Visit the Opera Garnier and Palais Royal
The Paris Opera Garnier and the Birth of Classical Ballet
The Paris Opera is one of the single most important arts institutions in world history. It carries a legacy approaching three centuries long — a legacy that includes great innovations in the performing arts that lead up to the present day.
When I’m walking through Paris, it’s easy to see why this city is home to such a history. Music and dance are everywhere in the air, with so much inspiration to be found around every corner and down every alleyway.
There might be no other city in the world that a company like this could call home.
Of course, the history of the Paris Opera is like so many tales of France’s past. There are monarchs, poets, and great architecture. There are political upheavals and the birth of new ideas. There’s passion, beauty, and art living through big moments of history.
It is a tale that is just so characteristically Parisian, and it begins in the 17th century, when the modern world was just about to be born.
The Paris Opera - by Louis XIV
France has a history of rulers who cement their legacy through patronage to the arts. And so it is no surprise that the Paris Opera was founded by Louis XIV in 1669.
The king had witnessed the first ever opera performance in France at the tender age of seven, and he was a dancer himself. So he seems a likely fit as the founder, but without one writer, what would come to be known as the Paris Opera might never have existed.
It all began with a decade-long campaign by poet Pierre Perrin, who wanted a place to express the musicality and beauty of French — other Europeans at the time thought it was an ugly and stilted language. Perrin wrote extensively on the topic, pushing the government of Louis XIV to establish an institution that could promote French opera.
Louis XIV proved sympathetic. In fact, he expanded on Perrin’s vision. And so he established the Académie d'Opéra (soon changed to the Académie Royale de Musique). It would be a blend of an academy and a performance outfit.
For 12 years, the King decreed, the academy would be the only entity allowed to set up a school and performing center for French opera. (Its monopoly kept being extended right up until the French Revolution.)
This monopoly proved important. With both royal patronage and zero competition, it was able to put on extremely expensive productions — the likes of which weren’t seen anywhere else. And being the only destination for talent looking to work in opera, it ensured that the greatest minds of every generation collaborated, competed, and combined their talent in the same space.
With the king’s blessing, Perrin and his hand selected partners turned the Bouteille tennis court into their opera house and set to work.
France at the time organized their arts and sciences in academies. These were official institutions that helped promote the arts, while also creating and enforcing certain standards. The format ensured that royal money supported a thriving culture.
That official patronage kept France one of the most artistically vibrant and productive nations throughout the centuries, and its long standing commitment to art helped form its international reputation as a country filled with artists. And Paris in particular is known as a city thrumming with creative energy.
The Birth of Classical Ballet
It is in those early years of the Académie Royale de Musique that one of its biggest contributions took shape.
Early leadership made baroque ballet an important feature of their performances. For much of its history to that point, ballet was something aristocrats did as amateurs. They were expansions of court dances, and they made little use of formal technique.
In the mid-1600s, that was changing. And the Académie wanted to be ahead of this trend.
Pierre Beauchamp was made the headmaster of dancing. And in this role, he helped invent classical ballet by introducing the five positions that dancers still use today. This allowed new dances that went beyond what anyone had ever seen. And its popularity meant that performances often used a lot of dancing.
This connection to ballet continued, despite there being a special academy just for dance (the Académie Royale de Danse). When the French Revolution swept away the monarchy, the dance academy fell, and what would become the Paris Opera became the major host to the city’s ballet.
The Paris Opera After the Revolution
After the French Revolution, the name of the academy changed several times. The trick was making it not seem like a holdover from the monarchy that had just been overthrown.
It continued to hold performances through even the rockiest years of the late 1700s. And it even continued through the rise and fall of Napoleon.
Throughout its first two hundred years of existence, its venues frequently changed, and many were entirely destroyed by fire. But in the middle of the 19th century, they got a new home, specially built for their performances. And it would become a jewel of the performing arts.
The Founding of the Palais Garnier
The Palais Garnier is known as the most famous opera house in the world — a major landmark in Paris, a city with more major landmarks than perhaps any other.
It began construction in 1861, part of the renovation of Paris undertaken by Emperor Napoleon III (Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte). This effort was all headed up by Baron Haussmann who, along with the emperor, sought to bring rational order to the city.
One of the main goals was to broaden the avenues — a feature of Paris that is prevalent in the paintings of Impressionists. This would make it less confusing to travel and let in more sunlight.
Critically, it also gave the emperor the opportunity to add in big architectural feats that would bring glory to Napoleon III’s reign.
This led to plans for the new home for the Paris Opera. This is despite the fact that he was shot just outside one of their operas. The assassin only managed to blow a hole in the Emperor’s hat, and the show continued without a hiccup.
The building was designed by Charles Garnier, who won an international competition. But it was the then-unknown Garnier’s eye for extravagance that made him stand out against the legendary architects he competed against.
His work stands as a full embodiment of the Second Empire style, which emphasized grandiosity and mixed together a wide variety of historical styles and influences.
The idea was to make a place for the Paris Opera to host the greatest ballet spectacles ever conceived, and it did this tremendously well. It features a painting ceiling (See Chagall Painting on the Opera Ceiling), retractable seven ton chandelier, and intricate decor that is crammed into every place possible.
To get an idea of just how enormous the stage is, it is joked that the curtain takes 100 people to raise.
When it finished construction in 1875, it gave the Paris Opera a 1,979 seat home that has become one of the most enduring features of world architectural heritage.
In 1989, the Paris Opera expanded its home to include the Opéra Bastille. The venue was built thanks to the Grands Travaux, a President François Mitterrand program meant to update the look of Paris with new monuments.
And how fitting it is that for a new, impressive monument, they built an opera house.
It was designed by world renowned Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott. While its opening was filled with political controversies and scandal, today its 2,745 seat theater plays host to most of the company’s opera performances.
Though the new home is another big step in a history of big steps, the Palais Garnier continues to be an important center of Parisian culture.
The Paris Opera Today
The Paris Opera continues to put on major performances throughout the year. With an annual budget of €220 million, it is the biggest opera in all of Europe. The company uses this largesse to put on performances that rival any in the world.
More than 800,000 people visit their events each year, at either the Bastille or Garnier. Their busy schedule gives you plenty of chances to attend when you visit Paris.
The impact the Paris Opera has made on music, dance, and all the performing arts is a pivotal part of our history. They have been at the forefront for centuries, and have remained relevant through passion and talent that continues through the generations.
Not only that, but they’ve contributed to the look and feel of Paris as a city — responsible for landmarks, both old and new, that bring bombastic character to these fabled streets.
Opera Guided Tour by Flora - Tour guide in Paris
Visit with me the Palais Royal, the hidden covered passages and the department stores, including a visit to the Opera Garnier.
Housing cafés, theaters, shops and apartments, the arcades of Palais Royal during the 17th century became a meeting place for people from all walks of life. But what was hidden behind those façades? The cafes saw pre-revolutionary plotting and the Palais Royal became known as a hotbed of gambling dens and prostitution. Today the gardens are one of Paris' most elegant and tranquil spots. Many shops under the arcades sell prints and antiques and still maintain their old world ambiance.
This walk takes you through tiny streets leading to the charming glass-roofed galleries and enchanting passages that weave their way through Paris’ boulevards. These galleries were built during the early part of the 19th century and hailed the beginnings of a new type of shopping in Paris.
We will continue the walk into one of Paris’ most lively areas, where the famous department stores opened in the mid 18 hundreds. These new temples for shopping soon became the new places where to find the best deals !
As Paris was being rebuilt almost entirely, a new opera house was born in the heart of the "new" Paris of Haussman. We will take this tour to the Opera Garnier, a jewel of Paris' architecture.