In the heart of Paris, on the right bank of the Seine, stands the Palais Garnier, one of the capital’s most emblematic buildings. Inaugurated in 1875, this opera house, which has seen countless performances and generations of artists, symbolizes the architectural style of the Belle Époque, combining Baroque art with neo-classical elements. With its glittering gilding, multicolored marble and painted ceilings, the Palais Garnier, commonly known as the Opéra Garnier, is a prime setting for ballets and other operatic performances. Much more than a concert hall, it’s a place steeped in history and legend. Let’s discover this monument that continues to fascinate with its grandeur and timeless elegance.
Birth of the Palais
In the middle of the 19th century, Parisian life was in full swing. Under the aegis of Napoleon III and his prefect of the Seine, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the city of Paris underwent vast transformations. These urban redevelopments, known today as the “Haussmannian works”, were designed to modernize Paris and establish it as a leading European metropolis. As a cultural institution and a symbol of prestige, the opera needed a new home worthy of this new vision. Building a grandiose opera house was also a way for Emperor Napoleon III to reinforce his stature among the Parisian and European elite, as well as his security, following the assassination attempt at the Opéra Le Peletier on January 14, 1858. In 1861, a competition was launched to design the new building. Charles Garnier, then a relatively unknown architect, won the competition. Garnier’s project impresses with its majesty and modernity. Construction of the palace began in 1862 and was completed 14 years later, in 1875. The project was marked by a number of challenges, including the discovery of a water table that gave rise to the creation of an artificial underground lake, popularized by Gaston Leroux’s novel “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra”.
The façade of the Palais Garnier is a dazzling blend of Beaux-Arts opulence and neo-baroque style. Created by the greatest painters and sculptors of the time, including the famous Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, it is adorned with numerous sculptures, columns and friezes celebrating music and the lyrical arts. The many statues, some of them allegorical figures of poetry, music or dance, seem to dance atop the building and its overhangs, bringing the stone to life. The gold details, combined with the white stone, catch and reflect the light, making the Palais Garnier particularly dazzling in the Parisian sunshine. The main entrance is dominated by an imposing glass and wrought-iron marquee, supported by Corinthian columns, a reminder of the era’s penchant for grandeur and exuberance. The façade of the Palais Garnier is not just an introduction to the theatrical experience inside, it’s a performance in itself.
The grand staircase
The interior of the palace is just as impressive as the exterior, and the grand staircase is proof of this. A true feat of engineering, this staircase is also a work of art that testifies to the grandeur and splendor of the Beaux-Arts style. With its white marble steps, colorful marble balustrades, gilded statues and imposing chandeliers, this staircase offers a grandiose experience to all who enter. It’s a real feast for the eyes, where every detail, from floor to ceiling, bears witness to extreme refinement. The staircase leads to the various foyers and galleries, all built in marble of various colors: white, green and red. The balustrades are adorned with gilded sculptures and bronze cherubs. Candelabras in the shape of nymphs illuminate the space, creating an almost supernatural atmosphere. The vault is adorned with brilliant mosaics that complete the visual spectacle. It’s a place of transition between the outside world and the auditorium. By climbing the staircase, visitors symbolically pass from a secular world to a sacred one, that of opera and dance.
The Opéra Garnier auditorium
The auditorium is also an architectural and artistic feat. Designed to seat around 2,000 spectators, it adopts the horseshoe shape traditional of the great European opera houses of the period. Red and gold dominate the color palette, creating a warm yet majestic atmosphere. The ceiling, painted by Marc Chagall in 1964, is a masterpiece in itself. Combining modernity and tradition, Chagall succeeded in breathing new life into the vault without betraying the essence of the place. Its ceiling illustrates various scenes from famous operas, fusing music and painting in a single picture. The room’s acoustics are just as impressive as its aesthetics. Thanks to its architectural design, every note resonates with clarity and precision, whether produced by a full orchestra, a choir or a single voice. This sonic perfection allows the audience, wherever they are, to be enveloped by the music and enjoy an immersive experience. The seats in this hall alone tell a story, not only of shows, but also of 19th-century French society:
- Orchestra seats: Closest to the stage, these are the most coveted seats, offering an unobstructed view of the show. They are intended for a wealthy and privileged public, as they are the most expensive and comfortable.
- The dressing rooms : Emblematic of the Opéra Garnier, the private dressing rooms offer privacy and prestige. They are often associated with the aristocracy and bourgeoisie of the 19th century, as they were reserved for those who could afford the expense. They allow us not only to see the show, but also to be seen, reinforcing the social status of their occupants.
- Balcony and galleries : Located on a higher level, the balcony and galleries offer a different perspective on the stage. Seating is less expensive than in the orchestra or boxes, but still offers an excellent view, a testament to Garnier’s architectural ingenuity.
- The henhouse : Located at the very top of the hall, the henhouse is traditionally where the cheapest seats are. Intended for the “little people” of Paris, these seats gave less affluent members of the population access to the Opéra’s shows. Despite the distance from the stage, the room’s impeccable acoustics guarantee a quality sound experience.
- Front of stage : These are seats at the front of the stage, usually reserved for VIPs or special guests. They offer a unique experience, allowing you to see the artists up close.
The grand foyer
Evoking the gilded galleries of Renaissance châteaux such as Versailles, the Grand Foyer stretches to a height of almost 18 metres, a length of 54 metres and a width of 13 metres. The whole is an explosion of gilding, mirrors, chandeliers and paintings. The ceiling, adorned with dazzling frescoes by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, depicts musical themes and is surrounded by allegorical figures. These paintings highlight music as a central art form, fusing diverse influences, periods and subjects. The huge windows overlook the Avenue de l’Opéra and flood the Grand Foyer with light, making the gilding sparkle and the waxed parquet reflect. The original purpose of the Grand Foyer was to serve as a space for rest and conversation during intermissions. It was the place where Parisian high society came to see and be seen, exchange gossip, forge alliances and flaunt its wealth and prestige. In this bright, opulent room, spectators could stretch their legs, discuss the performance or simply admire the view.
Backstage at the Opéra
Backstage is a veritable maze of corridors, staircases, secret passages and hidden rooms. They extend over several levels, some even below street level. In the past, these areas were used to store sets and costumes, as well as the machinery needed to change sets at a moment’s notice. In the basement of the Opéra Garnier lies machinery of staggering complexity for its time. Lifting platforms, pulley systems, trap doors… everything has been designed to bring even the largest production runs to life. Even today, the majority of these original installations are still in use, a testament to their ingenuity. Away from the spotlight, the artists take refuge in the dressing rooms, small rooms dedicated to preparation before each performance. This is where they put on their make-up, hair and costumes, often assisted by an army of costume designers, make-up artists and hairdressers.
The star dancers of the Palais Garnier
The title of “danseur étoile” is unique to the Paris Opera Ballet. It designates the elite of dancers, those who have reached the highest level of perfection in their art. But it’s more than just a title: to be a étoile is to embody the excellence of French ballet, to be a role model for generations to come, to carry the legacy of the Paris Opera around the world. The climb to this prestigious title is long and demanding. From an early age, dancers join the Paris Opera Dance School, where they receive rigorous training. Over the years, they climbed the ranks of the corps de ballet hierarchy: quadrille, coryphée, sujet, premier danseur, and finally, danseur étoile. This progression is sanctioned by internal competitions, auditions and stage performances. Being a prima ballerina doesn’t just mean excelling on stage. It also means taking on responsibilities off the set. The stars are often called upon to represent the Paris Opera abroad, give masterclasses, take part in charity events, and encourage the next generation of dancers.
Although the Palais Garnier is no longer the Opéra de Paris’s main performance venue since the inauguration of the Opéra Bastille in 1989, it remains a venue dedicated to music and dance, particularly ballet. In addition to performances, the Palace is open for tours, allowing curious onlookers and enthusiasts to admire its architectural splendor and learn more about its rich history. Beyond its primary function as a theater, the Palais Garnier is an ode to art in all its forms. A true testament to the cultural and architectural history of Paris, it continues to amaze Parisians and visitors from all over the world, reminding us of the artistic excellence and cultural ambition of the French capital.
Program, ticketing, practical information… visit www.operadeparis.fr