Through his work, Pierre gets a lot of invitations to cool stuff, most of which he turns down for dumb ethical reasons (honestly, would two front row center court tickets to the French Open be considered that much of a bribe?) But when an invite came across his desk for a private tour of the Palais Garnier, he knew better than to turn it down.
I've written many times before about how much I love going to the old opera house, so it is kind of lame that I've never taken an official tour. Maybe I was subconsciously waiting for this kind of opportunity. Let's face it, it's much better to go to a party where a company has rented out the Opéra restaurant and arranged special guided tours than wandering around with the masses. Sponsorship has its privileges.
The big draw for the tour was an opportunity to visit the underground "lake" in the bowels of the Opéra building, which may be familiar to anyone who has read or seen a version of "The Phantom of the Opéra." To be honest, I always forget that "Phantom" is set at Palais Garnier. Probably because of the musical, I think if it as a British story. But of course it très français and it is rare for the tours to include this mythical feature.
Our visit began in the main auditorium, an ornate horseshoe-shaped theater whose every detail, from the color of the seats to the gilded sculpted balconies, were designed by the architect Charles Garnier. We learned some interesting tidbits about the construction, such as that its framework is iron, meaning that it could do away with columns that could mar sight lines, and that the stage is raked a full 5%, making it easier for the audience to see, but very difficult on the dancers (apparently most classic stages are only 3-4% raked). We also got to take a long look at the spectacular crystal chandelier and dazzling ceiling mural by Chagall (very controversial at the time, but championed by American visitors). In addition to pointing out the King's private box, our charming guide also pointed out loge numéro 5, where the famous Phantom watched his beloved Christine perform.
I was surprised to learn that the King's box was not the one with the best view, but closest to the stage, hence the best place to be seen. Because at the time of its construction, the Palais Garnier was as much a salon mondain as a place to take in culture. The nobles and the newly minted haute bourgeoisie, went to see and be seen. You could even pay to have a private box on the stage itself. Basically, going to the opera was an extension of the business day for many, a place to network and gossip. And to meet pretty dancers.
Because, yes , in those days, sponsorship really had its privileges and wealthy men could pay to "mingle" with the dancers in one of the private rehearsal rooms, which were practically as opulent as the main hall. Before anyone is too offended on behalf of those women, this arrangement apparently worked well for both parties, as it was a way for many of the poorly paid dancers to marry up and ensure their futures. Of course, these days the rehearsal rooms are strictly for rehearsals. (At least that's their story, and their sticking to it.)
The rest of the tour took us through the (for then) state-of-the-art backstage area, the dressing room for the hundreds of extras who regularly appeared in productions and down down down to basement levels. Our guide reminded us that before the Palais Garnier was built, the entire neighborhood of winding streets and tightly packed buildings had to be razed. The construction was a huge undertaking and the part that most people see - even on a tour - is just a fraction of the whole building. Dressing rooms, rehearsal rooms, offices, and storage areas all are part of the labyrinthian design.
At the lowest level, we were able to see that old-fashioned, but still functional system of ropes and pulleys that moved the heavy scenery around. And of course, the lake. I don't want to disappoint anyone, but "lake" might be a bit of an exaggeration. It turns out that the Palais was built on an area that had a high level of groundwater , so Garnier, who was a structural engineer as well as an architect, figured out a way to stabilize the building by creating a concrete cistern and flooding it (don't ask me how this works, it just does). This was the inspiration for Gaston Leroux's lake in the Phantom of the Opera novel. Frankly, I prefer the imaginary version, but even the reality has its own air of mystery about it.
We ended the tour on the grand marble staircase, which looks exactly the way it did when the Palais Garnier opened in 1875 (minus the electricity). The staff seems proud that the Opéra now welcomes people of all social levels, although I admit I will never get used to people showing up in jeans and tennis shoes. There's something to be said for the good-old-dress-up days. But I'm not sorry to miss the gossiping, backstabbing and trysting that was apparently going on right and left. I'd much rather watch the show.