Palais Garnier is perhaps the most beautiful building in Paris. It is also the most controversial. Think of an opulently beautiful building that was the most expensive project of its time, secret passageways, a tragedy leading to its construction, unpopular royal patrons, a strange subterranean lake, and a resident phantom: Palais Garnier has it all. A masterpiece of the 19th-century theater art architecture, Palais Garnier seats 1,979 guests. Although a fully functioning opera house, its tickets for ballets and operas are hard to come by (not to mention expensive!). However, one great way to experience its magnificence is to visit the opera house as a day trip and roam through the expansive interiors. Just try to join an official tour to learn about its incredible history and secrets. Because trust me, this is one of the most controversial buildings in Paris.

Assassination attempt of Napoleon III that led to the construction of Palais Garnier

The assassination attempt of Napoleon III led to the construction of Palais Garnier Photo Credit – Theatre in Paris

A failed assassination attempt of the king

Palais Garnier is the brainchild of Napoleon III. Its conception came from a tragedy. While attending the Opera of Rue Le Peletier, Napoleon and his wife escaped a bomb assassination attack by the skin of their teeth. Immediately, the French king decided to build a new opera house; one that would have a private entrance for the royal family. This decision lead him to hold an international competition in 1860. Architects had to submit proposals for the new opera house. 171 proposals were submitted anonymously and it was a relatively unknown architect, Charles Garnier who won the competition. His project number #38, was named “I aspire too much, I expect little.”

Project 38 of Charles Garnier Photo Credit – Messy Nessy Chic

An unobstructed view of the opera, please

Incidentally, at that time, Haussmann’s renovation of Paris, a vast public works program that was also commissioned by Napoleon III was underway. Its aim was to bring air and light to the center of Paris. Although initially, the Avenue de l’Opéra was not a part of the plan, the assassination attempt made it imperative that the Emperor should have a direct way to go to the opera from his residence in the Tuileries. Charles Garnier was obviously thrilled at the prospect of a beautiful avenue leading up to his monument and he made an additional request of having no trees planted on this avenue so as to not obstruct the view of the Opera House. Even today, there are no trees on Avenue de l’Opéra.

Palais Garnier was the most expensive building of its time

The most expensive building of its time

Now opera houses are supposed to be grand affairs. Their lush interiors add to the sumptuousness of the overall experience and most of them are architecturally scintillating. Palais Garnier, however, took it a few notches higher. Though intended as an opera house, Charles Garnier’s design was befitting a princely palace and it was built from 1861 to 1875. The construction of the aptly names Palais Garnier was a very costly affair since the building had all the elements of a princely palace. It required the services of some of France’s best available artisans and only the finest materials were used. The budget was estimated at over 20 million gold francs, making the Garnier Opera House the most expensive building of its time.

Palais Garnier is surrounded by banking institutions

Watch a show, drop your jewels at the neighbourhood banks

When I say that the French have a cool ‘matter-of-fact’ attitude, I really mean it. Despite their quirks, fancies, and love for the foibles, they always seem to have a grip on the practicalities of life. This is reflected in the location of Palais Garnier. It is located in Paris 9, a district that has always been home to the upper-class and many banking institutions. Since the opera house was one of the places ‘to be seen and socialize’ for the upper crust, the regular opera-goers made sure to arrive there in their best clothes and jewels, which were usually kept in these bank vaults. As soon as the performance was finished, they would go to the bank and safely store their precious jewels. To facilitate this service, the banks around Opera Garnier opened until late in the evening whenever there was an opera show.

Inside the Palais Garnier

The joyful naked women sculpture of Palais Garnier

The construction of Palais Garnier took longer than expected. Because of budget restrictions, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Paris Commune, the work went on for more than 10 years after the opera’s foundation stone was laid in 1862. The unfinished opera house was briefly converted into a camp for storing food and straw during the Prussian War. The construction resumed after the Opera Pelletier was destroyed by fire and the main façade of Palais Garnier was inaugurated in 1867. However, it was not until 1875 that the entire opera house was opened to the public. The inauguration was not without controversy. It is believed that since Charles Garnier considered his building to be a masterpiece, he made sure that during the entire construction, the facade was completely masked by scaffolding. This whetted the curiousity of the Parisians and the architect unveiled the facade in stages. During one such unveiling, in 1869, the carved groups of the facade were revealed. Created by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, one group represented some naked women joyfully whirling around the Dance. There was a huge outcry at the immodesty of showcasing nude women on a public building and on an August night in 1869, a bottle of ink was thrown against the sculpture group.

Do not invite the architect to the inauguration

It was but just the beginning of controversies surrounding the Palais Garnier. By the time, it was completed, its patron, Napoleon III was exiled in England. He died there in 1873 without seeing the achievement of his work. Thus, in 1875, the Opera was officially inaugurated with a lavish performance attended by Marshal MacMahon (the new chief of the French government), the Lord Mayor of London, and King Alfonso XII of Spain. The new government in attempts to erase all traces of the royal rule did not invite Charles Garnier to the inauguration and the architect had to pay for his seat to participate in the show.

The beginning of The Phantom of the Opera

All these seemed relatively tame until The Phantom of the Opera burst into the scene. Based on Palais Garnier, this legendary novel by Gaston Leroux tells the story of Erik, a physically deformed eccentric genius who builds himself a fantastic palace in the middle of a subterranean lake, just beneath the Opera. He becomes obsessed with a young soprano, Christine Daaé, and gives her complimentary singing lessons. To kidnap Christine, the phantom rigs a chandelier to fall on the audience as a distraction. He then kidnaps Christine, taking her by gondola to his watery underground lair full of secret tunnels. There he regales her with the title song Phantom of the Opera and Music of the Night. However, as Christine’s musical prowess increases, her star rises, and a handsome suitor enters the scene. The jealous Phantom is furious and he starts terrorizing the Opera Garnier.

The Phantom at his subterranean palace Photo Credit – Theatre in Paris

Was the mysterious phantom one of Garnier’s own architects?

This novel was published in 1910 and ever since Palais Garnier has been haunted by the phantom or at least rumours of it. Many believe that Gaston Leroux was inspired by true events and until his last day, the writer claimed that the Phantom of the Opera really existed. Over the years, truth and myths got blurred and the phantom figure inspired many sensational events. For example, at the end of the 19th century, there existed a mysterious individual who systematically demanded 20,000 francs every month from the board of directors and reserved box no.5 for every evening. It is called the Phantom’s Box and is sold out during every season. Another story tells about a pianist called Ernest, who was injured and widowed in the 1873 Opera Pelletier fire. He went to the Opera Garnier for shelter and started haunting the corridors with an eerie cry. Then there was the story of Monsieur Leroux hearing a strange rumour during a visit to the Opera House in 1908. It was circulated that one of Garnier’s architects, named Eric, had asked to live underneath the incredible structure and hadn’t been seen since.

Who was The Phantom of the Opera? Photo Credit – Messy Nessy Chic

Why did the real Christine never sing at Palais Garnier?

The fictional soprano Christine also existed in real life. She was called Christine Nilsson, a very famous diva who was renowned for her performances in Hamlet and Faust. Nielsson and Daaé had a lot in common. They were both Swedes with blonde hair and blue eyes. Both were the daughters of poor men, forced to leave their homes at a young age and eventually taken in by a character named Valerius in Gothenburg. They ended up in Paris as singers and here the similarities end. While Christine was kidnapped by the Phantom during her performance at the Palais Garnier, Nilsson never sang there. Ironically, she cancelled her performance before the Opera’s inauguration at the last minute.

The real Christine         Photo Credit – Messy Nessy Chic

The reality of the subterranean lake

While most at the Palais Garnier do not believe in the existence of the Phantom of the opera, there is no doubt that the novel was indeed based on some events. For example, a network of hidden passages and alcoves do exist under the opera building. There are two of them, beginning five levels down into the basement and climbing up to its fourth floor with a thin metal ladder. One of the two tunnels is still in use, while the other now serves as a rainwater evacuation chute. Even the subterranean lake where Erik built his palace really exists. However, it is not as titillating as described in Gaston Leroux’s novel. The plain fact is that Charles Garnier hit an arm of the Seine while digging for the foundation. The underground river was completely hidden and no matter how hard they tried to pump out the water, it kept rushing back. So after months of trying to pump out the excess water, Garbier decided to incorporate a cistern into his design. This helped redistribute the water and relieve pressure on the basement walls. The cistern still exists today. It is used as a reservoir for the firefighters in Paris and is home to a family of carps. The subterranean lake rather than housing a phantom aids in stabilizing the building. Some years ago, the Opera management decided to empty the tank to clean it. This could not be completed, however, since emptying of the cistern made the building move.

The strange secrets of Palais Garnier

The most thrilling scandal associated with the malevolent phantom is perhaps when he kills a member of the audience by causing the Grand Chandelier to crash during a performance. In the novel, this confusing situation allows him to kidnap Christine to his underground palace. In reality, this accident did happen in 1896, when one of the counterweights of the 7-tonne chandelier crashed and killed one person. In his novel, Leroux mentions the burying of phonographic recordings in the cellars of the Palais Garnier. He dramatizes it narrating that while the workmen in charge were preparing the cellar to store the recordings, they found a corpse identified as the Phantom’s. In reality, the Gramophone Company in 1907, sealed 48 gramophone records of the greatest singers of the time in two containers and locked them in the opera house’s cellars, to be opened 100 years later. In 2007, the containers were opened and the records were digitized by EMI Classics under the name of Les Urnes de l’Opéra. There was no record of finding a corpse.



Did Leroux actually believe in his make-believe story?

According to Mireille Ribiere, who translated The Phantom of the Opera in English, the phantom of Palais Garnier was a figment of the writer’s imagination. Gaston Leroux was a flamboyant, larger-than-life character who, she claims started believing in his own fantasies. His make-believe story was so successful that he did not wish to destroy the illusion. You don’t really kill the goose that lays the golden egg, do you? Leroux was an exceptional writer with groundbreaking research abilities and he wove such a tight mesh of fact and fiction, that the ghost became almost tangible. So does this malevolent spirit really exist or is he simply a fantastic imaginary figure? Take a guided tour of the Palais Garnier and find out for yourself. Even if you don’t get to meet the phantom, you will explore a fascinating labyrinth of halls and wings that will whisk you away to another world: a world of classical dance and music, exquisite art, and pure golden light.

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