The Paris Opera House: History & Architecture

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

If you've ever read the book 'The Phantom of the Opera,' or seen the musical and movies based on it, you've been introduced to the grandeur that is the Paris Opera House. Finished in 1875, it still stands today as one of Paris's finest examples of 19th-century architecture.

Beginnings of Grandeur

France has had a long, tumultuous history. Revolutions, beheadings, wars - France has had many trials throughout the years. Everyone in charge has wanted to leave their mark on the country. In 1858, outside the entrance to the opera, Napoleon III survived an assassination attempt by Italian nationalists. This inspired him to build an opera house with a more secure entrance, to be called the Académie Impériale de Musique et de Danse, or the Imperial Academy of Music and Dance.


Before the new opera house could be built, the land the Emperor chose had to be cleared. In December of 1860, the Emperor announced that there would be a design competition for the new opera house. Of the 171 architects that applied worldwide, one man was chosen. His name was Charles Garnier, a yet unknown 32 year old architect. His design solved the problem of accommodating large audiences.

Construction and Destruction

It took several years for the new opera house to be built. Construction began in 1862. The 12,000 square meters that Napoleon III ordered to be cleared turned out to be swampy and on top of a subterranean lake. It took eight months for the foundation to finally be poured, as it kept flooding and filling with water.

Flooding wasn't the only problem plaguing the construction of the new opera house. The 1869 election showed Napoleon III that the middle and working classes weren't happy with the way things were being run in their country. The economy was terrible, and soon France was once again at war, this time with the Prussians. Napoleon III was captured and deposed and later died in 1873. Construction stalled, but Garnier still tried to work on it despite the financial problems and resistance from the public who wanted it torn down. The Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera House, finally opened on January 5, 1875. Paris finally had a new home for its opera and ballet performances.

The Foundation Being Built
the foundation

Inauguration of the Paris Opera, painting by Edouard Detailles
paris opera


The foundation of the Paris Opera House is made of concrete. Once construction was able to resume, Garnier set to work on finishing it. The foundation problems were solved by Garnier creating a system that drained the groundwater into a cistern; he was able to build on top of that, creating a double-walled foundation.

He tried to use modern materials, like metal. Instead of the expensive and time consuming process of gold leaf decorating (thin sheets of gold applied with a brush), he used gilded metals. He painted the metal yellow and then gold leaf was applied only where the light would hit in order to make it look like the whole section was gold. He also used marble for the interiors, with grand sculptures, and curves and columns. Many murals were featured throughout the building, even on the ceiling. Mirrors in the entrance make visitors feel like they are part of the scenery. The grand staircase is an impressive feature in the interior; they lead into the theater, which seats 1,979 people.

The foyer of the opera is where people can mingle before the shows start. The ceilings are painted and are lit by chandeliers. There is also a large chandelier in the theater. Weighing seven tons, Garnier's bronze and crystal creation rises above the audience.


The exterior is equally decorative, with many sculptures and curved designs. The building was designed in the Beaux-Arts style, which emphasizes symmetry and ornamentation. The exterior showcases many sculptures, including marble busts of composers and depictions of Harmony and Poetry. The building includes two side pavilions, one created as an entrance for the emperor, the other for the audience. Since Napoleon III passed away before it was finished, they now house the Paris Opera library and museum.

Front of the Paris Opera House

Lyric Drama
lyric drama sculpture

Apollo, Poetry, and Music
apollo poetry and music

Modern Renovations

As in any old building, things fall apart. The building received an electrical update first in 1969. Restoration work began in 1994, and finished in 2007. The exterior, dirtied by years of pollution, was cleaned. The electricity was updated once again, and the foundation was strengthened.

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