It’s hardly surprising that a city whose residents are as crazy about culture as the Parisians boasts not one, but two, world-class opera houses. France’s national company, the Opéra National de Paris, divides its time between the sumptuous Opéra Garnier—first opened in 1875 on the orders of Napoleon III—and the sleek, modern chic of the Opéra Bastille—opened in 1989 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the French revolution.
This week, we’re going for a night at the opera in the sumptuous nineteenth-century interior of the Opéra Garnier in the chic 9th arrondissement, but we’ll be taking going for a night out at the Opéra Bastille some time soon too.
Thirteen Years in the Making
The Palais Garnier’s sumptuous design was chosen in 1862 after a competition—which drew over 150 entries—launched by Napoleon III. Outraged after an attempted assassination by Italian anarchists in 1861 at the original Paris Opera, the Emperor decided it was time to build an entirely new opera. The new building was to be in keeping with the other projects he had set under way, including a radical redesign of the Paris street plan orchestrated on his behalf by Baron Haussmann.
The winning design, finally complete in 1875, is incredibly opulent, and makes liberal use of expensive materials like gold and marble. Indeed, the whole project was bedevilled by money worries and Napoleon III didn’t even live to see it finished.
Much of the building is open to visitors, even without a ticket. You can wander up the grand staircase, one of the largest ever built at the time, which soon became the place to see and be seen in Paris. The auditorium itself—where almost two thousand spectators sit under a crystal chandelier weighing almost six tonnes—is as opulent as the other spaces and is upholstered with deep red velvet and plenty of gold. The stage, a remarkable technical achievement for the period, has room for up to 450 performers at once, with musicians below.
Nowadays, the Palais Garnier rarely holds opera performances, most of which have been transferred to the Opéra Bastille which has more advanced audio and lighting equipment. Instead, it focuses on ballet, presenting around a dozen pieces a year, with a mixture of classics and new work. Most are performed by the national company, but visits from other companies are also common.
If you’d just like to see the elegant interior and not attend a performance—and getting tickets can be very difficult if you don’t plan ahead—then there are guided tours every day.
WHAT: Palais Garnier Opéra Opera House
WHERE: place de l’Opéra, métro Opéra (lines 3, 7)
WHEN: open for visitors everyday; check for performance details