Opera Garnier | Paris Opera House, mini-Versailles

Opera Garnier, Palais National de Paris or Palais Garnier, or more known commonly as the Paris Opera, whatever you call it, it’s generally considered to be one of the most important buildings in Paris.

Opera Garnier | the Versailles of Opera Houses

Gilded wood and red velvet seating in the balconies of the Paris Opera House

It’s actually not as old as you might think. In 1860, the city of Paris held a contest to choose a design for the new opera house. It was at a time when Paris was undergoing huge change under the direction of Georges-Eugène Haussmann, commonly known as Baron Haussman. Napoleon III appointed him to carry out a massive urban renewal programme in Paris. More than 170 designs were submitted and Charles Garnier, just 35 years old, was the winner. Born in rue Mouffetard, Paris, in 1825 he was formally educated but unknown. The opera house opened in January 1875 and it was to make him internationally famous.

In creating Palais Garnier, he crafted the architectural style of the Second Empire. When Empress Eugénie, perplexed by the building’s lack of unity, asked him: “What is this style? This is no style, it is not Greek or Louis XVI”, Garnier replied “No, those styles are all outdated, this is Napoleon III”.

It wasn’t an easy project. During the course of its construction delays were caused by the discovery of an underground lake, a war in 1870, the Siege of Paris and fall of the Second Empire. Napoleon III died two years before the work was finished.

The Paris Opera company founded by Louis XIV in 1669 moved here, its 13th home, on 15 January 1875. It was an enormous success and became the showpiece of Haussman’s new Paris. To this day it is one of the largest theatres of the world with 1,979 seats.

The Versailles of Opera Houses

Galleries at the Paris Opera House are hung with chandeliers and the walls are decorated with oil paintings

Opulent, ornamental, gleaming, glamorous and glitzy – wow factor galore is what the Opera is all about both inside and out. The moment you enter its doors to the grand, mirrored foyers, designed for the rich to see and be seen, there’s no doubting that this was meant to be a statement building.

One of the most famous aspects of the building is the Grand Staircase built from white marble, with beautiful mellow lighting, sculptures and lots of gold – it’s utterly breath-taking and a theatrical setting. Though, if you visit in 2019 you might find the sight of two gold painted tractor tyres a bit bizarre. They’re part of a modern art installation by French artist Claude Lévêque to celebrate 350 years of the Paris Opera. Not all who see it are enthralled. It’s not the first time that Palais Garnier has caused controversy with its art choices.

In 1964, the ceiling of the auditorium was updated with a painting by Marc Chagall. So great was the criticism at this choice that the original painting by Eugene Lenepveu was retained underneath it.

Chagall’s secret message in the ceiling of the Paris opera house

Ceiling rose painted by Marc Chagall at the Paris Opera House - colourful and aesthetic

The ceiling painted by Marc Chagall is now considered one of the wonders of Paris. Countless thousands have stood looking in awe at the incredible colours and images. Recently a secret was revealed in the painting. The Google Art Project which designs the most powerful cameras in the world and photographs major artworks around the world, captured images of Chagall’s painting. They invited Chagall’s son to review the images and he told them that his father had told him that he had painted him as a baby. But, he had never been able to see the image despite looking for many years.

The Google team zoomed in on the photos. And, incredibly, after more than 50 years the image was revealed. It was Chagall’s son, painted as a tiny baby, the son of Chagall (read more about Google’s discovery of Chagall’s secret painting).

Below it hangs an enormous, 340 light, 7-ton bronze and crystal chandelier designed by Garnier. In 1896 a counterweight, used to lift it for cleaning, fell into the audience and killed a theatre-goer. It was partly this which inspired the famous tale of the Phantom of the opera by Gaston Leroux in 1910. In fact go there today and you’ll see a door marked for the Phantom’s box!

A monumental Opera House

Ballerina having her hair dressed in preparation for a performance at Opera Garnier

The stage is the largest in Europe and can hold up to 450 artists! When you visit there are often rehearsals ongoing so you can’t always get into the auditorium all the time but may have to wait to see it. In the Grand Foyer, lined with mirrors and lights is just like the Gallery of Mirrors at Versailles. It’s easy to imagine it in the 19th century, thronging with jewelled, wide gowned ladies and top-hatted gents. It was as much then, if not more so, about showing off your wealth as it was about seeing an opera.

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