One of the most celebrated and world-renowned musicals of all time, The Phantom of the Opera, takes place in the iconic Paris establishment, Palais Garnier. The Paris opera house is an opulent structure with interiors painted in gold and seats upholstered in red velvet matching the dramatic stage curtains below a stunning chandelier. And while this building makes for a gorgeous setting for a performance, the choice of Palais Garnier in this case was not simply for stylistic purposes, but because the story was actually inspired from true events that happened there…
Indeed, while the story is fictional, there are some spooky legends and real-life events that inspired the original book The Phantom of the Opera, written by Gaston Leroux in 1910. From falling chandeliers to ghosts haunting the opera house, here are some of the eerie events that have occurred behind the curtain:
The Chandelier Incident
In the dramatic finale of Act 1 in The Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom cuts the chandelier loose from the ceiling and it comes crashing down on the stage. This scene was inspired by a true event that happened at Palais Garnier in 1896 when a counterweight supporting the chandelier detached and fell into the crowd. One person was killed, and several were injured as a result. As far as we know, this was a total freak accident – but perhaps a certain ghost wanted to stir some trouble…
The Opera Ghost
In 1873, the original Paris Opera venue, on the nearby rue Lepeletier, caught fire, destroying the space. During the stage fire, a ballerina died and her fiancé – a pianist – was disfigured as a result. Legend has it that after the incident he retreated to the underground of the new opera house, Palais Garnier, and lived there until his death – mirroring the physical appearance and living situation of the Phantom character in Leroux’s story.
Some sources claim that a body was even found many years later beneath the Palais Garnier, though it isn’t clear who the corpse belonged to since prisoners were also once held beneath the present day opera house. In any case, it seems quite likely that there could be some lingering spirits hanging around (if you believe in ghosts, that is).
The Underground Lake
A relatively chilling fact worth mentioning is that the underground lake beneath the Palais Garnier in Leroux’s story is not entirely made up. Indeed, the labyrinth design of the massive building eventually leads down to an underground reservoir which was built to house the water that kept rising during the groundwork construction – and consequentially aided in the house’s exceptional acoustics.
While it may not be inhabited by a Phantom or look as eerily romantic as it does in the musical, it does exist and is used today by Paris firefighters to train for rescue missions – a little ironic considering the disfigured pianist in 1873 retreated to the underground following a fire… Coincidence? Perhaps.
The Doomed Love Triangle
The complex love triangle that carries through The Phantom of the Opera was inspired by a true – and tragic – love story that involved two ballet dancers and a French sergeant. According to legend, a ballet dancer named Boismaison had fallen in love with a ballerina by the name of Nanine Dorival, the woman who supposedly inspired the main character Christine in Leroux’s story. The problem was that the French sergeant, Monsieur Mauzurier, had also fallen in love with the ballerina and made it his mission to get his competition out of the picture.
Upon his death, Boismaison requested his bones be stored in the opera house so that he could still be near his love even in the afterlife. Apparently, his wish was granted, and rumor has it the bones may have even been used as props in some of the opera house’s performances… Whether or not that is true, the fable made for a great source of inspiration for the love triangle between the three main characters in The Phantom of the Opera.
Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, there is certainly some spooky energy roaming the halls of the Palais Garnier. On your next trip to the Paris Opera, perhaps keep an eye out for the presence of a lingering phantom.
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