Paris Opera as an Edifice and a Literary Haunted House

Dorota Babilas
Paris Opera as an Edifice and a Literary Haunted House
Dorota Babilas
Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera (1910) is as complex and
controversial as its architectural counterpart - Charles Garnier’s splendid Opera
house in Paris. The chapter explores the connections between the architectural
creation and the novel which it inspired. For Garnier, the Opera was a case of
Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, harmoniously combining many forms of artistic
expression through ‘architectural empathy’. Leroux’s book was created as an
homage paid to the architect and his most famous edifice. Leroux completes
the ‘totality’ of Garnier’s creation by providing it with a myth – in a similar way
Victor Hugo had given it to Notre-Dame de Paris. The opera house replaces the
cathedral as the inner sanctum of a modern city, just as art in the nineteenth century
was gradually encroaching upon the cultural territory reserved hitherto for religion.
Leroux’s novel offers one of literature’s great city-scapes located between the
reality of the nineteenth-century Paris and the ghostly realm of Gothic imagination.
This Gothic romance with some elements of a rational detective story, set against a
colourful background of the operatic performances, links the reality of theatre life
with the fictitiousness of the spectacle. On the one hand, the story is devoid of any
supernatural elements, the supposed haunting explained as a clever sleight of hand
by an entirely human perpetrator. On the other, Erik, the title anti-hero, is a largerthan-life character related to great operatic and literary villains. His fictitious life is
also an eclectic mingle of some biographies of Leroux’s real contemporaries that
all add up to a palimpsest of meanings, combining the images of a musician, an
illusionist, a freak, and an architect.
Key Words: Charles Garnier, Paris Opera, architecture, Gaston Leroux, The
Phantom of the Opera, roman à clef.
We owe our present notions of city life to the nineteenth century. Whereas
before that time most cities had been drab places with no sewers, no paving
and few public buildings, the vast demographic and economical changes of the
century’s later years resulted in the thorough reorganisation of urban living.
With the continuing developments initiated by the Industrial Revolution, cities
grew immensely, and with them grew the need for new buildings to fulfil
Dorota Babilas
governmental and civic functions. The emergent dominant social class, the
prosperous bourgeoisie, preferred their new constructions to look familiar. The
reproduction of historical styles in modern edifices was rather superficial, usually
limited only to the outward elements, seldom using the original materials or spatial
organisation. The various available ‘revival’ styles allowed for the choice of new
buildings’ architectural form, which was greatly dependant on a particular edifice’s
function. Writers and designers, like John Ruskin, Augustus Pugin, and Victor
Hugo, theorised about ‘the battle of the styles’ and ascribed moral significance to
the aesthetic qualities of the Classicist and Gothic styles. By mid-century these
dilemmas had been partially resolved by the growing popularity of the eclectic
mode, attempting to mingle and recombine familiar stylistic elements.
Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera, constructed between 1861 and 1875, has been
perceived as one of the most recognisable and important buildings of the age,
sometimes even the very example to illustrate the architecture of the century as
a whole.1 Its eclectic style – boastfully called by the architect ‘the Napoleon III
style’ – epitomised the Second Empire’s attitudes towards architectural history.
Garnier’s opera house was designed as a deliberately intertextual concoction,
promoting an ideology of historical continuity through numerous allusions to the
periods of France’s glory – the sixteenth century and the times of Louis XIV. The
palace-like façade resembled the colonnade of the New Louvre, side rysalites
were in the form of triumphal arches. The project combined classic symmetry
and monumental division of piled-up masses with Neo-Baroque ornamentation in
richly coloured marbles.2 Inside, the grand staircase, the foyer, and the auditorium
dripped with gold and a profusion of detail ‘of curious spikiness and lumpiness,
alluding perhaps to the tastes that produced High Victorian Gothic in England in
the 1850s.’3
Most of all, however, the Palais Garnier represented what Christopher Mead
calls ‘architectural empathy,’4 that is the dominance of function over form.
Carlos Reyero, Klucze do sztuki: od Romantyzmu do Impresjonizmu, trans. W.
Szymaniak (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, 1993), 3.
2 Gerard Fontaine, Charles Garnier’s Opera. Architecture and Exterior Décor
(Paris: Editions de Patrimonie, 2000), 58.
3 Henry-Russel Hitchcock, The Pelican History of Art. Architecture of the
nineteenth century. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), 198. See also Gerard
Fontaine, Charles Garnier’s Opera. Architecture and Interior Décor (Paris:
Editions de Patrimonie, 2004).
4 Christopher Mead, Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera. Architectural Empathy and
the Renaissance of French Classicism (New York and London: The MIT Press,
1991), 5.
Dorota Babilas
Interestingly, for Garnier himself any construction was a sort of text possible
to be analysed in writing. In fact, the theory behind the Paris Opera house was
thoroughly explained by him in his two books: Le Theatre (1871) and Le Nouvel
Opera (1876). Garnier’s vision combined the views of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts,
where he had studied, with his analysis of the interactions between architecture
and society. For him, the innovative character of the Opera lay in the fact that, as
a theatre, it should provide ‘a permanently set stage on which to act out the rituals
of society.’5 Such an opinion pointed to the bold supposition that in the nineteenthcentury theatre most of the acting took place not on the stage, but during the
entr’actes, in foyers and galleries. Garnier tried to translate this literary concept
into architectural terms, believing deeply in the symbiotic relationship between
human nature and architecture, in which built forms were seen as a consequence,
not a determinant, of social actions.
The edifice proved to be very controversial, causing heated discussions whether
the creation of Garnier, the brilliant son of a blacksmith, was an architectural
masterpiece or the epitome of the bad taste of the nouveau riche. It was
unashamedly impressive, filled with all the pathos and theatricality of both opera
as a genre, and Napoleon III’s anachronistic monarchy; it combined the mood of
celebration with that of a trade exhibition embodied by the evanescent glamour
of London’s Crystal Palace. In its aspirations, the Palais Garnier was close to the
Wagnerian concept of Gesamtkunstwerk - a total work of art embracing on the
one hand architecture, interior design, sculpture, painting, mosaic work etc., and
on the other the performing arts of music, acting, dance and singing. In a modern,
science-dominated world, art replaced religion as a means of achieving spiritual
experience and also as a social sedative. The home of opera was transformed into a
lay shrine of beauty and pleasure.
Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera (1910) reflects the
complexity of its architectural counterpart. It both glorifies and mocks the Second
Empire, meets Gothic prejudice with detached scepticism of a journalist, and
uncovers the small-town morality behind the seemingly highbrow, scienceconscious minds of the contemporaries. Yet, the power of Leroux’s book lies not
in an innovative intrigue, which in fact is an eclectic compilation of many earlier
cultural motives, nor even in the writer’s skill. Despite great aspirations, Gaston
Leroux is a much inferior novelist compared with Victor Hugo, whom he greatly
admired and whose works – Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) and L’Homme Qui Rit
(1869) - echo in The Phantom. The novel was originally received without great
enthusiasm and quickly went out of print, its popularity developing slowly in time
only thanks to subsequent film adaptations.
First of all, it remains an homage paid to Garnier and his Opera. Leroux
Ibid., 113.
Dorota Babilas
completes the ‘totality’ of Garnier’s creation by providing it with a myth – in a
similar way Victor Hugo had given a myth to the Notre-Dame. The opera house
has replaced the cathedral as the sanctus sanctorum of a modern city. The novel
is a Gothic romance with elements of a rational detective story, set against a
colourful background of operatic performances; it links the reality of theatre life
with the fictitiousness of the spectacle. On the one hand, the story is devoid of
any supernatural elements; on the other, Erik, the title anti-hero, is a larger-thanlife character related to great operatic villains such as Don Juan, Faust or Othello,
combining the menacing mind of Hugo’s Frollo with the monstrous looks of
Quasimodo. However, whereas later adaptations focused on the horror elements
or, more recently, on the dark romance, Leroux’s novel offers, very importantly,
one of literature’s great city-scapes – a vision situated between the reality of the
nineteenth-century Paris and the haunted realm of Gothic imagination. The author,
himself an abonné of the Opera, demonstrates his thorough knowledge of the
edifice, its employees, repertoire, and operatic conventions in general. The Palais
Garnier, without ever losing its brick and mortar reality, is transformed into an
eerie haunted house in which historical characters coexist with fictional creations.
The guided tour of the Opera, which Leroux offers his readers, takes them
to places unreachable for an ordinary spectator. They are invited to offices and
dressing-rooms – all with meticulously described furniture and fittings. The
backstage atmosphere has nothing to do with the exultation of high art and
resembles the visions of carnal pleasures expected by the Opera’s rich patrons.
The annual masquerade, an important scene in the novel, offers the writer an
opportunity to observe members of high society liberated by masks and costumes
from the necessity of behaviour appropriate to their position. Later, when the hero,
Raoul de Chagny, undertakes to rescue the soprano Christine Daaé, abducted from
the stage by the Phantom, Leroux provides accurate and detailed descriptions
of the undergrounds of the edifice, especially the complicated machinery for
manipulating elaborate sets. The atmosphere of the Palais Garnier is also created
by the people. Beside the managers, musicians, divas and ballerinas there is a
wealth of information on the technical and supporting staff of the nineteenthcentury Opera: all the artisans making costumes, sets and props, lighting operators,
firemen, horse grooms and even a rat-catcher. One of the important secondary
characters, Madame Giry, is an ouvreuse, an employee responsible for letting the
audience into their hired boxes and providing them with printed programmes.
Whereas Erik’s underground lair is the work of Leroux’s literary imagination,
early readers perceived the novel as a roman à clef with hidden references to
artistic celebrities. Many of the singers mentioned in the novel are real persons,
e.g. Gabrielle Krauss, Jean-Baptiste Faure, Carolus Fonta or Pedro Gailhard. The
main heroine, Christine Daaé, is a Swedish soprano of very poor background,
Dorota Babilas
educated by a wealthy music-lover who discovered her when she was singing at
a country fair. Leroux’s inspiration for this character was the real lyric soprano
Christine Nilsson who never sang in the Palais Garnier, but whose extraordinary
career and repertoire correspond almost perfectly to those of Christine Daaé.
Similarly, Christine’s rival, the tempestuous diva Carlotta, is a somewhat malicious
portrait of Nilsson’s contemporary and main competitor, Adelina Patti. 6 The
world of nineteenth-century opera buffs was divided into the supporters of either
Patti or Nilsson, and Leroux takes the side of the latter. His Christine is perhaps
not entirely a positive character, but undoubtedly she is a true artist, contrary to
Carlotta who is ‘a mere instrument’7 with no heart and soul.
The quasi-Gothic haunting of the opera house is devoid of any supernatural
causes, but again, disasters plaguing the Palais Garnier are based on sensational
journalistic accounts. The famous scene with the chandelier crashing to the ground
during a full-house performance echoes not one, but two similar occurrences. On
May 20, 1896, a heavy weight holding the chandelier in place broke loose during
the performance of Alphonse Duvernoy’s opera Helle and destroyed the ceiling of
a topmost box, killing an elderly lady. Interestingly, a similar, though less tragic,
accident happened on February 2, 1795, in London’s Royal Theatre Haymarket,
when during a concert by Joseph Haydn a chandelier fell down, luckily causing
no injury to anyone and earning one of Haydn’s Symphonies a nickname of ‘The
Miracle’.8 Even the suspicious hanging of Joseph Bouquet in the Opera’s cellar in
the novel had its origin in a real suicide of a stagehand recalled in the memoir of
Charles de Boigne.9
All these clues lead to an inevitable question regarding the identity of the
notorious Phantom. The first suggestion is given by Leroux in the dedication
of his book to his older brother Joseph, an actor and singer, ‘who, having no
See Herman Klein, Great Women Singers of My Time (London: Routledge,
1931), 66-78; and H. Sutherland Edwards, The Prima Donna. Her History and
Surroundings from the 17th to the 19th century (New York: Da Capo Press, 1978),
7 Gaston Leroux, Le Fantôme de l’Opera (Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1959) , 74 (my
8 R.G., ‘Haydn Symphonies No. 96 in D major, “Miracle”; No. 99 in E
flat major,’ Gramophone (November 1980). Accessed March 16, 2011,
9 Charles de Boigne, Petits Memoirs de l’Opera (Paris: Libraire Nouvelle, 1857),
Dorota Babilas
aspect of a phantom is, like Erik, an Angel of Music’.10 Brotherly love does not,
however, explain everything. The very choice of the name is puzzling. The foreign
spelling makes Erik even more of a social outcast – like Heathcliff and Svengali,
he lacks a surname – the Scandinavian name creating a peculiar connection with
Christine. Still, two of Leroux’s contemporaries used exactly the same spelling of
their names. One was an eccentric French composer Erik Satie who employed the
foreign spelling possibly for an artistic effect. The other was Erik Weisz, better
known as Harry Houdini – a celebrated American magician. Between them, they
embody two of the extraordinary talents of the Phantom – his amazing skills as a
musician, composer and singer, and his powers of a consummate illusionist and
ventriloquist. As regards the physical deformities which had been the reason of
Erik’s alienation and eventually pushed him to crime, Leroux had no shortage of
inspiration. The sad story of Joseph Merrick, ‘the Elephant Man’ who had died
in 1890, was well publicised. There were also the victims of the recent FrancoPrussian war, many of whom disfigured in their faces by combat wounds.
Gaston Leroux asserts in the preface to the novel that his great anti-hero really
existed.11 We could dismiss this as a mere literary trick, or accept the invitation
to a game of riddles. A skeleton found in the third cellar – reminiscent of the fate
of Quasimodo – is, according to Leroux, the mortal remains of Erik who had built
the opera house as a magic box of wonders and was buried there after he had died
of unrequited love for Christine. In the Paris Opera there is only one such spectre;
someone whose talent and wit have shaped this edifice; whose name and face are
hidden from the view of most visitors while at the same time appearing in perfectly
visible places. Someone who has been the true spiritus loci of this place and who
has given it his name – Charles Garnier.
Throughout his life, despite success and wealth, the architect of the Opera
struggled with the opinion of an outcast not fitted for good society. His workingclass origins were mocked, as was his physical appearance. He was a frequent
target of newspaper caricatures, and although he took it with good humour, his
friends could see his insecurity.12 As an artist and a lover of beauty, Garnier
must have been aware just how distant he was from the canons of attractiveness.
Perhaps, then, his life’s work – just like Erik’s great opus Don Juan Triumphant –
is a challenge. ‘I could easily imagine this music to be written in blood,’13 admits
Leroux’s Christine commenting on Don Juan:
Listening to it [...] I experienced the abyss inhabited by an ugly
Leroux, Le Fantôme, 7.
Ibid., 9.
12 Mead, Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera, 38-40.
13 Leroux, Le Fantôme, 258.
Dorota Babilas
man [...] It was a triumphant symphony, capable of setting the
whole world ablaze; I understood that the work was finally
finished and Ugliness, lifted on the wings of Love, dared to
Ibid., 259.
Dorota Babilas
Boigne, Charles de. Petits Memoirs de14l’Opéra. Paris: Libraire Nouvelle, 1857.
look into the face of Beauty.
Edwards, H. Sutherland. The Prima Donna. Her History and Surroundings from
the 17th to the 19th century. New York: Da Capo Press, 1978.
Fontaine, Gerard. Charles Garnier’s Opera. Architecture and Exterior Décor.
Paris: Editions de Patrimonie, 2000.
–––, Charles Garnier’s Opera. Architecture and Interior Décor. Paris: Editions de
Patrimonie, 2004.
Garnier, Charles. Le Nouvel Opéra. Paris: Editions du Linteau, 2001.
Hitchcock, Henry-Russel. The Pelican History of Art. Architecture of the
nineteenth century. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971.
Klein, Herman. Great Women Singers of My Time. London: Routledge, 1931.
Leroux, Gaston. Le Fantôme de l’Opéra. Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1959.
Mead, Christopher. Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera. Architectural Empathy and the
Renaissance of French Classicism. New York and London: The MIT Press, 1991.
Reyero, Carlos. Klucze do sztuki: od Romantyzmu do Impresjonizmu (Las Claves
del Arte: Del Romantismo al Impresionismo). Translated by W. Szymaniak,
Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, 1993.
R.G. ‘Haydn Symphonies No. 96 in D major, “Miracle”; No. 99 in E
flat major,’ Gramophone (November 1980). Accessed March 16, 2011,
Dorota Babilas works at the Department of English Studies at the University of
Warsaw. She specialises in Victorian culture and art and teaches a range of courses
on these subjects. She is especially interested in the reception of Victorianism
in popular culture. She has completed a PhD on the literary status and modern
adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera and is currently
working on a book about the cultural image of Queen Victoria in the century after
her death.
Dorota Babilas
The hidden signatures – in the Rotonde des Abonnés, in the gilded Avant
Foyer – the initials concealed on the grandest plafond of the splendid Grand Foyer,
the portraits tucked into the corner of Paul Baudry’s allegorical Parnassus – all
this, plus the ubiquitous motive of the mask, seems to suggest a complex puzzle
designed by the architect as the Opera’s host and master of the ceremonies. His
gilded bust casts a discrete supervisory glance upon the crowd promenading the
Grand Foyer. Garnier appears here in the guise of Mercury – the guide of souls, the
protector of tradesmen and thieves, the intermediary between the world above and
Hades, the god of jokes and traps. Opposite him, across the hall, stands a similar
bust of his wife Louise disguised as Amphitrite, the faithful wife of Poseidon. Is
this Garnier’s answer to the world’s grumbling that an ugly man is unworthy of
The Garniers were both ardent admirers of the operatic art; they bought yearly
subscriptions for the use of a box, a modest one numbered 5 on the ground floor.
This is not the famous Box Five which in the novel was to be left unsold for the
exclusive use of the Phantom. The Grand Tier boxes, notwithstanding the one
situated right next to the Emperor’s private box, were far beyond the financial
reach of even a successful architect. Still, I think, the number used in the novel
is not coincidental. Just as in Notre-Dame de Paris the printed Bible was to
replace ‘the Bible in stone’, that is the Gothic cathedral, the novel of Gaston
Leroux aspires to become the literary monument and homage to the Palace Garnier
and its maker.
So, Erik the Phantom remains a palimpsest, a compilation – an architect,
musician, illusionist and circus freak whose fictional biography mirrors many real
lives of his contemporaries. Fate did not provide him with an author of Victor
Hugo’s class who would have made him akin to Quasimodo or Gwynplaine or,
perhaps, would have reached even deeper, to the cruel and tragic anti-heroes of
Shakespeare and the Gothic novel; a writer who might have given him the soul
and flair worthy of grand opera. Still, the power of the tale dismissed as a pennydreadful does not seem to diminish in time. Quite on the contrary – the characters
created by Leroux have become the mainstay of modern popular culture. The sheer
amount of adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera in all possible media is hard to
overlook, and although not all of them use the Palais Garnier as their background,
the Paris Opera’s fame lives on.