By Andrew Lloyd Webber
Anyone familiar with a large opera house would testify that it is an extraordinary labyrinth of people and passageways, but the Paris Opera House of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, in which Gaston Leroux set The Phantom of the Opera, was remarkable by any standards. The huge building was constructed to designs by Charles Garnier from 1861-1875. It was a hotbed of politics and factions. From prima donna to stage-hand, the Opera House was governed by intrigue and rumor; everyone jostling for position, defending their own territory and scrabbling for new. At the time in which the novel is set, the Opera House boasted over fifteen hundred employees and had its own stables of white horses for the opera troupe underneath the forecourt. Even today, it employs over a thousand people and contains two permanent ballet schools within the building.
The Paris Opera House rose to pre-eminence in the eighteenth century. After the Revolution it was restored to its leading position in Paris by Napoleon in the reforms of 1807. Unquestionably among the most performed composers at that time was Salieri, whose music remained in the repertoire at the time of Leroux’s novel. Salieri had his greatest triumphs in Paris with Les Danaides (1787) and Tarare (1784). It is interesting that Mozart began to work with Da Ponte after the latter’s huge success with Salieri in France. Indeed, Mozart was not performed at the Paris Opera until the early 1800s and then only in a severely adapted form. Salieri was hailed as the natural successor to Gluck, the main force at the opera in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, and was greatly influenced by his music.
But perhaps it was Meyerbeer who reigned supreme. His grand operas were a masterful potpourri of components. His music was accessible, his characterization brilliantly aided by his command of orchestration and he relished stage spectacle. This writer was chastened to learn that the 1849 production of Le Prophète was the first to feature roller-skating as a key ingredient and also introduced electric light as an effect. Indeed the Paris Opera always prided itself in its innovation. Aladdin (1822) by Isouard introduced gas lighting to the stage.
King of all this was the Opera’s chief designer Ciceri, the John Napier of the day. Spectacle was all. Hugo in his preface to Cromwell (1827) wrote “the stage should make as complete as possible the illusion of reality”. The Paris Opera’s eruption of Vesuvius was legendary, employing real stones and the titles of operas alone convey everything: Le Siege de Corinth (Rossini), La Muette de Portici (Auber), Robert Le Diable (Meyerbeer) (noted for its Phantom of the Nuns effect) and, of course, Gounod’s Faust, the opera which is the backdrop to the Leroux novel.
Key also to Paris formula was the ballet. This was usually at the start of Act III. The gentlemen could dine before arriving at the theater in time to see their various young ladies in the corps de ballet. Wagner’s Tannhauser caused uproar with the Jockey Club because its ballet was placed too early in the production for their members’ convenience.
The Paris Opera House survives in much the same form described in the novel. It occupies a three-acre site and some idea of the labyrinthian nature of the building can be appreciated if one considers that the auditorium accounts for less than one fifth of the total space. There are over seventeen storeys, seven of which are below the stage level; the stables for the opera horses still exist. There is a monument to La Carlotta. More important, there really is a lake underneath the building; it is an integral part of the design, and the water level acts as a ballast, raised or lowered, depending on the weight of the stage, seven storeys above it.
Everybody knows the Paris Opéra, at least by reputation. It is with regret that I assure you it hasn’t changed at all: for the sake of the passer-by who hasn’t been warned, let me say that it looks like a railway station. But once you’re inside you’ll be more likely to mistake it for a Turkish bath.