Thursday, December 24, 2009

Gettin' Cultcha: L'Opera Garnier

Anybody who has ever seen Andrew Lloyd Weber's "The Phantom of the Opera" puts a tour of the Palais Garnier building at the very top of their Paris "must do" list. And you should do it, even if you haven't seen the show, as most Parisians haven't. Get this: This musical has played all over the world, but it has never come to Paris.

The guide is quick to point out that the musical, all four movie versions and the book on which they are all based is pure fiction. The opera house is not haunted. There is no lake under the building (although there is a water reservoir which architect Charles Garnier included in case his creation ever met the same fiery fate as its 12 predecessors did in those pre-electricity days). And, sadly, the chandelier -- which is extremely impressive-- never fell. It did once have some mechanical problems and started moving, but it dropped not so much as a crystal.

So much for the myth, but in a city of impressive buildings, the opera house, a monument to the opulence of the Second Empire and the massive ego of its architect, is still really something you have to see. Tours are offered in English several days a week. At a hour and a half in length, it is well worth the 12 euro ticket price. You can take a 9 euro unguided tour as I did two years ago, but you really don't get all the details. Nor do you get to see all the insider spots like the library or the costume museum.
I'll let the pictures speak for themselves, but I do want to pass on my favorite anecdote from the tour. In those days of high society, the opera house, and its boxes, were designed for an audience that was more interested in seeing and being seen than watching the production. The two most prestigious boxes were those flanking the stage: one for the Emperor of France, the other for his special guests. Both were bordered by massive golden nymph statues. The statues bordering the emperor's box were clothed, the ones bordering the box on the opposite side were nude. Garnier did this on purpose so that if the Emperor got bored watching the production, he would have something appealing to look at. The irony is that by the time the building was finished, France had become a Republic for good. So no emperor ever sat in the box.

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