Only five tickets remained when I booked our “Mysteries of the Palais Garnier” tour six weeks before we traveled to Paris. The 5 p.m. time slot would work well with our itinerary, I thought, but truth be told, it was the word mysteries that really captured my attention: Discover all the secrets of the Paris Opera in this visit outside opening hours to the general public…In a cozy atmosphere discover or rediscover a timeless place.

When we arrived in Paris, the serendipity of our hotel room’s location across from the Palais Garnier added further intrigue to the mysteries of the iconic landmark. It felt as if we could practically reach out and touch the building’s golden adornments from our balcony. Every morning, I half expected Musique herself to begin serenading us with her lyre!

Palais Garnier Paris Exterior Detail - the modern postcard

Palais Garnier Exterior

The 1,979-seat opera house was built between 1861 and 1875 at the behest of Emperor Napoleon III, who held a competition for the design of the new building. Architect Charles Garnier was one of seven finalists invited to revise their original design proposals. His final design won over the judges, who selected his project for its:

“…rare and superior qualities in the beautiful distribution of the plans, the monumental and characteristic aspect of the façades and sections.”

~Andrew Ayers, The Architecture of Paris

Garnier said his design represented the Napoleon III style – an eclectic mix of Baroque, Palladio and Renaissance combined with modern techniques and materials and iron framework. The style leaves no space without decoration, which Garnier used lavishly throughout his design. The exterior façade features 17 different materials, including marble friezes, columns and statuary, which include deities of Greek mythology.

Palais Garnier Paris at Sunset - the modern postcard
The Palais Garnier at sunset.
Dome detail.
Aimé Millet’s sculpture of Apollo with his Golden Lyre, Poetry and Music adorns the rooftop.
The Palais Garnier’s front façade on the Place de l’Opéra was covered with an ad for the upcoming Olympics at the time of our visit.
 L’Harmonie by sculptor Charles Gumery decorates the top left side of the front façade’s roof.
We passed this monument to architect Charles Garnier on our way to the ticket office.
Exterior lampposts are embellished with a ship motif.

Beginning Our Tour – Rotonde des Abonnés

Herb and I arrived at the ticket office thirty minutes before the tour, as requested on the website. We picked up our listening devices and waited in the Rotonde des Abonnés – the Subscribers’ Rotunda –  with forty-or-so others who had signed on for the English-speaking tour. Several groups were milling about, their footsteps and voices echoing in the beautiful open space.

At 5 p.m. our guide Rita appeared, seeming to glide across the mosaic floor as she approached our group. Rita is one of those people who lights up a room – or in this case, a Rotunda – when she walks in, and I quickly realized how lucky we were to have landed in her tour group.

The Palais Garnier Rotunda and our guide Rita, heading across the shimmering mosaic floor as she greets our group.
Rotunda ceiling detail.

Palais Garnier Grand Staircase

Our first stop was the Grand Staircase, a pathway of white marble that separates into two divergent flights of stairs, lined with a red and green marble balustrade. Female torchères holding bouquet-like candelabras anchor the bottom of the staircase, and two caryatids representing Comedy and Tragedy stand guard at the staircase landing. Dramatic scenes created by French painter Isidore Pils decorate the ceiling.

Rita talked about the art and architecture as we took in all the gildedness. The grand space felt so quiet that it seemed as if we were the only people there. Rita told us that she was keeping an eye out for the other groups that were sharing this special after-hours experience, making sure that we didn’t cross paths with each other. As she spoke, it occurred to me that there were no people on the staircase, as if this were a private photo session just for us.

The elegant and oh-so grand Grand Staircase…

A torchère lights the way.
Caryatids by Jules Thomas personify Tragedy with her sword (left) and Comedy with her harp (right).
Isidore Pils’ Ceiling Paintings Depict The Triumph of Apollo, The Enchantment of Music Deploying its Charms, Minerva Fighting Brutality Watched by the Gods of Olympus, and The City of Paris Receiving the Plan of the New Opéra.

Palais Garnier Grand Foyer

As soon as we stood at the entrance to the Grand Foyer, I felt as if I’d been transported to the Palace of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors. The 177-feet-long and and 59-feet-high room is a magnificence of gold and light and symbolism and paintings that is at once stunning and overpowering. The Grand Foyer was where opera-goers gathered before performances – men only, Rita told us, until 1875 when Queen Isabella of Spain boldly entered the room. The lights and doors are decorated with lyres, the symbol of lyrical music. Statues represent Greek gods and goddesses.

Eight canvasses depict the Muses from Greek mythology. There are actually nine Muses, Rita explained, but the architects only included eight to make the room appear balanced. Rita spun stories about the room’s symbolism – much more information than I could possibly write here – gracefully moving like a dancer from one side of the Grand Foyer to the other as she talked. She was dramatic and animated and seemed to put her whole heart into her tour, randomly calling on people in the group to answer a question or find out what they thought about something she had said.

The Grand Foyer.
Looking up…the Grand Foyer ceiling features paintings by French artist Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry.
Detail of one of the Grand Foyer’s numerous lyres, symbol of lyrical music.
Matching fireplaces decorate each end of the room.
Our lovely and delightfully animated tour guide Rita.
A quick photo in the Grand Foyer before moving on.

The Phantom of the Opera

Our final stop of the tour was an area outside sets of elegant wood doors leading to the Auditorium loges, or private box seats. One special door – number 5 – was the box of the Phantom of the Opera, immortalized in the 1910 novel by Gaston Laroux and in the 1986 musical. As we stood by the famous door, Rita told the Phantom’s story, her voice whispering at times, dramatic and theatrical as if she were reenacting the novel.

The Palais Garnier was the setting for the Phantom of the Opera, and legends seem to abound about fact versus fiction. Yes, the chandelier really did fall during a performance in 1896, killing a woman in the audience and injuring several others. In Laroux’s book, the Phantom caused the chandelier to break loose. The “lake” below the opera house where the Phantom lived exists as well. But in reality, it’s a reservoir that had to be contained when workers were digging the building’s foundation.

Handsome wood doors lead to private box seats.
The most famous door of all.

We all had a chance to peek through the circular window in the Phantom’s door, but it was dark and difficult to see beyond the glass. Sadly, we were unable to enter the Auditorium because it was being used for a rehearsal. We were given fair warning when we purchased our tickets that access may be denied due to technical or artistic reasons, but I held out hope of seeing Marc Chagall’s famous ceiling and that equally-famous chandelier.

Still, it was fascinating to be there when music echoed through the doors. And if I used my imagination, I swear I could hear the Phantom singing “The Music of the Night.”

Marc Chagall’s ceiling mural depicts scenes from the operas of 14 composers. Photo courtesy of Mustang Joe, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

2 Comments

  • Wow, Mary, your photographs are spectacular!! I have heard of the lavish interiors of the Opera and knew of some little quirks because of the Phantom amongst other stories, but really, I had no idea it was quite so breathtaking. Hmmm…I wonder if I might engineer an evening there at some point?!

    I appreciate how fortunate you were to find yourself with a first class guide too. Such good luck makes all the difference, doesn’t it?

    My word…I am returning straight to the top of the page again to revisit that amazing place. Thank you so much for taking us there!

    • Gill, thank you so much…I’m delighted you enjoyed the photos! Like you, I knew the opera house was supposed to be quite beautiful, but had no idea until I was there just how spectacular it was. I also knew about the Phantom legends surrounding the opera house, but they didn’t completely make sense until the tour unfolded.

      Fortunate is definitely the right word when it comes to having Rita as our guide. It is SO true that a really great guide can make such a difference on a tour. And in a group venue like this, you just have to hope that luck will be on your side when you’re assigned to a group! I put a link to getting tickets at the beginning of the story, which should be helpful if you decide to visit. Tour dates are listed only about a month in advance and seem to fill up quickly.

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