The Palais Garnier in all its grandiosity hides behind a seemingly normal corner in a seemingly normal neighborhood. As you pass a series of high-end cafés and boutiques that were and are still visited by some of the most famous and wealthy visitors to Paris, you would never guess the rich history you are about to encounter. The opera house is breathtaking. As your mind begins to get used to its size and grandeur, you notice its beautiful design. It is ornamented with sculptures and gold décor running towards the top of its enormous architecture. Across the front of the building lies a series of busts representing famous composers like Rousseau and Mozart. If its beauty isn’t enough, its history says it all. There, before your eyes, lies the single influence of one of the most influential works of theatrical art: "The Phantom of the Opera."
The Palais was built after Napoleon III survived an assassination attempt at an opera house. This affair led to a competition of 171 people, with the winner being named chief architect for a new opera house with a separate and secure entrance for the Emperor.
The legend of Phantom of the Opera began with the creation of the Palais. It was built in 1861 and completed in 1874; but not without trouble. There is a body of water in the ground beneath The Palais Garnier that was quite a hassle when it was being built. The architects tried numerous times to pump the water out of the ground, but were unsuccessful. The water continued to bubble up into the ground of the theater. Finally, to ensure that it would be contained, a water tank was built.
News of the new theater sitting atop a water tank laid way for the rise of legends. Those rumors particularly interested journalist Gaston Leroux who found them so compelling that he wrote the details into his novel entitled "The Phantom of the Opera." The story follows a deformed composer who holds a love obsession over a chorus singer at the opera house and haunts the rest of the theater as a phantom. The “phantom” is known to live in sewers beneath the opera house, only coming out of them to further his ulterior motives. Leroux published the novel in 1910 and it’s popularity grew to inspire several plays, films, comic strips, and even a ballet, before becoming the beloved musical we know today.
Furthermore, Leroux incorporated actual life events into his tale. In 1886, the counterweight for a chandelier fell in the Palais and killed a construction worker. The novelist used this event to influence a main plot point in his book. In "The Phantom of the Opera," the phantom drops a chandelier on an audience member, killing him.
To this day, "The Phantom of the Opera" in its many forms and expressions holds a place in the hearts of theater lovers across the entire world, as well as the place that inspired it all. Rumors of the infamous phantom remain strong, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. One thing does remain consistent between Leroux’s story and real life: the white catfish. To this day a large white catfish lives in the tank and is fed by the opera house staff who say they can see it swimming from time to time.
As for the Palais itself, the water tank beneath the Palais is still in place. It is used by firefighters of Paris to learn to swim in the dark. When Leroux was on his death bed in 1927, he insisted that the Palais Garnier was indeed haunted by a phantom, further solidifying the chilling affect that his story has had on the world.