[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.