Opera House

On Saturday night, I walked in the footsteps of Emperor Napoleon III. Sort of.

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The central staircase, where once upon a time the rich elite came to be seen.

On Thursday, I met Victor, the guide on two walking tours I took, on the steps of the Opera Garnier. He gave wonderful details about the history, the design, the architect, and the sculptures of the building. He told us funny stories about the bees on the roof, the carp in the lake under the opera house, and the ballerinas in the attic. He made me feel like I knew the building, like it was a friend, and I found I really wanted to see the inside as well.

Part of me wanted to pay for the tour inside the building, but a little voice in my head piped up: wouldn’t it be better to go in and actually see a show instead? So when I got back to the apartment that night, I hopped on the internet and looked up what was playing.

The Opera Garnier was designed more to be a place for the rich and famous to show off their new clothes and jewels than to host performances (if you look at the floor plan, the space devoted to the actual theatre part within the building is relatively small given the building’s overall size) and apparently the acoustics aren’t great. These days most operas are performed at the new opera house across town and the Opera Garnier is mostly used for ballets.

I found one I liked the look of, and on Friday morning I stopped in to the box office. I was expecting to just ask the clerks about the various price options – a quick visit in and out. Like any normal box office. Little did I know. I ended up standing in line for an hour, and at that point I almost felt obligated to buy something to make it worth my time. Luckily they had restricted view seats for 12€. What I wanted was the experience of going to this fancy-pants opera house – restricted view was fine.

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No one does over-the-top gilded opulence quite like the French.

On Saturday night, I went to see a ballet called Rain at the Opera Garnier where the French glitterati have gathered since the 19th century. I felt deeply embarrassed that I didn’t have anything nicer than jeans and a sweater to wear, but it turned out I was hardly the only tourist there.

I arrived early to find a party happening on the steps of the opera house. Students and tourists milled around, some taking photos and others just sitting on the stairs chatting, entertained by a variety of buskers. None of them seemed to be there to see the ballet, though, they were just soaking up the atmosphere.

It was quieter inside. Tourists took photos of themselves posing on the stairs or sipped wine while gazing down from the balconies at the grand staircase and the people filing in. I ducked into every gallery, stepped out onto the balcony above the entrance stairs (and listened to a busker below sing Set Fire to the Rain by Adele in a thick French accent), and climbed to every level of the building to take photos back down over the central atrium.

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The view from my box.

My seat, it turned out, was in a box on the first level. I presented my ticket to a man dressed in black tie and he used a little key to let me into the box. There were six seats inside, and mine was the worst. Only a sliver of the stage was visible when I sat down. The clerk at the box office had assured me I could stand if I wanted to, and when I tried that the view actually wasn’t bad. When the show started, though, the two front seats in the box were still empty, so the rest of us all shuffled up a row and I ended up being able to sit and still see everything.

I really enjoyed the ballet. It was modern – the dancers wore loose clothing in neutral colours and their feet were bare. The music was largely percussive, made up of two grand pianos and several large xylophone-type things, as well as shakers and other pieces. The musicians played this steady, modulating rhythm non-stop for an hour and ten minutes, and at a certain point I was convinced their stamina must be as great as the dancers’.

The dance was simple, not fussy at all, and joyful. Like children playing. It seemed to span a day, from morning through until nighttime, judging from the lighting and some very subtle changes in the dancers’ costumes. I won’t pretend to understand all the symbolism, but I really enjoyed sitting there and soaking it in.

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The Chagall ceiling above the auditorium. Also, the famous chandelier – which did not, in fact, fall during the ballet.

The man with the key came back at the end to let us out of the box. I lingered a moment when the others left so I could hang over the edge and take a photo up at the ceiling. The frieze surrounding the chandelier was painted by Chagall, and I love his work.

It was a lovely evening. Very civilized. I’m very pleased I didn’t give up on the line at the box office when I was first tempted to.

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