I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Paris many times, but until my recent adventure, there was one iconic building I had yet to visit. The city’s ornate Palais Garnier, Paris’ opera house, now also known for its resident phantom, represents the height of Second Empire style and architecture. The building is known formally as the Palais Garnier (Garnier Palace) and it’s a part of the Opera National de Paris, the city’s municipal music authority. The organization also runs the Opera Bastille, the new concert venue and cultural center which opened in 1989.
Opened in 1875 and built on the order of Napoleon II, the design of the Palais Garnier was awarded to then-unknown architect Charles Garnier after a highly publicized and politicized search process. The Emperor had been the victim of an assassination plot at the old opera house and demanded a new one be built that offered him secure access directly from his carriage.
I didn’t just stop by and admire the architecture, I did a very cool after-hours Paris Opera tour from Cultival Paris which got me up close and personal with the whole building. I love any tour that gets me behind-the-scenes or gives me access to places where the public is normally not allowed. Aside from the after-hours Opera Garnier tour, Cultival has other exclusive tours and experiences with other Paris landmarks. They have a behind-the-scenes tour of the Eiffel Tower, which takes visitors underground to see the mechanical workings of the elevators and anchoring structure. The tour also takes visitors to the roof of the Jules Verne restaurant for very unique views of the city.
For me, the Opera Garnier experience started before the official tour, as I had never even been in front of the grand structure. The facade is deceptively thin, as the long building was forced into a diamond shaped lot by city-planner Haussmann. We met the tour group (about ten people) in the one of the theater’s lower entrance lobbies and I was immediately impressed with the knowledge of the guide. Starting in that lower entrance lobby, we gradually made our way upwards, learning all kinds of things about the building, the design, the architect and the politics of the time of its construction. Upon reaching the Grand Staircase and interior courtyard, you can see how architect Garnier made the building the show. The greatest space is this lobby, not the actual interior of the theater nor the stage.
After ascending the Grand Staircase, we made our way inside the auditorium, with its grand stage, Marc Chagall ceiling and huge chandelier. After sitting in the auditorium seats as we learned about the design and use of the various VIP boxes, we then made our way upstairs for a view from some of those boxes. We first visited the royal box, used by the Emperor and then headed towards the center of the theater to visit box 5, home of the Phantom of the Opera (as per Gaston Leroux’s classic novel). Following the Phantom’s box, we continued to experience some of the beautiful public spaces. The Grand Foyer, inspired by Versailles and its hall of mirrors, is another truly world-class architectural wonder. The gilt carvings, wall and ceiling artwork, floor-to-ceiling mirrors and overall size are quite overwhelming.
As a final bit of excitement, as we took our last stroll down the Grand Staircase, tuxedo-clad staff were setting up for the evening’s performance, a ballet. By the time we made our way downstairs to the main entrance at the street, the gates were just about to open to the waiting concertgoers. It was a reminder that this building has a current role in Paris culture, not just a historic one. As it has since opening over 150 years ago, the Palais Garnier continues to provide a beautiful atmosphere in which to experience the city’s world of music, opera and dance.
After the incredible tour, we began our 15 minute walk back to our beautiful hotel, Le Meurice, via Place Vendome. Our first evening out in Paris and it was fun to be amongst the locals on a Friday night as the city’s energy began to shift from workday to weekend.