I have been to some of the most famous opera houses in the world (Sidney Opera is still on the list) but Opera Garnier in the Place L’Opera in the 9th arrondissement of Paris is something magnifique in its own right. The taxi approaches the square from the beautiful L’Opera Avenue and the building is in front of us (my husband Adrian and I) – monumental and authoritative but attractive and artistic at the same time. The building was commissioned by Napoleon The Third in 1860 (he was the nephew of Napoleon The First). The anonymous competition to build the Opera House in Paris was won by Charles Garnier who was a very young architect (35 years old) and had not build anything before this commission.
A big crowd of tourists is sitting on the stairs of the Opera, chatting, people watching, enjoying the warm Parisian evening. Adrian and I climb the stars between the tourists, show the barcodes of our online tickets to the security guards and “Abracadabra” – doors are open to a magical world.
The Grand Staircase of the Opera is breathtaking – a mixture of marble, gold and light. Ballet lovers are all around, buying programmes, taking pictures, looking around – all happy to be here. There is no dress code. Some people (obviously tourists) are in their casual trousers and t-shirts. An elegant French couple enjoy a glass of wine – the woman is in a beautiful little black dress and her partner wears an immaculate suit with a scarf around his neck in the way that only French messieurs know how to do. A Russian family passes – straight from the St. Petersburg salon of “War and Peace” – the mother has long blond hair and wears a velvet opera coat, the daughter is a little princess in a dusty pink dress with tulle roses and the father is a copy of Anton Chekhov – intelligent, with a beard and spectacles.
We have folding seats in the second row from the stage. It is too early to enter the main auditorium for the show but the friendly French assistant speaks from experience – I can enter it to take photographs. Of course, I want photographs but what amazes me is how we all (everyone around me is taking photographs) do not live in the present moment, The main auditorium is spectacular and instead of breathing the atmosphere we are busy with our iPhones. Later, at home we will look at the pictures regretting the moments we are missing now.
The ballet is the creation of a Swedish artist Mats Ek on the music of Bizet and Chtchedrine, Franz Liszt and Ravel. He is a famous contemporary choreographer whose style of dancing is very expressive, distinctive and immediately recognisable. I dream that time will stop and I will be in this wonderful world forever.
During the interval the fairy tale continues with a visit to the Grand foyer and the terrace. I also look at the ceiling and the magical surrealistic figures of the Marc Chagall frescoes. The story goes that in 1960 General De Gaulle and the French Minister of Culture, Andre Malraux, entertained a foreign delegation with the premiere of Daphnis and Chloe, the ballet of Maurice Ravel, in the Opera Garnier. The costumes and decor were created by the artist Marc Chagall. The minister looked at the ceiling, saw the work of Jules Lenepveu (quite academic) from the19th century, and asked Chagall whether he would be willing to paint new frescoes. In 1963 Marc Chagall was commissioned by the French Government to paint the ceiling of the Opera Garnier. The appointment sent a shock through some French circles. The correspondent of the Los Angelis Times described the reaction as if the minister ordered the Eiffel Tower to be painted pink! The message was that foreigners should stay away from French heritage (Chapel was originally from Belarus).
The Government and Chagall compromised – Chagall’s painting should not destroy the original paintings. They were painted on a suspended, removable canvas, 240 meters square. The paintings are colourful, a joyful tribute to 14 distinguished composers in two circles. They are so beautiful that one could hardly imagine there was any opposition to them when they were revealed on 23rd September 1964 . By the way, Chagall did not take a penny for his work as he regarded this work as a great honour.
The ballet is over, it is time to go. Outside, on the stairs a man is playing guitar and two couples are dancing with many singing and laughing. In front of us is the River Seine and the magical world of Paris.