The History of the Paris Opera

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"The Phantom of the Opera," one of the most successful, long-running musicals of all time, is based on legends and true stories about the Palais Garnier, the home of the Paris Opera since 1875. Far beneath the fabled stage, a real web of tunnels and a lake form the setting for the home of the mysterious phantom, a character also based on a true story. But the Paris Opera is far older than the tragic romance, the Palais Garnier, or the era of Napoleon III, who commissioned the opulent neo-Baroque building.

Early Days

  • In 1661, Louis XIV, the Sun King, founded the Royal Academy of Dance to train young dancers and develop the choreographic arts. Eight years later, it was joined by the Royal Academy of Music, or the Academy of Opera. Ballet and opera were created as integrated productions, although the ballet repertory became more independent over time. The Paris Opera, a fusion of music and dance, offered the former courtly arts to a wider public, who attended performances in 11 different houses over the next two centuries. Mozart began writing operas; Gluck debuted his operatic oeuvre in Paris; Rossini premiered his later works at the Paris Opera. King Louis XVI, just five years before the revolution that would cost him his head, gave the Paris Opera its own dance school, which became the Paris Opera Ballet.

Ballet, Bombs and Buildings

  • The Americans were declaring independence the same year Jean-Georges Noverre revolutionized ballet by presenting a narrative performance at the Opera, entirely in dance and pantomime. Dance moved from the decorative interlude in the operas to dominate a show -- a change that heralded the beginning of modern ballet. Verdi was a regular at the opera house; Wagner modeled his early works on French grand opera. Paris was the center of the opera and classical dance world, and artists vied for the honor of commissioned work. But Paris was a hotbed of political activity as well and, in 1858, as Napoleon III arrived at the Paris Opera, Italian anarchists tossed bombs into the crowd, killing eight and injuring nearly 500 people. Napoleon III commissioned a new opera house, more grand, secure and on a wider street. The Palais Garnier, named after its architect, Charles Garnier, opened in 1875.

Virtuosos and Venues

  • Donizetti, Gounod, Poulenc, Wagner, Verdi -- everybody who was anybody in opera debuted work in Paris. Popular staples of the classical ballet repertory, "La Sylphide" and "Giselle," were written for the Paris Opera. Renowned choreographer George Balanchine never completed his commissioned ballet for the Paris Opera, but international ballet star Rudolf Nureyev danced there and later became director of dance and principal choreographer. He revived the romantic ballets "Swan Lake," "La Bayadere" and "The Nutcracker." The Opera Bastille, a large modern opera house commissioned in 1982 and inaugurated in 1989 on the bicentennial of the French Revolution, merged with the Palais Garnier in 1990 to become the Opera de Paris. Today the Paris Opera occupies the Palais Garnier, the Opera Bastille, the Ballet School in Nanterre and the Berthier Workshops, an industrial space built by Garnier and Gustave Eiffel for making backdrops. The workshops have since added rehearsal stages and costume and set storage.

Impressions of the Paris Opera

  • Chagall painted a new ceiling for the Palais Garnier, which still presents opera but is now more focused on dance. The ballet is where it all started in Paris, and enduring art has been created in and for the famous old opera house. The most iconic Paris Opera Ballet art is the collection of drawings and paintings by Degas. His preoccupation with capturing the reality of the young dancers' training is an impressionist dream of floating tulle, anxious faces, yawns, shiny satin shoes, primping, costume changes and stretching at the barre. Little Dancer, Age Fourteen, his famous bronze sculpture of a real "Opera Rat," Marie van Goethem, was exhibited only once, in wax model. After Degas' death, the statue was cast in bronze and embellished with a real costume, like the wax original.

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  • Photo Credit Crobard/iStock/Getty Images
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