If you ever come to Paris, the place you will most likely become acquainted with first will be the Place de l’Opera. This square, which is often referred to as the Hub of the Universe, is the one spot in Paris which even the one day tourist to Paris cannot fail to miss, unless he just transfers from the Gare St. Lazare to the Gare de Lyon on his way elsewhere, and, therefore, hardly has a right to say that he has been to Paris. In this article I would like to tell you something of this square, actually, a very small one for Paris, but a very important one just the same.
The Place de I’Opera was first projected in 1857 by Baron Haussmann, a sub-prefect under Napoleon III, to whom we owe so much for the modernization of Paris. Originally, it was intended to build a new theatre there, but before the project got properly under way, it was decided to change that to a new Opera. About three years before that, Baron Haussmann had started to tear down all the old buildings which stood between this square and the Louvre-a distance of about half a mile -in order to build what is now the Avenue de’Opera. However, since there was a hillock near the Rue St. Honore end of this avenne, which had first to be, leveled, this gigantic undertaking was not completed until 1878, or three years after the Opera had already been inaugurated. After the old houses had been torn down and the ground leveled, all the buildings you see along this avenue now were rebuilt in identical styles.
Although this avenue is only about one hundred feet wide, the care with which the houses on each side of it have been designed, together with the fact that nearly all of them are occupied by luxury shops, easily makes this avenue the most elegant street in Paris. It, and the busy Place de I’Opera, from which it cannot be separated, are, therefore, probably the two things in Paris you will see first.
Besides the fact that the Place de I’Opera is pretty much in the heart of Paris, there are, of course, a number of very good other reasons why this square should be so well known. The most important of these is, no doubt, the fact that the Grand Boulevards-Les Grands Boulevards-cross it from east to west, and that at once makes for activity, and where you have activity in Paris, you will also have cafes. Another important reason is the fact that three branches of the Paris subway the Metrohave stations there. And the third is that the Opera section is also one of the most important business sections in Paris. As all tourist agencies, branch offices of both local and foreign railroads, air and shipping lines are located within easy walking distance of this square, this section is also known as the heart of the tourist trade.
In addition to the Grand Boulevards, there are five other streets which converge on this square. The most important of these, next to the Avenue de I’Opera, is the Rue de La Pair, which is almost as well known, and will lead you straight into the nearby Place Vendome. Because some of the most expensive jewelry stores in Paris are located on this street, it is often referred to as the richest street in the world. The next is the Rue 4 Septembre which, like the Rue de la Paix, turns off the square at a sharp angle and will lead you to the Paris stock exchange. The other two are the Rues Halevy and Auber which flank the Opera. Of these the Rue Auber will probably be the street you will visit more often than any other because the offices of the American Express Company are located on it, at the corner of the Rue Scribe.
As I do not intend to come back to the Grand Boulevards in these articles again, though we will, of course, be in and out of them many times during our strolls, this might be a good place to tell you that by the “Grand Boulevards” we understand only that stretch of the Paris boulevards which extends, in a continuous ribbon, from the Madeleine Church all the way to the Place de la Bastille, a distance of about three miles. These were all built between 1670 and 1705 when Louis XIV had the old ramparts torn down and the area planted in trees. These are the only Grand Boulevards in Paris. All the others are just plain boulevards, and not what you might have thought “grand” boulevards also. The plural in I es Grands Boulevards comes, of course, solely from the fact that different sections of it go by different names, as you may easily see by consulting your map. And now, something about the Opera building itself.
The Paris Opera was built between the years 1861 and 1875, which means that, although it was started by Napoleon III, it was not completed until the Third Republic had come into existence. It was designed by the comparatively young, but brilliant architect Charles Garnier, who was only thirty-six when this important work was entrusted to him. It covers an area of three acres, which makes it the largest theater in the world. However, since so much of its interior was devoted to sumptuous lobbies and stairways, it is, in seating capacity, one of the smallest opera houses in Europe, its seating capacity being but two thousand one hundred fifty-eight as against the thirty-six hundred of the La Scala in Milan Its style is known as the Second Empire Style, which was something rather novel at the time it was built. As a matter of fact, we are told that when Garnier showed his design to Napoleon III, the Empress Eugenie, who had been looking on, had remarked to her husband: “What kind of style is that? It is neither Greek, nor Louis XIV nor Louis XV. But perhaps this is the style of Napoleon III,” and that is exactly what it turned out to be. However, Garnier’s design had already been unanimously approved by the commission which had been appointed for this purpose, even before Eugenie got a look at it.
Like so many other things of great beauty that one has seen many times before, it would be difficult topicture the Paris Opera-it is officially known as the “National Academy of Music and the Dance”-any different from what it. is today. The entire front of the building is lavishly decorated, first of all, with the two huge groups of sculptures on each side of it, of which “The Dance” by Carpeaux is the most famous. Other individual groups along its base represent the arts, whereas on medallions across the facade are shown the names of the great composers. At the top of the building there is. a huge winged group of sculpture at each corner and in the center of it, seemingly standing at the top of the cupola, but actually standing on the top of the building behind it, there is what must be another huge figure showing Apollo holding up a lyre.
The entire building, and especially the winged groups ,on top of it, has always given me the impression of being ready to soar up into the sky. But although the idea of suddenly flying away may not be the best recommendation for a building from an architectural standpoint, it may, after all, be exactly the impression Charles Garnier tried to convey; for music, and especially the works of the Masters, very often soars also. Nevertheless, I would not want to give you the impression that the French “National Academy of Music and the Dance” does not stand solidly on the ground.
About the inside of this magnificent building, I am not going to tell you anything at all. If you can derive any pleasure from such dry statistics as to how many kinds of marble were used on it and where they were quarried, you can always consult your travel guides. In any case, the building is open only during a performance. However, you can judge the magnificence of it, both inside and out, when I tell you that during the construction of it Garnier employed thirteen painters of note, fourteen decorators and seventy-three sculptors. On the left-hand side of it, facing the offices of the American Express Company, there is an incline with a massive double balustrade, which allowed the emperor’s carriage to be driven right up to his box. It is on this side that you will find the statue of Charles Garnier With a plan of the building at the base of it. It is on this side also that you will find the entrance to the museum, which is part of the Opera, and if you are sufficiently interested in music, you will probably want to pay it a visit.
From the opposite side of the building, that is to say from the Rue Halevy side, you will obtain the best view of the huge, square building which houses the stage and the huge space above it from which the sceneries are lowered. This is the tallest building in the group and has been so skillfully placed that from the front of the Opera only the top of its slanting roof is visible. This is also the reason for the illusion that the statue of Apollo stands on the cupola instead of, as it does, at the apex of this roof. It is on this side also that you will find the ticket office. As the Opera, as well as some of the theaters, are state-owned, you should have no difficulties in obtaining tickets, especially since, unlike in New York City, ticket scalpers are not tolerated in France.
To me, at least, not the least ornamental feature of the Paris Opera that is to say, if lamp-bearers can be called a feature of a building have always been the twenty-two lovely, life-sized female figures in bronze, which act as lamp-bearers on the Rue Halevy side. These start at the Rue Auber and go almost clear around the building. I had for years been curious to know just how many different figures there were among these lamp-bearers, for it was perfectly obvious that they were not all alike. So, one morning, while I was waiting for the departure of an American Express Company bus to take me on an excursion to Chartres, I decided to settle this point once and for all. However, if you think it an easy matter to tell the difference between twenty-two female figures, all of them perfectly naked, or nearly so, all of them of the same height and in approximately the same poses, you had better guess again.
There was no question that the second was not the same as the first. But what about the third and the fourth? Well, the third was a little different from the second, but how much different was she from the first? I went back to number one again and then back to lovely number three once more. Still, nothing really decisive. From lovely number three I advanced to lovely number four, and since she was different from lovely number three, I had to go back to lovely number two to see how much different she was from her. And if you think that that was not an embarrassing thing to do on a busy street for a man of my age, you just try it yourself some day. Anyway, after going back and forth several times more, I finally learned that there are only two different designs in these lamp-bearers. In other words, the entire set of twenty-two figures had been cast from only two molds. The two designs alternate, but since they are naturally placed some distance apart, you w ill have to look very sharp to tell that they are not all different. In any case, one gets that impression, and that, no doubt, was the reason for placing dissimilar designs adjacent to each other. But that is only another example of the care Paris takes in arranging its public monuments artistically.
Very much the same thing can be said for the manner in which the Place de l’Opera is illuminated at night. If there is nothing tinny about this square during the day, there is also nothing garish about it at night. All the neon signs on this square and there are plenty of themare practically all of one tone, a creamy white, or at most a pale blue, and that, also, cannot be mere coincidence. One could just about imagine what this square would look like if these signs were of every color, with one advertiser trying to outdo the other. But that would just not be Paris.
Tomorrow, I propose to tell you something about the Place Vendome. To make certain that we won’t miss each other, I would suggest that you meet me at one of the sidewalk tables of the Cafe de la Pair, which is right across from the Opera. I’ll see you there tomorrow morning, let us say about ten.