Rome wasn’t built in one day, and neither was the Opéra Garnier! Here are 5 things to know about the history and construction of a true emblem of Paris.
The Opéra Garnier, located in the Place de l’Opéra in Paris, is a veritable symbol of the Second French Empire and of France itself. Baron Haussmann designed the square to give onlookers a spectacular view of this majestic building, which stands in the heart of a neighborhood on which the architect left his distinct mark. So, we have decided to take a look at five things to know–or research further–about the Opéra Garnier, in order for you to be ready for your next visit.
1. Why was the Opéra Garnier built?
A true masterpiece of the Second French Empire and Haussman’s Paris, the Opéra Garnier was commissioned by Emperor Napoléon III, who wanted to satisfy the demands of high society for a grand and flamboyant theatre. Napoleon, who had just survived an attack at the old cramped Le Pelletier street theater, decided it was time to give the people of Paris an opera house that was not only safer, but that would also boost France’s international profile by showing it off to the world.
2. How was the Opéra Garnier born?
A contest was held for the construction of the city’s soon-to-be newest hotspot. To everyone’s surprise, the young and unknown Charles Garnier, won, beating out some of the most well-known contemporary architects like Rohault or Fleury, the architect of the City of Paris, and even Viollet-le-Duc, the empress’s favorite. Construction began in 1860 and took 15 years to complete.
3. The result?
Charles Garnier drew inspiration from the past to design this monumental masterpiece, which was different from everything that existed at the time. The striking façade reflects the great range of materials used, which at first glance evokes a sense of wonder. The façade set itself apart from the coldness of the city’s typical monochrome monuments When setting foot inside, it’s hard to know which way to look: low-reliefs, candelabra, statues, numerous baroque ornaments, columns, a luxurious mineral decoration and, of course… the grand staircase! Parisians were going to the theatre to see, but also to be seen. As a genuine backdrop for worldliness, Garnier put as much emphasis on the hall as he did on the stage.
4. And what about the famous Marc Chagall mural?
Even if the Opéra Garnier and the famous Chagall mural on the ceiling of the great hall seam indivisible from each other today, the French-Belarusian artist’s work wasn’t added until 1964. The original, named Les muses et les heures du jour et de la nuit by Jules-Eugène Lenepveu, was conservative and very academic. André Malraux, former Minister of Cultural Affairs, felt Lenepveu’s mural was cheerless so he turned to his friend and beloved artist, Marc Chagall. Critics widely denounced the new artwork, arguing that it had no place in a monument emblematic of the Second French Empire, and that it clashed with the building’s style. Either way, it drew a lot of attention and brought a sense of renewal upon the Opéra Garnier. This mural truly exemplifies Chagall’s style, an explosion of colors, characters with wings and dreamlike scenes. This new ceiling, overlapping the original artwork, pays tribute to 14 composers and their work.
5. A hidden artificial lake lies beneath the Opéra.
Between the catacombs and the sewers, Paris has many underground secrets, which are the source for many myths and legends. The Opéra also has a very well kept secret on the fifth level of its basement. When building the Opéra’s foundations, Charles Garnier was confronted with a swampy unstable terrain. To fix the issue, they created a “tank” of sorts filled with water, allowing more impermeability and stability. This water supply would also make it easier to fight a potential fire. Many legends surround this body of water, like the famous opéra ghost. It is said that before he died and started to haunt the opera, the young man survived for several years by drinking the water from the lake and eating the fish that can still be found there to this day. In fact, Gaston Leroux based his 1909 novel on this ghost, The Phantom of the Opera, which went on to become a musical theater phenomenon.
Fun fact: Firefighters regularly train there for their aquatic interventions.