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Garnier, Paris Opéra

Charles Garnier, The Paris Opéra, 1860-75. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Man: We're in The Paris Opera by Charles Garnier. Now, this was a project that was very much a part of Napoleon III's reconstruction of Paris with the help of Baron Haussmann who was creating boulevards and a city of spectacle. Girl: Haussmann was hired to really modernize the City of Paris to get rid of those old winding streets to provide sewers, to bring light into the streets. The Paris that we see today is very much the Paris of Baron Haussmann and Napoleon III. In fact, when we look from the balconies of the Opera House we really see all of those broad avenues that remind us of impressionist paintings. Man: There's no question that one of the great crowns of Napoleon III's reign and of Haussmann's reconstruction of Paris is the work of Charles Garnier and the Paris Opera. Girl: It's unbelievably opulent. There's colored marble and paintings and mosaics. Man: This is a second empire style at its height. I think what's important to remember of course is that this is a theatre, it was where the ballet where the opera was housed until actually quite recently. Ballet still continues here although the opera itself has moved. Of course, there's a grand stage. In fact, you can just hear the orchestra practising as we speak. If you look at the roof line, you can see that there's a raised area just the back of the dome. That's actually the pulleys for raising and lowering the scenery that protrudes out of the top. That wonderful copper dome which is now that brilliant green is a false dome and that there's a second dome inside. Between those 2 domes is the area that the great chandelier would be retracted into during performances. That chandelier apparently weighs something like 7 tons. Girl: You walk into this great foyer and there's an enormous broad staircase with chandeliers and engaged columns, plasters and a painted ceiling. Man: A kind of series arabesques that speak to the 2nd empire style especially this curvilinear nature of the staircase. The extraordinary, and as you said, opulent spaces that are given over for socializing before the performance, during the intermission and after the performance is nearly as much as is given over the stage, the orchestra and in fact the audience in the theatre itself which is to say that the front-half of this building is its own stage but it is the stage of the 2nd empire. Girl: What it does is it gives us a really good idea of how radical Degas was by going back stage, by not showing us the public face, by showing us the rehearsal rooms, the dancers waiting, their chaperone's waiting. Man: You're absolutely right. To understand the radically of Degas, one really needs to see the front of the opera house. All the formality, all the pump, all the ceremony is given over to this direct observation of these figures in a far less than ideal position. Degas of course also painted the front part of the house and he painted certainly the stage on occasion. There are those other wonderful paintings by Mary Cassatt of the woman in the balcony of her sister for instance. That is another expression in the sense of the audience as show piece. Girl: The idea of giving us the unusual view. One has a different perspective on the radicality of that approach. Man: Although, I think Garnier is a sense responsible for that. Because if for instance, we're in the grand foyer at the moment. If you look, there are balconies that give you very particular but very radical views of the space, variety of different angles. In the boxes, the theatre itself is round around the back and the boxes are all giving you probably 180 degrees of different angles. In a sense, the architecture is speaking to these shifting positions. Girl: Providing that focus on the individual bourgeoisie, upper bourgeoisie. Man: Yes. And the individual experience. Girl: And their point of view. Man: For instance, every box has its own doorway. Every boxes rolled off from the other, it's got curtains to draw back. So there is this notion of the bourgeoisie and separate bourgeoisie experience. You're absolutely right. There's no question that the entire building is in a sense, it is for music, it is for the movement of dance, but it is really about seeing. (piano playing)