July 02: Digging Opera

2016/07/02 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1861 funds were approved for the construction of the new opera house in Paris.

The Opera was planned to be the centerpiece of Emperor Napoleon III’s redesign of Paris as the most modern and stunning capital in Europe, or the universe.  Architect Charles Garnier, who had of course studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and of course won the Prix de Rome, won the competition in 1861, besting 170 other entrants.  Due to unforeseen political and construction delays (including the Franco-Prussian War and the discovery of the infamous underground stream) the theatre was not complete until well into the 1870s, by which point Napoleon III was long gone.

As of December 1874, the Opera was officially opened with a performance by the Paris Opera Ballet.  Garnier’s opera house quickly became the best-known and most-famous opera house in the world, copied across Europe and beyond for countless other theatres and other great buildings in need of elements like amazing stair cases or just new ideas about how to handle old ideas like sticking figural sculpture all over buildings.

For all its innovations, the Opera’s grand opera stair does not at first look as significant as it is.  The palatial foyer in which it stands is nearly the same size as the auditorium (seen most clearly in the plan) and almost as tall.  The expansion of the foyer space–just, after all, a stair well–reveals an important shift in the era’s value for “theatre” of all kinds.  The hugely scaled grand marble structure, heavy with ornament and set within a glittering arcaded space not all that different from the loges in the auditorium, symbolizes an important shift, and reveals Garnier’s sensitivity to the fact that the most important show may not have been happening on the stage.  His accommodation of contemporary social rituals makes his building one of the most modern of the century.

Image: construction of the auditorium, ca. 1865

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