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15 Fascinating Facts about the Palais Garnier Opera House, Paris

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05/04/21

The Palais Garnier Opera House is one of the main landmarks in Paris. It is located in Paris 9, not far from the Grands Boulevards or Place Vendôme.

The glamorous Palais Garnier or Opera Garnier was commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III as part of his project of reconstruction of Paris. To build the new Opera House in Paris, a competition for the best design was conducted in 1860.

The competition winner was Charles Garnier, a young and unknown architect who presented a highly eclectic project borrowing elements from many historical sources.

The Palais Garnier was completed in 1874 and today is considered a masterpiece of Neo-Baroque Architecture and one of the most beautiful places to visit in Paris.

Amidst the countless anecdotes and legends surrounding its construction and first years, here are 15 fascinating things to know about the Palais Garnier Opera House, Paris.

The Palais Garnier Opera House is one of the top sights to visit in Paris. We recommend visiting the Opera Garnier in the following Paris itineraries:

The Opera Garnier Paris is one of the top sights to visit in the French capital. We recommend visiting the Palais Garnier in the following Paris itineraries:

How to Visit Opera Garnier in Paris

Opera Garnier Detail

The best way to enjoy the Opera Garnier is to attend a performance. The Palais Garnier Paris proposes classical and contemporary ballets. If you want to attend a ballet at Opera Garnier Paris, be sure to add something elegant to your Paris packing list!

The Palais Garnier also proposes guided tours in English and French and self-guided tours.

Click here to book your Opera Garnier tour (guided or self-guided)

If you are fascinated by the Phantom of the Opera, then book the Opera Garnier night tour (guided). This Opera Garnier tour puts more emphasis on the Phantom of the Opera story and other mysteries, and you can visit the Phantom’s prívate box (not included in the day tour).

Click here to book the night tour: Mysteries of the Opera Garnier

A Peek Inside Palais Garnier

The Palais Garnier is 154.9 meters long, 70.2 meters wide at the lateral galleries, 101.2 meters wide at the east and west pavilions.

The Garnier Opera House has 1,979 seating capacity, making it one of the world’s largest opera theaters!

The façade and the interior have no space without decoration and symbolize the opulence of the Second Empire. Garnier combined masterfully the colors and textures offered by different kinds of marble and stones, porphyry, gilded bronze, iron framework, and other materials.

The Grand Escalier (Grand Staircase)

Opera Garnier Grand Escalier

Opera Garnier’s Grand Escalier consists of a double staircase leading to the foyers of the theatre. Built with marbles of different colors, the Grand Escalier is covered by a magnificent thirty-meter-high vault. The pedestals of the staircase are decorated with female torchères who greet the spectators.

The Auditorium

Opera Garnier Auditorium

The Auditorium is the heart of the Opera Garnier, where the performances take place. The theater has a horseshoe shape, so-called for how the seats are arranged to see and be seen. The Auditorium is decorated with marble, stucco, velvet, and gilding.

The Grand Foyer

Opera Garnier Grand Foyer

The Grand Foyer is a long room 18 meters high, 154 meters long, and 13 meters wide and has spectacular views of the Grand Staircase. This hall had an important role in Paris society as it was the perfect place to socialize while drinking champagne during the interacts.

The Grand Foyer was inspired by the Hall of Mirrors inside the Palace of Versailles, with lots of natural light, gold, and mirrors. The lyre, God Apollo’s symbol, is the main decoration element, and you can find it everywhere in the room. Its ceiling represents various moments in the history of music.

Curious Facts About Palais Garnier Opera House

Here are 15 quirky, most curious Palais Garnier facts:

1. The Construction of the Opera Garnier was Inspired by a Tragic Event

In 1858, Emperor Napoleon III and his wife went to the opera that was at Rue Le Peletier. Just as the coach was parking, an explosion reached them. The imperial couple escaped unharmed, but eight of their men were killed, and several others were wounded.

After the failed assassination attempt on Napoleon III, the building of a new opera house was declared in the public’s interest and for the safety of the head of state. The new Opera House was designed to have a private entrance and a special box where the emperor would sit.

2. The Avenue de l’Opéra

Haussmann’s renovation of Paris was a vast public works program commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III to bring air and light to the center of Paris. The Avenue de l’Opéra was not originally part of the plan but a personal request from the Emperor who wanted a direct way to go to the opera from his residence in the Tuileries.

Charles Garnier, thrilled with the idea that such a beautiful avenue could enhance his monument, made an additional request: no trees planted on this avenue so that nothing could disturb the view of the Opera House. That’s why, even today, there are o trees on Avenue de l’Opéra.

3. The Palais Garnier Was a Costly Affair

Charles Garnier
Charles Garnier, second on the right, and his team (1870). Public Domain

Though conceived as an opera house, Garnier’s design has all the elements of a princely palace, hence the name of Palais Garnier. The construction of the Garnier Opera House involved the country’s best artisans available, carefully selected by Garnier himself, and the finest materials. The budget was estimated at over 20 million gold francs, making the Garnier Opera House the most expensive building of its time!

4. The Opera Garnier Served as a Military Camp

The opera’s foundation stone was laid in 1862, but the work lasted more than 10 years because of budget restrictions, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Paris Commune.

During the Prussian War, the unfinished building was converted into a camp where they stored food and straws.

The construction of the building resumed shortly after the Opera Pelletier was destroyed by fire. The building’s main façade was inaugurated in 1867, but the entire opera house was opened to the public in 1875.

5. La Danse de Carpeaux Scandal

Charles Garnier considered his building as a true work of art, and during the works, the façade was totally masked by scaffolding not to betray his artists’ work. To arouse the curiosity of Parisians, Garnier decided to unveil the façade in stages.

In 1869, the carved groups of the facade were discovered. The group representing a group of women joyfully whirling around the Dance genius by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux caused a scandal. How could represent a public monument naked women and so real being fun?

On the night of August 26-27, 1869, a bottle of ink has been thrown against the sculpture group.

Today, visitors can see a copy of this sculpture group; the original is displayed at the Orsay Museum.

6. The Palais Garnier Paris is the First Signed Building

The guided tour starts at Rotonde des Abonnées, a circular vestibule used to accommodate spectators arriving by coach. This is a space with a rather dark atmosphere. Indeed, Charles Garnier wanted to give the spectator the impression to enter a cave before he is dazzled by the Grand Escalier and other theater fires.

On the vestibule’s ceiling, you can see Charles Garnier’s signature, and this is the first time in history that an architect puts his signature in a building.

7. An Ungrateful Inauguration

On January 5, 1875, the Opera was officially inaugurated with a lavish performance attended by Marshal MacMahon (the new chief of the French government), the Lord Mayor of London, and King Alfonso XII of Spain.

Napoleon III, exiled in England since 1871, died in 1873 without seeing the achievement of his work.

The new government wanted to erase all traces of the Second Empire. Thus, Charles Garnier was not invited to the inauguration and had to pay his own place to participate in the show.

8. The Garnier Opera is Designed to Watch the Spectators

Opera Garnier in Paris

The Opera Garnier in Paris was not just about music but also a show of class, the perfect place to showcase its public.

The Grand Escalier was a triumphal entrance, with the perfect design to see and be seen. The Grand Staircase is in a great open hall, surrounded by balconies over four floors, perfect for observing and admiring the important guests. The steps are shallow, so when women would go upstairs, their ankles barely showed.

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.

During the show, the lights would remain lit in order to facilitate the popular activity of people-watching.

Finally, the Grand Foyer is the perfect place for socializing during the interacts. Season ticket holders went to the opera 2-3 times a week, not because there were different performances but to show off and socialize!

9. Being Surrounded by Banking Institutions Was Very Handy

Opera Garnier Roof

The Palais Garnier is located in Paris 9, a district that has always been home to the upper-class and many banking institutions.

The perfect chance to be seen by the public, regular opera-goers would arrive with their best dresses and most precious jewels, usually stored in the banks’ coffers near the Garnier Opera House. As soon as the performance was finished, they would quickly return to the bank to safely store their precious jewels.

To be able to welcome their customers leaving the opera, the banks around Opera Garnier opened until late in the evening when there was an opera show.

10. The Opera Garnier Has a Mysterious Resident

The Phantom of the Opera, which was written by Gaston Leroux in 1910, is said to have been inspired by a true story event.

The novel tells the story of Erik, an eccentric, physically deformed genius who terrorizes the Opera Garnier in Paris. He builds his home in a fantastic palace in the middle of a subterranean lake, just beneath the Opera, and takes the love of his life, a beautiful soprano named Christine, under his wing.

Real stories and myths are blurred in Gaston Leroux’s novel, and until his very last day, he claimed that the Phantom of the Opera really existed.

For example, at the end of the 19th century, there was a mysterious individual who systematically demanded 20,000 francs every month from the board of directors and reserved every evening the box no.5

Another tale is that a pianist known as Ernest was hurt and widowed in the fire that destroyed the Opera Pelletier in 1873. He went to the Opera Garnier for shelter and soon started haunting the corridors with an eerie cry.

Although nobody at Opera Garnier believes the Phantom of the Opera story, the staff won’t hesitate to blame the Phantom when something inexplicable happens …

11. Box Number 5 is the Phantom’s Private Box

Box number 5 was the Phantom’s box, and he demanded that every night the box was his alone, to be kept empty and not shared with another.

Today, this box is sold out for every performance, and it seems to be a wonderful place to see the opera without being seen. 

12. There Really is an Underground Lake

The underground lake where Erik built his palace really exists, but it is not as atmospheric as Gaston Leroux described in his novel the Phantom of the Opera.

One of the reasons why the project took so long to be completed was the presence of a considerable amount of water in the soil. When workers attempted to lay the building’s concrete foundations, a seemingly endless flow of water bubbled up from the swampy, newly cleared ground, and no one could do anything to stem it.

After months of trying to pump out the excess water, Garnier decided to incorporate a cistern into his design to redistribute the water and relieve the water pressure on the basement walls. The cistern, one of the hidden gems of underground Paris, still exists today, and it is used as a reservoir for the firefighters in Paris and a home for a family of carps.

When we did the guided tour, our guide told us that the tank’s weight also stabilizes the building. Some years ago the Opera decided to empty the tank to clean it. During the process, the workers received a call from their boss above ground: they had to stop immediately emptying the tank because all the opera building was moving!

Explore the Opera Garnier’s Underground Lake with Google Curio-Cité

13. The Legendary Episode of the Fall of the Chandelier Really Happened 

Marc Chagall Ceiling

During one of The Phantom of the Opera’s most thrilling moments, the Phantom kills an audience member by causing the Grand Chandelier to fall during a performance. The confusing situation allows him to kidnap Christine to his underground palace.

The fall of the chandelier actually mirrors a real accident at the Opera in 1896,  when one of the counterweights of the 7-tonne chandelier fell into the audience and killed one person.

14. The Opera Stage Can Fit the Arc de Triomphe!

Ballerina Opera

The Palais Garnier’s vast stage is the largest in Europe, measuring 52 meters wide by 62 meters high, vast enough to fit the Arc de Triomphe!

Following a concept which already existed in other opera houses in Italy, Garnier added a slight incline to the stage, allowing visitors to have a better view. With such incredible measures, the 5% incline means that the stage is one meter higher at the back than the front.

15. There Really Are Buried Phonographic Recordings

In the Phantom of the Opera novel, Leroux mentions the burying of phonographic recordings in the Opera Garnier’s cellars. He narrates that while the workmen in charge were preparing the cellar to store the recordings, they found a corpse identified as the Phantom’s.

Actually, this is a historical fact: in 1907, the Gramophone Company sealed 48 gramophone records of the greatest singers of the time in two containers and locked them in the opera house’s cellars, to be opened 100 years later. In 2007, the containers were opened and the records digitized by EMI Classics under the name of Les Urnes de l’Opéra, but there is no record of finding a corpse.

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