Once upon a time during intermission at one of my first operas, I stood at the balcony overlooking several levels of cascading staircases beneath me, watching people as I sipped on Champagne. The stranger next to me noticed my fascination and struck up a conversation. And he shared something that has stayed with me at every opera I’ve seen since.
He told me that all opera houses were designed for people-watching because opera used to be as much about the music as it was a popularity contest among the aristocratic people who could afford to attend. The winding staircases and balconies allowed people to see and be seen — the most important factor of the night.
I don’t know who that man was or where he was from, but since our conversation I’ve been to opera houses from Los Angeles to New York and everywhere in between and old or new, his point seems to ring true almost everywhere. (There are a few exceptions, like San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.) Even Barcelona’s Liceu opera house has plenty of places to gaze upon fellow opera-goers, even without a grand staircase.
When I first saw a photo of Palais Garnier, the opera house in Paris, I wasn’t thinking about how perfect it was for people-watching, I was mesmerized by its staircase. (I have an obsession with stairs and always stop to snap photos of a good staircase!) But I’d be lying if the opera house itself wasn’t one of the main reasons (combined with French pastries) that inspired me to add Paris to my trip to Spain.
Once in Paris, I wanted to know everything about Palais Garnier so, like in Barcelona, I signed up for a tour. Of everything I learned, here are my favorite facts.
5 incredible facts about the Paris Opera House, Palais Garnier
1. Yes, Palais Garnier was designed for people-watching.
The tour guide confirmed what that man had told me years ago: that the opera house was designed for people watching, especially the grand staircase. Its several stories of balconies and open staircases beg you to gaze down at those below you — or across from you. And the stairs themselves are really shallow, designed to prevent women from showing their — gasp! — ankles when walking up them.
2. The opera house is surrounded by banks. That’s because…
…All those fancy rich people who attended the opera with the intention to see and be seen decked themselves out with all their jewels, which they picked up from their bank vaults on their way there. Several banks knowingly opened nearby and stayed open until the opera was over so the jewels could be put away immediately after the curtain fell. While numerous banks still surround the opera house today, they are no longer open so late.
3. The top tier is called the Chicken Coup and there’s no visibility of the stage from there. But that didn’t matter because…
The top tier was primarily reserved for middle class people who didn’t come to see the opera, but to see the rich people who were there. In fact, back then the house lights stayed on throughout the entire performance so that people could people-watch during the whole opera. That is, until composer Richard Wagner decided that all lights needed to be off in order to better concentrate on the activities on stage.
The middle class people couldn’t afford to dine at the lavish Palais Garnier so they brought food with them. When they saw someone famous they didn’t like, they threw spoiled food at them from the top tier. Eventually, vendors selling rotten tomatoes and apples gathered outside the opera house for this very purpose.
As you can imagine, the aristocratic people weren’t very pleased about this (can you imagine being hit with a rotten apple?!), so the Palais Garnier put chicken wire around the top tier to catch thrown objects, hence the tier’s nickname “the chicken coup.” Today the chicken wire is gone but the visibility from the top tier is still minimal, so if you’re planning to see an opera make sure you check the stage view from the seats before purchasing! (There’s a stage view link next to each seat on the Paris Opera website.)
4. The basement of the opera house is flooded. And that inspired the famous book and musical…
…the Phantom of the Opera. The site for the Palais Garnier was picked for its proximity to the center of Paris, but when construction began in 1861 workers discovered the ground was a swampy lake that continuously flooded the site. It took eight months to drain but the water kept returning. After construction began and several attempts to pump out the water failed, architect Charles Garnier created a huge tank to store the water and used it to add stability the massive building.
The “underground lake” and its surrounding cellars inspired Gaston Leroux to write the Phantom of the Opera in 1910 and he even mentioned in his book when the huge chandelier came crashing down from the ceiling causing the death of a worker.
5. Parisians don’t get dressed up for the opera. Which was awkward because…
… I was really dressed up. In a building that beautiful, I couldn’t imagine wearing anything but a gown to the performance of Orphée et Eurydice. Even at the other opera house in Paris, Opera Bastille, where we saw Les Capulet et les Montaigu (otherwise known as Romeo & Juliet), we were the most dressed up people there. Everyone else was wearing leggings. I couldn’t believe it!
The Palais Garnier is one of the most stunning buildings I’ve ever been inside. Today, it’s mostly home to the ballet while the opera performs at the Opéra Bastille (with better stage visibility). I highly recommend seeing a performance there but if not, take a tour of the Palais Garnier (available daily in both English and French) or wander through it on your own during the day.