Abbé Perrin (Director of...
Following Orsini’s failed attempt to assassinate Napoléon III in 1858, the construction of a definitive new theatre for the Opera was deemed a “public interest”. Given the framework of Haussmann’s urban planning, only a building in a major square seemed capable of ensuring the security of the head of state. The latter, Napoléon III also wanted to leave his mark on the architecture of Paris and build a magnificent theatre in his own honour. An architectural competition was launched in December 1860. In May 1861, after triumphing over 171 other proposals, Charles Garnier was named the winner.
Work began in January 1862 and the theatre was inaugurated on January 5, 1875. During construction, numerous problems had to be overcome, particularly the need to drain the water table on the site of the future building: It took seven months to pump out the water and build the cisterns to contain the underground “lake”. Construction also proved a costly affair, and the subsequent Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the fall of the Second Empire meant that all the appropriations had to be voted on again by the Third Republic to complete construction of the opera house.
Even so, the splendour of the “Palais Garnier” was not compromised: the building dazzled by the high quality of its materials (marble of every hue, mosaics, gold) the wealth of its decor, and the profusion of paintings and statues. The architectural plan placed great emphasis on the public areas, particularly the Grand Foyer, the Pavilions, the Rotonde du Glacier, the Grand Vestibule and the legendary Grand Staircase. In short, the Opera was a hub of bourgeoise and high society. No major changes would be made to the original building, except for the replacement of the ceiling mural in the main auditorium which was repainted by Chagall in 1964.
From the earliest days of its construction, the new Opera was also full of technical innovations. In addition to being able to accommodate 2,156 spectators, it was the world’s first electrified opera (a power plant was built in the basement). As such, the French premiere of Aida (Verdi) in 1881 was presented without gas lighting which would end up being completely replaced. This prompted a different way of listening to works. Now, with the theatre plunged into complete darkness, the audience could focus solely on the illuminated stage and not on what was going on around them in the theatre itself. The Opéra Garnier was also the theatre where the phonograph and the théàtrophone were first tested—the former being used to record a performance and the latter enabling subscribers to listen to an opera over the phone lines. In 1975, Mozart’s Don Giovanni became the first opera to be broadcast live on television.
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