Box 5 was always reserved for the Opera Ghost. If management dared to sell it to the public, dire consequences ensued. A stagehand murdered in a deep basement. An 8-ton chandelier falling on an innocent patron. A great soprano who suddenly can only croak. The Ghost had the Paris Opera in its clutches, a possible curse always at the ready.

So goes the 1901 novel The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, which has become a couple of films and a blockbuster musical. The setting is Palais Garnier, as the Paris opera building is called, after its architect Charles Garnier, a stripling of 36 when he won the contest to design the building.

Is it Rococo, Palladio, and Renaissance? Let’s just say it’s wicked busy. No stone is uncarved or wall unpainted, no window undraped, no pillars without busts. All possible in-between places are emblazoned with lyres.

(Click images to enlarge)


When the Palais Garnier was finished in 1879, the building hosted both ballet and opera, but the real stars were the parading wealthy nobles and socialites of the Belle Epoque. Women dressed in voluminous skirts, wide decolletage, layers of petticoats and acres of ruffles, all topped off by enormous hooded cloaks. So much to see!

Gentlemen of wealth proudly walked the hallways arm and arm with their courtesans, who, if pricey enough, shed extra status upon them.

The entrance foyer has its own balconies with viewing niches, the better to see who’s with whom and wearing what. Missing a husband? Well, maybe he’s slipped backstage to visit a favorite soprano. All the subscribers were allowed.

What with all this busy swooping around, much more real estate is devoted to lobbies and stairs than to the 1979-seat auditorium. We were barred from the orchestra the by a rehearsal, but we did get to see a practice pas de deux on a monitor in the lobby.

A small museum houses fifteen thousand leather-bound scores and librettos, all safely behind grills. We also got a close look at some of the Opera’s collection of 3000 pieces of costume jewelry. (These are garish, very fake but very large for easy viewing.)

And what of Box 5? It is there, now with a brass plaque claiming it for the phantom. What is never made clear is whether or not there ever was a ghost, or a clever trickster living in the deep recesses of the building. Author Leroux was a journalist, and he is known to have fictionalized a lot of non-fiction for dramatic effect. What was real? One can Google it forever. But we are in Paris. And we’re off to grab an aperitif.