Opera Garnier: 10 (little) things you should know about the creation of France's most prestigious opera house

A place of great importance in the history of ballet, opera, and French music in general, the Opera Garnier is one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world. Amidst the countless anecdotes and legends, here are 10 little things to know about the creation of this incredible opera house.

Opera Garnier: 10 (little) things you should know about the creation of France's most prestigious opera house
Opera Garnier: 10 (little) things you should know about the origin of France's most prestigious opera house, © Getty / TARDY HervŽ

On 14 January 1858, as his carriage made its way to the opera, Napoléon III was ambushed and attacked with bombs by Italian anarchists. Though the Emperor survived unscathed, the attack killed eight people and injured dozens. He therefore immediately decided to order the construction of a new opera house, with an easier and safer route for his carriage to follow from the royal palace. 2 years later, an open call for submissions by architects for the new "Académie impériale de musique et de danse" resulted in 171 submissions. To everyone's surprise, a young and unknown architect by the name of Charles Garnier was selected in 1861.

From the various mysteries surrounding this legendary opera house to its extraordinarily large stage, here are 10 little things to know about the creation of the Opera Garnier, one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world.

Opéra Garnier
Opéra Garnier

Cast aside, saved by a fire, and finally inaugurated without Napoléon III

The construction of the Opéra Garnier was not without its hurdles and difficulties. An ambitious project, given the country's financially fragile state, construction was halted in 1870 due to the war against Prussia. The unfinished building was transformed into a military reservoir for food and straw. Only after the accidental fire at the Opéra Pelletier in 1873 was Charles Garnier's project finally resumed.

Though the principal facade had already been inaugurated since 1867, the Opéra Garnier was finally opened to the public in its entirety on 5 January 1875, by the Marshal of France and President of the French Third Republic, accompanied by numerous illustrious guests including the Lord-Mayor of London and the Burgmeister of Amsterdam. However, the project's instigator, Napoléon III, died in exile two years earlier, and never saw the finished work of Charles Garnier.

The Opera Garnier auditorium
The Opera Garnier auditorium, © Getty / Yang Liu

The architect forced to purchase his own ticket for the inauguration

An inauguration without its principal sponsor is already a sad affair, but without its architect?! And yet, the Opéra Garnier almost opened its doors without Charles Garnier! His name omitted from the inauguration guest list, Garnier was forced to buy his own ticket, in a second-class booth. The Opéra's director, keen to correct such an awkward oversight, asked various architectural companies to pay for the forgotten architect's invitation: the Opéra Garnier thus opened its doors in the presence of its creator. 

Simple oversight or calculated omission? Accused by some to have served the previous Empire, it is possible that Charles Garnier was intentionally removed from the guest list...

A dizzying budget for dizzying means

Though conceived as an opera house, Garnier's creation has all the trappings of a princely palace. Jewel of the emerging Paris under the prefect and urban planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann, with its Beaux-Arts style and neo-Baroque influences (a style described as "Napoléon III" by the architect himself), the Opéra Garnier was not deprived of any means. Thus the architect called upon the country's best artisans available, notably 14 painters, numerous mosaicists, and 73 sculptors to create the beautiful facade made to resemble a theatre stage, not to mention the countless sculptures, mosaics and frescos found within the prestigious opera house. The luxurious staircase alone required 30 different kinds of marble, from 8 different countries, made entirely with unique pieces.

As the standard of quality was high, so was the budget, estimated at over 20 million gold francs. Charles Garnier's design was therefore the most expensive building of its time, resulting in various objections from the press: "The amount spent will be 20 million, and we believe that the Government should delay the construction rather than sacrifice such an unacceptable sum for such a work", wrote Charles Yriarte for Le Figaro in 1863.

Even outside, everything is subservient to the new opera house: the Haussmann-designed avenue leading to the main entrance was intentionally designed without trees or other obstacles capable of blocking the view of those walking in the street, a unique exception to the rules imposed by Georges-Eugène Haussmann.

L'avenue de l'opéra
L'avenue de l'opéra, © Getty / Tim Flower

A stage not on the level

In line with the excess and immoderation of its time, the Opéra Garnier was given a huge stage (and surrounding space), capable of containing the Arc de Triomphe in its entirety. Not satisfied with such a large stage, Charles Garnier added a particular detail to his creation. Inspired by his numerous visits to European opera houses and concert halls, he was influenced above all else by the concept of the stage "à l’italienne": a stage with a 5% incline towards the audience, creating a difference of almost one metre between the upstage and downstage, audiences were therefore afforded a higher and deeper view of the stage. An important and unique feature, requiring the stage to be reconstituted whenever and wherever the ballet corps is on tour...

Another particular feature, the system designed for moving the backdrops was inspired by the navy, using huge wooden wheels, ropes and pulleys, capable of lifting, lowering, and moving heavy decorations and backgrounds from the fifth basement to the stage. Who better to operate this system than the sailors already trained in the handling of these mechanisms, often hired during their shore leave in Paris...?

Swan Lake, or Carp Lake?

A seemingly unsurmountable obstacle complicated matters from the very first step when building the Opéra Garnier in 1861. Despite the round-the-clock use of water-pumps for over seven months, the underground water table found underneath the construction site continued to fill itself back up. The natural source was therefore encased in a concrete reservoir and used for plumbing and evacuating water infiltrations, all the while allowing to spread more evenly the weight of the building.

The famous lake has since become a legendary feature of the Opéra Garnier, giving life to various stories and legends with a varying veracity. Still in existence today, the lake is used as a controlled diving environment by the in-house firefighters of the opera house, and... as a habitat for a carp colony!

Paris's 13th opera house: cursed?

It's best not to be triskaidekaphobic when going to the Opéra Garnier! The number 13 is a recurring feature in the opera house's history... 

According to various legends, during a performance of Faust in 1896, the counterweight of the enormous chandelier (weighing approximately seven tonnes) gave way, resulting in the chandelier falling onto the audience below. Amidst the several wounded, one person died, allegedly sat in seat 13. In 1932, a "petit rat" (a young student in the Opéra Garnier ballet corps) fell from one of the entrance hall galleries, landing precisely on the 13th step of the famous staircase, leaving a crack in the middle of the marble slab. Unsurprisingly, there is no box no.13, for superstitious reasons, not to mention the famous "Phantom of the Opera", a legend surrounding the Opéra Garnier since 1873...

The Phantom of the Opera, legend
The Phantom of the Opera, legend, © Getty / Movie Poster Image Art

The Phantom of the Opera

Fact or fiction, the somewhat morbid stories surrounding the Opéra Garnier greatly inspired the imagination of many, but no story more than that of Ernest, a disfigured pianist, organist, and composer, widowed during the Opéra Pelletier fire in 1873. After finding shelter in the dark corners of the Opéra Garnier, he began to haunt the corridors and wings with his heart-wrenching cries...

Various strange and sordid news items were attributed to the enigmatic resident of the Opéra, such as the machinist who died from hanging with a cord nowhere to be found! And who is the mysterious individual who, at the end of the 19th century, systematically demanded 20 000 francs every month from the board of directors and reserved every evening the box no.5? Inspired by these strange tales, the author Gaston Leroux created in 1910 the legend of the "Phantom of the Opera", a true story... according to its author, who wrote in the introduction to his literary work:

The Phantom of the Opera did exist. He was not, as was long believed, born out of the fertile imagination of the artists, the credulity of the directors, or the ludicrous fancy and overexcited brains of the young ladies of the corps de ballet, their mothers, the ushers, the cloakroom attendants and the concierge.

Far from scaring audiences and visitors, the box no.5, belonging to the legendary phantom, attracts as many curious visitors as the Opéra Garnier's other beautiful artefacts and rarities.

A safely guarded jewel

At the end of the 19th century, the Opéra Garnier was (and still is) surrounded by banking institutions. A primarily business-centred neighbourhood, the 9th arrondissement has always been of a relatively upper-class. The arrondissement's residents, of a certain social standing and financial ease, thus often attended performances at the Opéra Garnier: for many, this was even a social obligation, one that could not be ignored...

A chance to be seen by the public, subscribers and regular opera goers would arrive in all their splendour, wearing their precious jewellery stored in the coffers of the banks near the opera house. As soon as the performance was finished, they would quickly return to the bank to safely store their precious belongings in the surrounding banks, open until late in the evening specifically to be able to welcome their customers leaving the opera.

An opera house designed to watch...the spectators?

The Opéra Garnier was conceived by its architect to showcase its public. The great staircase is in a great open hall, surrounded by balconies over four floors, perfect for observing and admiring the important guests. Once in the auditorium, it is hard to miss the Emperor's box, not placed in the middle of the hall for a perfect view and acoustic but rather to the left, beside the front of the stage, visible from almost every seat in the house.

The lights would remain lit in order to facilitate the popular activity of people-watching, a tradition finally overthrown by Wagner in 1876 with the construction of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, a temple of German opera in which the lights were dimmed and all the seats faced the stage so as to focus the audience's attention onto the music and the stage.

Far from the Imperial box, high up in the auditorium, was seated a different kind of spectator: the middle class. Seated in the cheaper seats to watch not only the opera but also the important guests below, it is said that these spectators would even throw food at the disliked upper-class spectators. An unsurprisingly unpopular tradition by those targeted, a wire fence was supposedly installed around these seats so as to catch any and all projectiles...hence the name "poulailler" [chicken coop]. However, it is more likely that this name was in reference to the lack of space for the middle-class audiences, as described by a French music critic in 1885: "it was also given [the name] chicken coop probably because, due to limited number of seats, the spectators in this section were packed tight like hens in a henhouse"... 

These seats are also known by another, more gracious, name: "leparadis" [paradise], in reference to the fact that audiences so high up in the auditorium were often seated near the paintings of clouds on the ceiling. Legend or truth, the seats in "paradise" (or the "chicken coop", depending on your way of looking at things) are still open to the public, fortunately without the wire fence and throwing of food!

Almost a century and a half later, the doors of the Opéra Garnier welcome almost 500 000 visitors every year, those curious to see the artistic treasures hidden within but also those passionate about opera and ballet, whose greatest works are performed on its stage almost every night. A place of fantasy and legend, the opera house has also welcomed countless creations and creators equally legendary, but this is a story for another time...