The Paris Opera House or Palais Garnier is one of Paris’ most magnificent buildings, a place of mirrors, gilt, lush and plush accoutrements. It was the cultural centre of Paris in the Belle Epoque years and continues to wow visitors with the ballets that are performed on its illustrious stage. Lisa Buros-Hutchins goes back stage at this very famous Paris landmark…
There is a place in Paris so beautiful, so magical in its timeless detail, that it moves me every time I visit it. The Palais Garnier is a visually stunning building so full of intricate architectural detail and majesty that I simply cannot think of another place in Paris that rivals it.
The Garnier was commissioned by Napoleon III to be built by the architect Charles Garnier. Twelve opera houses came before the Garnier, of which 11 went up in flames and the 12th just didn’t make the cut to be worthy of 19th century France. To make sure this majestic 13th opera house stands the test of time there is now an in-house team of pompiers (french firefighters) on duty and keeping watch over the Palais Garnier 24 hours a day.
Legend has it that the Emperor’s wife, the Empress Eugénie, who was thought to be peeved that Garnier had been chosen over her favourite designer Viollet-le-Duc, asked the relatively unknown Garnier: “What is this? It’s not a style; it’s neither Louis Quatorze, nor Louis Quinze, nor Louis Seize!” “Why Ma’am, it’s Napoleon Trois” replied Garnier “and you’re complaining!”
When I moved to Paris years ago I visited the Garnier and just could not believe the beauty before me. There is a sense of history and of complete exclusivity that engulfs you when you enter this building. Marble from all over the world, in varying colors, beckons you to reach out and touch the smooth bannisters as you walk the steps of the Grand Staircase. Standing quietly at the bottom of the stairs you can imagine the ladies in their ankle-length evening gowns being very risqué lifting their dresses ever so slightly to reveal their ankles as they climbed the steps to the performance hall…
The Grand Foyer is breath taking as you stroll through it, losing yourself to the exquisite beauty of every story, person and myth represented on the painted ceiling and gilded light fixtures. And, of course, who can deny the vivid beauty of Marc Chagall’s ceiling perfectly lit by the six ton chandelier Charles Garnier himself designed to illuminate his celebrated opera house. The entirety of the Palais Garnier is, quite simply, a masterpiece.
It is the exclusivity of the Opéra Garnier that has always intrigued me the most. This mythic place of ballerinas, and the occasional opera, holds its secrets close. Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opéra, which is based on this very opera house, certainly took the mystique to epic proportions. So, just imagine what it was like when I received an invitation to do an exclusive tour – a full on, all-access tour of this one place that I have held in such high regard, and been completely intimidated by, since my arrival to the City of Light.
I have to say what I love about the Palais Garnier is that here you have this world renowned opera house, steeped in tradition and closely guarded secrets of underground lakes and hidden cellars, an institution unto itself … and it just happens to have one of the most forward-thinking, young and dynamic teams I’ve had the pleasure to work with in Paris. I am always about giving my clients the most unique and most exclusive experiences I can come up with. And I certainly cannot do this without the help of the people who hold the keys to places like this! And here at the Palais Garnier it is Flore and Coralie, two exceptional ladies I work with quite a bit, who hold the golden keys to this kingdom.
When I arrived to tour the Palais Garnier with a few close friends I was like a small child who was getting to see Santa Claus – it was honestly that thrilling to me. We were led through the backstage area and into the ballerina’s warm-up room and my eyes were wide open with my hands over my mouth trying to conceal my giddiness. To stand on the stage – a stage so much bigger than you could ever imagine – was mind boggling at the scale and exclusivity of it. And then down the stairs we went to the mythical parts of the Palais Garnier…
We saw the rigging used to change the sets back in the day of the 1870’s and it was crazy cool to see how the stages were changed – talk about forward thinking! And, of course, to get to see the water reservoir was, quite honestly, the thrill of a lifetime. It wasn’t so much seeing it as it doesn’t really lend itself to what you expect from every Phantom of the Opera movie ever made: it was the simple fact that I was standing at the water reservoir of the Opéra Garnier knowing I was one of so few people who will ever have this amazing experience. And of course, the atelier where they mend, sew, create – you name it — hundreds of costumes, tutus and special accents to the dresses simply cannot be imagined. This whole other entity of the Palais Garnier that exists only to those with access to it is, without a doubt, very magical to see.
This mythical place in Paris known as the Palais Garnier truly does live up to every expectation I had, simply sublime.
Find out how to take a tour of the Paris Opera house on their website.
By Lisa Buros-Hutchins