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The Paris Opera House

"I have calculated that we were in a narrow circular gallery, probably running all around the Opera, which is immense, underground. I had once been down into those cellars, but had stopped at the third floor, though there were two lower still, large enough to hold a town. But the figures of which I caught sight had made me run away. There are demons down there, quite black, standing in front of boilers, and they wield shovels and pitchforks and poke up fires and stir flames and, if you come too near them, they frighten you by suddenly opening the red mouths of their furnaces... Well, while César was quietly carrying me on his back, I saw those black demons in the distance, looking quite small, in front of the red fires of their furnaces: they came into sight again as we went on our winding way. At last, they disappeared altogether. The shape was still holding me up and César walked on, unled and sure-footed. I could not tell you, even approximately, how long this ride lasted; I only know that we seemed to turn and turn and often went down a spiral stair into the very of the earth. Even then, it may be that my head was turning, but I don't think so: no, my mind was quite clear. At last, César raised his nostrils, sniffed the air and quickened his pace a little. I felt the moistness in the air and César stopped. The darkness had lifted. A sort of bluey lit surrounded us. We were on the edge of a lake, whose leaden waters stretched into the distance, into the darkness; but the blue light lit up the bank and I saw the little boat fastened to an iron ring on the wharf. A boat!"

Imperial Monument

In the expansionist middle years of the last century, Paris was being rebuilt. Under the direction of Baron Eugène Georges Haussman (1809-1891) the old city was torn down. Symbols of the ancien régime were destroyed and whole districts ruthlessly demolished to make way for the new city built on Rational lines. Broad, straight boulevards replaced the old streets - not only to look grand and improve traffic flow, but also to provide a clear field of gunfire for the police and army in the event of insurrection.

A new home for the famous opera company was part of his grandiose plan. As an element in this triumph of authoritarian town planning the Opera and its environs have been described as "the most flamboyant and successful scheme of the period". Le Nouvel Opéra was to be colossal, capable of presenting works of huge size and spectacle, technically the most advanced theatre in Europe and sublimely beautiful in the Neo-Baroque style which the Second Empire adopted as what we would now call its "image". One whole section of the building was to be for the Emperor.


The story of its construction begins with an Imperial Decree of 29 September 1860. State funds were made available and a competition was announced. Although they had only one month to prepare drafts, 171 architechts submitted entries: the jury had to choose from an initial field of over 700 drawings before they could decide on a short list of seven candidates. In the end it was the plan of 35 year-old Charles Garnier which found favour. Garnier stayed with the project to the end - through war, the seige of Paris, the days of the Commune, and the Restoration. When Gaston Leroux used the Opera as the setting for his story the building was only 35 years old. Yet it had already becom more than a Temple of Culture for the ruling class; it had been a participant in the turbulent history of their City for Parisians, acquiring all sorts of memories and meanings along the way (perhaps a little as Centre Point has for modern-day Londoners).


Everything about this, the thirteenth home for the Opera Company in its 200 year history, was huge, including the building problems. To stage the works of the sumptuousness required, the Opera was to have a below-stage area into which an entire scene could be lowered without being dismantled: each scene might well weigh one million kilogrammes and be fifteen metres high.

Below this basement was to be another with stabling for the horses and storage space for the numerous carriages, coaches and chariots used in the works. The modern heating plant was also to be located underground, so from the outset it was clear that the building would go deep. To carry the superstructure, the foundations would have to be able to withstand stresses of up to ten million kilogrammes at many points.

Building on Water

Deep excavation was going to be needed, both for the tiers of the basement and for the foundations. But the issue was complicated by the fact that the ground was waterlogged - virtually and underground sea of mud, in fact. This, however, was hardly likely to daunt French engineers. Were they not, after all, at that very time engaged on cutting the Suez Canal?

Still, an audacious solution was needed...and found. Eight great steam pumps were installed. By pumping day and night without cease for seven and a half months they lowered the water table sufficiently for work to proceed. This also had the effect of drying up every well in a radius of over a kilometre. Excavation took place and the basements were built. Because of the need to keep scenery, costumes and everything else which would be stored in them dry, it was imperative that the basements be absolutely watertight, so the whole subterranean construction was sealed with bitumen.


At street level the heart of the building is the 2,156 seat auditorium. (By comparison Theatre Royal, Stratford has 467 seats.) The stage is slightly larger, the backstage and technical space about the same. The front-of-house area is over half as big again. Looked at in section, the Opera is the equivalent of six main storeys high above ground: the total internal height of the structure is over 80 metres.

For the principal artists there are eighty dressing rooms complete with antechambers and closets, and there are eight larger dressing rooms for lesser performers, each which can accommodate between twenty and one hundred and ninety people. To link these different areas and different levels there is a truely awesome system of corridors, stairs, chutes, lifts, ladders and traps. The building is blessed with 2, 531 doors, requiring 7,539 keys.


In building terms the Opera is conventional, using brick and masonry for loadbearing walls, so the construction time of fourteen years does not seem excessive. Garnier did not have at his disposal the time-saving techniques of the modern architect. Construction was interrupted by war and revolution, yet, in his official account of the building, Opera Activist Charles Nuitter records criticism both of the time it took to complete and the cost (although what the latter was is not made clear!).

War and Commune

France was not the only country in Europe to be in the process of growing fat on the proceeds of overseas Imperialism: Germany, Britain, Austria and Hungary were at it too. It was bound to lead to war. On 19 July 1870, France declared war on Prussia. On 1 September France's army was humiliated and its Emperor captured at Sedan. Revolution and the proclamation of a Republic followed, the Prussians advanced, and Paris was beseiged.

The partly-finished Opera was commandeered as a military arsenal and storehouse for four and a half million kilogrammes of supplies (exhaustively listed by Nuitter) including over one million litres of wine. But by January 1871 Paris, starving, capitulated to the Prussians. However, the workers, who had formed a National Guard for the defence of the City kept their arms, turned on the defeated Government sitting in Versailles, and, on March 28, declared the Commune of Paris. The Government collaborated with the occupying Prussian army and quickly - and bloodily - put down the Commune, slaughtering over 30,000 men, women, and children in the process.


The city had been under constant bombardment, but the Opera proved to be a safe shelter. Because of its commanding height it was an invaluable look-out and signalling post; its dry cellars were an effective gunpowder store and dungeon. During the Commune it was the communications centre from which proclamations were issued by means of miniature hot air balloons. Despite upheaval, bitterness, and shortage of money which followed "les événements," completion of the Opera was a high priority for the new Government. Three years after the commune was put down in a sea of blood, the Opera opened.

During the war and the Commune, the Opera had become intimately known by thousands of Parisians who had experienced for themselves its extraordinary labyrinth of passages and stairs and marvelled at its tiers of basements. So Parisians will appreciate that if there is anywhere in their City where a man could live totally concealed for years it is in this remarkable building. A temple to privilege, wealth, and culture above, they know, too, of its mysterious cellars, descending - as in Christine's description of them to Raoul - like the circles of Hell.