Chicago, circa early 2000s. Back then, Chris (former roommate and current bff) and I used to say, in the throes of our body-glitter dabbing, super shiny lip gloss toting, nightclub-going 20s, that getting ready to go out was half the fun of going out.
I suspect the ladies and bespoke gentlemen who were wealthy enough to have seats at L’Opéra Garnier felt the same, getting all gussied up in their crinoline and finery. (This is in no way comparing the 21st century depravities that are nightclubs in North America to opera houses. To be clear!)
And, oh, I would have loved to dress up for a night of opera or ballet at L’Opéra Garnier in Paris (also known as Le Palais Garnier)! I totally brought a dress for the occasion, if it had presented itself. As I was in Paris in late July/August, the only time when the performing arts takes a vacation, alas, “It was impossible,” as the French like to say. Le SIGH. I went anyway for a tour and I was very pleased that I did.
The Palais Garnier sits grandly at the end of the Avenue de l’Opera, as one might expect, a straight shot from the Louvre. And as one might expect, it’s also right in front of the Opéra Metro stop (lines 3, 7 and 8). Visitors entrance to the Opera is at the corner of rue Auber and rue Scribe. (Rue means street in French.) If you were standing where I took the picture above, the entrance is around the building to the left.
Charles Garnier was an unknown architect before he entered in and won the contest to design Paris’ opera house. He was 35 years old. He understood the idea that people go to the opera to see a show, to be dazzled and amazed, and these same wealthy patrons also want to see the other patrons and want to be seen by them. Form followed function. The lighting is soft and flattering; there are wonderful balconies all around to alight, look out of and be looked upon; it’s spacious though there are also areas where two can steal some private moments tête-à-tête. Strategically placed mirrors help one keep everything in check. The opera house was designed and executed in the Baroque architectural style so well-loved of those times – emphasis on the ornate and decorative, its themes hearkening back to Greek mythology to lend prestige, grandeur and connection to the past. The Palais Garnier is almost as exceptional the Château Versailles in terms of architecture – dare I say – without the trek to the suburbs and minus the overwhelming and extremely annoying bus tour set. (You’d miss out on the gardens, though.)
In terms of content alone, I’m not sure I can say the guided tour (in English) was worth the few extra Euros and hassle of reserving ahead of time online and having to be there on time. But I felt good having contributed a little more to the upkeep of this monument to the arts and having learned a few interesting tidbits, added to each photo. There is an after hours tour as well – yes, you Phantom fans! – which I would have preferred, but it was sold out. Both tours are 90 minutes long, and online sales close the day before the tour but often tickets are still available and can be purchased directly at the box office (at the visitors entrance).
You can forgo the guided tours and get in for a look around for €9 from 10 am to 5 pm (that’s 17:00) everyday, with the last entry at 4:30 pm. Check the Palais Garnier website for any closures (see “Exceptional Closures” box to the left). Guided tours and general admission sometimes bar admission to the auditorium, depending on what preparations need to be made for that evening’s performance. I’d suggest calling ahead to make sure you can get in, just so you can feast your eyes on Marc Chagall’s 1963 ceiling medallion around the eight metric ton chandelier. Chagall pays tribute to the great composers with vignettes of their iconic operas and ballets with their names inscribed throughout. Parisian landmarks dot the primary-colored round: the Eiffel Tower, Pere-Lachaise cemetery, the Opera itself, the Arc de Triomphe and maybe a few more Marc has hidden away. Can you find them?
The Opera building also houses a temporary exhibition in the Library-Museum, which, when I was there, was dedicated to the many costumes – works of art in their own right – that help the performers and dancers give life to their characters and to the story as a whole. As the costumes are meant to be seen from as faraway as the nosebleed seats, they are quite dazzling yet somehow sublime and elegant up close. To put on the 44 productions every year requires 153 employees who fashion 150 completely new costumes, that’s head to toe, from 300 new custom-made wigs to shoes! The National Opera of course carefully stores, alters, launders, irons and repairs 6200 costumes from earlier seasons as they are able. And I thought I had a big closet! My favorite costume was the Black Swan costume from Swan Lake. As it was behind protective plexiglass, I couldn’t get a great picture of the whole costume, but upon suggestion of a friend, I placed the lens right against the glass to manage this detail of the tutu.
Tickets to the ballet and operas are sold on a rolling basis throughout the season. I understand tickets are tough to get, even with the advent of online ticket sales, only a few performances staged at the Palais Garnier, with most of the ballet and opera season happening over at the newer Palais Bastille. Season ticket holders are allowed to resell their seats if they cannot attend a performance, but only at face value. All tickets can be purchased online. These two Fodor’s forums about how to buy tickets in advance online and how to scoop up last-minute tickets may also be useful.
Here are a few more pictures. Click on a thumbnail for a full-screen view and some information on each picture. If opera or ballet is really your thing, check out the archive of videos posted by the National Opera of Paris, which includes excerpts from live performances, profiles of the performers and many behind-the-scenes artists who support each show and previews of upcoming ballets and operas. Finally, if you’re planning a trip to the City of Light, find some inspiration with my other posts. Lucky you!