The Palais Garnier, known also as the Opéra de Paris or Opéra Garnier, but more commonly as the Paris Opera is generally considered to be one of the most important buildings in Paris.
It was the primary home of the Paris Opera and its associated Paris Opera Ballet until 1989, when the Opéra Bastille opened at the Place de la Bastille.
Situated in the 9th arrondissement at the end of the avenue de l’Opéra, the sumptuous opera house symbolises the opulence of the Second Empire.
The theatre had been commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III as part of his sweeping reconstruction of Paris.
An international design competition for constructing the opera house was officially announced on December 30, 1860. Among the 171 architects who participated in the competition, Charles Garnier was declared the winner.
Construction began in 1860 and ended a remarkable 15 years later due to various interruptions, including the 1870 war and the fall of both the Second Empire and the Paris Commune.
The theatre was formally inaugurated on 5 January 1875 with a lavish gala performance attended by Marshal MacMahon, the Lord Mayor of London and King Alfonso XII of Spain.
The style is monumental and considered typically Beaux-Arts, with axial symmetry in plan and eclectic exterior ornamentation with an abundance of Neo-Baroque decorative elements.
The opera building has 1,979 seating capacity which makes it one of the largest theaters in the world.
Its height is 56 meters (184 feet) from ground level to the apex of the stage flytower; 32 meters (105 feet) to the top of the facade.
The building is 154.9 meters (508 feet) long; 70.2 meters (230 feet) wide at the lateral galleries; 101.2 meters (332 feet) wide at the east and west pavilions.
The principal facade is on the south side of the building. Fourteen painters, mosaicists and seventy-three sculptors participated in the creation of its ornamentation.
Between the columns of principal facade are bronze busts of many of the great composers, Mozart, Rossini, Daniel Auber, Beethoven, Meyerbeer, Fromental Halévy, Spontini, and Philippe Quinault.
The two gilded figural groups, Charles Gumery’s L’Harmonie (Harmony) and La Poésie (Poetry), crown the apexes of the principal facade’s left and right avant-corps. They are both made of gilt copper electrotype.
The sculptural group Apollo, Poetry, and Music, located at the apex of the south gable of the stage flytower, is the work of Aimé Millet.
Pavillon de l’Empereur – this group of rooms is located on the left (west) side of the building and was designed to allow secure and direct access by the Emperor via a double ramp to the building. When the Empire fell, work stopped, leaving unfinished dressed stonework. It now houses the Bibliothèque-Musée de l’Opéra de Paris (Paris Opera Library-Museum) which is home to nearly 600,000 documents including 100,000 books, 1,680 periodicals, 10,000 programs, letters, 100,000 photographs, sketches of costumes and sets, posters and historical administrative records.
Pavillon des Abonnés – located on the right (east) side of the building as a counterpart to the Pavillon de l’Empereur, this pavilion was designed to allow subscribers (abonnés) direct access from their carriages to the interior of the building. It is covered by a 13.5 meter diameter dome. Two pairs of obelisks marking the entrances of the Rotunda to the north and the south.
The interior consists of interweaving corridors, stairwells, alcoves and landings allowing the movement of large numbers of people and space for socializing during intermission. Rich with velvet, gold leaf, and cherubim and nymphs, the interior is characteristic of Baroque sumptuousness.
The Grand Staircase of the Palais Garnier is one of the building’s most famous interior features. Made of white marble with a balustrade of red and green marble, it divides into two divergent flights of stairs that lead to the Grand Foyer. The pedestals of the staircase are decorated with female torchÈres, created by Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, and the ceiling above the staircase was painted by Isidore Pils to depict The Triumph of Apollo.
The Grand Foyer is 18 meters (59 feet) high, 154 meters (505 feet) long and 13 meters (43 feet) wide. This hall was designed to act as a drawing room for Paris society. It was restored in 2004. Its ceiling was painted by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry and represents various moments in the history of music.
The auditorium has a traditional Italian horseshoe shape. The stage is the largest in Europe and can accommodate as many as 450 artists. The canvas house curtain was painted to represent a draped curtain, complete with tassels and braid.
The auditorium is decorated with red velvet, stucco, marble and gold leaf.
The 7-ton bronze and crystal chandelier was designed by Garnier. Originally the chandelier was raised up through the ceiling into the cupola over the auditorium for cleaning, but now it is lowered.
During 1896, the falling of one of the counterweights for the grand chandelier resulted in the death of one person. This incident, as well as the underground lake, cellars, along with the other elements of the Opera House even the building itself were the inspirations of Gaston Leroux for his classic 1910 Gothic novel, The Phantom of the Opera.
The ceiling area, which surrounds the chandelier, was given a new painting during 1964 by Marc Chagall. This painting was controversial, with many people feeling Chagall’s work clashed with the style of the rest of the theater.
During 1969, the theatre was given new electrical facilities, and during 1978 part of the original Foyer de la Danse was converted into new rehearsal space for the Ballet company by the architect Jean-Loup Roubert.
During 1994, restoration work began on the theatre, which consisted of modernizing the stage machinery and electrical facilities, while restoring and preserving the opulent décor, as well as strengthening the frame and foundation of the building. This restoration was completed during 2007.
The French Post Office has issued two postage stamps on the building: The first was issued in September 1998, for the centenary of the death of Charles Garnier. It was designed by Claude Andréotto grouping elements which recall the artistic activities of the Opera Garnier: the profile of a dancer, a violin and a red curtain. The second, drawn and engraved by Martin Mörck, is issued in June 2006 and represents, in intaglio, the main facade.