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[blockquote style=”1″][/blockquote]“We shape our buildings: thereafter they shape us’’ – Sir Winston Churchill

Originally known as the ‘Salles des Capucines’, in the classier part of the 9th arrondissement, the Palais Garnier is unarguably the most famous opera house in the world. A crowning glory of the second empire, it is an exquisite example of the ‘Beaux Arts’ architectural style. It is an iconic symbol of the city and is as much an organic part of the French culture today as it is an historical monument reminiscent of an era bygone.

Napoleon III, following an assassination attempt on his life in 1858, at the ‘Salle Le Peletier’, (the old opera house), resolved to build a new, more grandiose opera house that would be a true reflection of his new baroque taste. He declared a competition in 1860 to select the architect with the best vision for the 12,000 m2 site. Out of the 171 entrants, the unknown Charles Garnier’s plans were chosen, over the Empress Eugénie’s favourite architect Viollet-Le-Duc and the popular Charles Rohault de Fleury. Garnier had summarized his design with the Italian motto “Bramo assai, Poco Spero’’ (desire for much, hope for little). The design impressed with its clarity, logic, opulence and yet simplicity. He divided his plans into three distinguishable parts – the public spaces, the auditorium and the stage. However, Empress Eugénie was not convinced and remarked, “What is this? It’s not a style, its neither Louis Quatorze, nor Louis Quinze nor Louis Seize!” The young Garnier replied, “Why Madame, it’s Napoleon Trois.”

After 15 years of construction that weathered many setbacks, like the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian war and the 1873 Paris fire, the Palais Garnier was inaugurated in 1875. The masterpiece of the architect came to life and it was a spectacle within a spectacle, a place for fêtes and fantasy among the super rich. It was so designed that when the wealthy alighted from their carriages and climbed up the opera house steps, they would be displayed in their full regalia. It was a place to see and be seen. The men dressed elegantly and the women in their most extravagant gowns and brilliant jewels would socialise in the richly decorated multiple foyers, the grand staircase of multicoloured marbles and the magnificent grand foyer, finally retiring to their private loges to dine and watch the performance in the horseshoe shaped auditorium that could seat 1,979. With its stage, second largest in Europe, the ceiling first painted by Jules Eugène Lenepveu and later by Marc Chagall, and the famous 7 ton bronze and crystal chandelier designed by Garnier, the Palais Garnier was and still is a visual feast.

Part of its alluring charm is the mystery that surrounds it which inspired the 1910 gothic love story by Gaston Leroux, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. The discovery of an underground lake which held up the laying of the foundation, the incident of the counterweight from the chandelier falling and killing a member of the audience and the burying of 24 records in 1907 in the cellar were all true facts that featured in Leroux’s fictional novel and which have kept people intrigued and unsure where history ends and the real story of the phantom begins. Leroux’s claim on his deathbed that the phantom really existed has kept the opera house shrouded in mystery. The myth still lives on in various adaptations on screen and on stage. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ is a worldwide sensational success. Today, the Palais Garnier in all its magnificence stands proud with its doors open to all visitors and lovers of the arts and not just for the elite. As I have personally experienced, nothing beats the thrill of watching a ballet performance here. As the curtains fall and the auditorium fills with thundering applause, if you close your eyes for a moment, you can almost hear the sound of the horse carriages pulling up outside.

About Subarna Ganguly 7 Articles
Subarna is an Indian expat from Calcutta and has been living in France for more than 7 years. Coming from a family of artists and litterateurs, writing is one of her many creative passions. Subarna has written for several English national newspapers like the Indian Express, Telegraph and the Statesman. She holds a Bachelors degree in English Literature and a Master in Journalism and Mass Communication where she topped her University. She was also the only Journalism student selected by the Japanese Government to represent her country in Japan as a cultural youth ambassador for the prestigious Jenesys program in 2008. Subarna went on to complete her second Master in Global Management from Rouen Business School in Normandy, France. During this time she also had management training in the University of Richmond, United States. She was offered an Internship with the United Nations in New York for their Advocacy and Outreach department but chose instead to continue her internship with Infosys, a global multinational company in the field of Information technology, where she currently works in Human Resources as Senior Associate since 2010. In her HR role in Infosys she uses her specialised knowledge in Cross Cultural studies, a subject in which she completed her thesis, to help employees and new hires of different nationalities integrate in the company. Subarna is also a passionate globe trotter and has travelled extensively from a young age through the North Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe. She has a great love for the stage and has been featured in many newspapers for her performances in theatre, music and dance. She believes in drinking life to the lees and her attitude to life echoes the words of her favourite Tennyson creation Ulysses who says-‘’ I am a part of all that I have met, yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades forever and forever when I move...”