An Opera House Inspired by More Than Music

The architecture and location of the Palais Garnier are intertwined with the history of France and Paris (and a famous phantom).

The Paris Opera circa 1875, the year the building was inaugurated.
Credit...Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Showcasing more than 400 performances of opera, dance and music each year, Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera, inaugurated in 1875, is a true cathedral of culture.

A promenade through its rooms is a theatrical experience itself, revealing ornate marble columns, bronze statues, crystal chandeliers, and paintings and frescoes. But the Palais Garnier, as the building is known, also holds secrets, from design quirks to haunting tales. Here are some facts about the building.

Charles Garnier, the architect, was the last one shortlisted for the project.  

Emperor Napoleon III started a competition for an “Imperial Academy of Music and Dance” in December 1860. Five finalists were chosen from more than 170 proposals. They were ranked, and Garnier came in last. With little to lose, he changed his plans, creating a monumental structure layered with imposing arcades, colonnades and flanking pavilions, crowned with a dome and a pedimented tower. “He was using a classical language, but in an eclectic, much freer, and much more expressive way,” Christopher Mead, author of “Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera: Architectural Empathy and the Renaissance of French Classicism,” said in an interview. Garnier’s win shocked the establishment, Mr. Mead said, but worked with the emperor’s effort to cast himself as a reformer.

Credit...adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

There is a “lake” under the opera house.

When digging the foundations, workers hit a hidden arm of the Seine, causing water to flood the site. It was impossible to remove all the water, so crews had to contain it with a massive concrete reservoir with a vaulted ceiling from which water is still pumped today. The so-called lake was dramatized by Gaston Leroux, author of “The Phantom of the Opera,” who made it the stomping grounds of the Phantom. Mr. Mead was mesmerized by a visit. “You can see why it inspired Leroux,” he said. “You could invent a whole world there.”

The falling chandelier in “The Phantom of the Opera” was based on a real event.

In 1896, during a performance of Étienne-Joseph Floquet’s opera “Hellé,” a short-circuit caused a counterweight from the chandelier to fall, killing a woman in the audience and injuring several more people. Reporting on the event was Leroux, then a journalist with a Paris newspaper. In “The Phantom of the Opera,” it is the Phantom who dislodges the chandelier from the ceiling.

Credit...Gabriel Bouys/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

So was the Phantom (sort of).

Leroux first published his novel as a serial in 1909 and 1910. In an interview, Isabelle Rachelle Casta, author of “The Work of ‘Obscure Clarity’ in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ by Gaston Leroux,” said its characters and story were invented but drew from real-life elements in addition to the lake and the falling chandelier. The Phantom himself was inspired by a pianist who was disfigured after an 1873 fire at the Palais Garnier’s precursor, the Salle Le Peletier, and from an assistant to Garnier who disappeared during construction. “Leroux took all of these stories and he created one of the most important stories of the 20th century,” Ms. Casta said.

An attack partly inspired the construction. 

In 1858, Napoleon III and his wife, Empress Eugènie, went to the Salle Le Peletier for a concert. As they arrived, three bomb blasts threw their carriage onto its side, hurled spectators into the street and blew out windows in the opera house and surrounding buildings. Eight people died, but the emperor and empress survived. The mastermind of the plot was Felice Orsini, an Italian revolutionary who had been critical of Napoleon III for not supporting his pro-republican cause. The emperor, already hoping to replace the Salle Le Peletier, decided to build a new opera house in a more open area with a secure entrance. But he never saw it completed: He died in 1873.

Garnier requested that no trees be planted on the main road to the building.

Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who oversaw Napoleon III’s transformation of Paris, lined all his Grands Boulevards with trees, except for one: the Avenue de l’Opéra, a half-mile stretch from the Louvre to the opera house. Garnier asked for this to maximize his building’s sense of monumentality and to not block views of it. “He wanted a building that announced itself to the public,” Mr. Mead said. “This was a building for them.”