The Palais Garnier is a sight to reckon with. You see gold, gold, gold everywhere and designed to amaze – this 1,979 seat opera house was built from 1861 to 1875, commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III. Loaded with history, this opera is the site where Gaston Leroux spent 9 years studying before he wrote the Phantom of the Opera, a name you would be embarrassed to not know. According to legend, it all started with water. Yes, indeed. Underneath the opera, there’s a water source that bubbles out of seemingly nowhere. No one could do anything about it. The rumours of this vast lake underneath the Opera endured long after the completion of the project.You would know of this lake from Phantom of the Opera but apparently, in reality, the history of this opera is far less exciting and menial.
I join the Opera’s guided tour because I figured I couldn’t understand the inner workings of the place without a proper introduction. Luckily, the trip isn’t shortchanged at all. Everything about this opera from the hallway outside the theatre to the entrance of the entire building reeks of opulence and the excessive habits of Napoleon III. What fascinates me most is the theatre itself though. Seats fill the entire theatre now but it wasn’t always like this. Back in the older days, there are only box seats for the aristocrats and the rich, the ground level has no chairs and people stood to watch the play. A play could go on for 6 hours; starting from 5 in the evening and ending at 1 in the morning. This is because, breaks were taken in between the acts where people will socialise with one another and consort in debauchery acts – soliciting with the opposite sex, gambling, drinking, that sorta thing. You get the picture.
People didn’t go to the theatre to watch the opera or the plays. They went there to socialise. The noblemen usually book their boxes seasonally and have to make appearances because it updated their peers in regards to their circumstance – just think of it as today’s Facebook update statuses. The ceiling wasn’t always filled with that painting (look above). Back then, candles were used, so the soot from them would continually blacken the ceiling. Imagine the hot waxes dripping onto you as you stand below! Ah, all these are disseminated by the guide with rehearsed enthusiasm. I, on the other hand is hooked of course.
Today, the opera remains in operation and as the guide speaks his usual narrative, there are indeed, crews who are setting up the stage for an eventual play. While we all know the Phantom of the Opera is indeed friction, you would find it intriguing that the guide confirms that Box 5 is always booked and usually empty. Alas, apparently that is the best seat in the house and it is reserved for the King or someone who is potentially as important as that – which explains why it is always unfilled, then.