantom of the Opera that have some grain of truth. There really is a lake under the Palais Garnier. It is apparently now used to train firefighters to swim in the dark. They also based the famous chandelier crash on fact. But whether the Phantom existed remains unproven, although rumours circulated that the building was haunted.

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
Watercolour Painting by André Castaigne illustrating first American edition of the Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux 1911. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


The entrance to the Palais Garnier is on the corner of Scribe and Auber Streets, 75009 Paris.
Metro: Opéra station (lines 3, 7 & 8)

For tour details, opening hours and entry conditions consult the official website per the link below.

Official Website – Click here

If you can’t get there in person, check out this amazing virtual tour courtesy of Google Arts and Culture.

Link to virtual tour

One of the costumes from the Opera Garnier in Paris

If you love ballet, you may enjoy this You Tube video by performers from the Paris Opera ballet when they were locked down due to Covid 19. Even some of their kids get involved. Very cute!

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