Welcome to the tenth episode of our There’s Only One Paris participatory short story series! For this week’s story we journey to the glitzy Opera Garnier. If you’re new to the project you can read more about these participatory stories here and at the end is a link to all the stories thus far.
A few special thank yous for this story, firstly to Gabie Demers who requested the Opera Garnier and a mystery. I’d also like to thank Josh who contributed ideas for the characters and plot and to Jeanie for sending more lovely descriptions to be included. I loved all the enthusiasm about the venue shared via comments or photos on this week’s Facebook posts. A big merci for photos goes to Charmaine Manson, Dave Walton, Casey Walters, Sallyann Gillick and Josie Haskin and to Bonnie Harris, Rhonda Phelps, Janet Conroy, Debra Griffin and Terri Gilbert.
Hidden Plans for the Opera Garnier
Elodie quicked her pace. It was 8:50 am. Speeding up Avenue de l’Opera, she had to weave in and out of the throngs of suit-clad office workers on their way to the many posh bureaux which populated the elegant avenue and its side streets.
Unlike most of the other wide boulevards that were driven through the Parisian cityscape in the mid-19th century, there were no trees lining l’Avenue de l’Opera. These would have blocked the view towards the building that had instigated the creation of the street itself. A whole section of ‘old’ Paris had to be torn down in order to build a straight street between the royal residence of the Louvre and the crown jewel of ‘new’ Paris: the Opera Garnier.
Even though she’d seen it countless times, as she neared the majestic building Elodie couldn’t help but marvel at its extravagant facade. Busts of great composers, clusters of gleeful dancers, dedications to the various arts, gilded allegorical figures; if one examined all the decoration on the front of the Opera House, just above the central row of columns, one might spot the repeating initials N and E, a nod to who commissioned the opulent ‘Academie National de Musique.’ Emperor Napoléon III and Empress Eugénie.
It may have been commissioned by the imperial couple, nevertheless, today the grandiose building was named in honor of its architect, Charles Garnier. Famous the world over, le Palais Garnier was not Paris’ first opera house. Founded in 1669 by Louis XIV, the institution has been housed in various buildings throughout its 350 plus years. In fact, it was an ‘incident’ at the previous opera house which sparked the building of this ‘new’ one.
Built in 1821, the Palais Garnier’s predecessor was located a short distance away, on rue Le Peletier. On January 14th, 1858, the Emperor and Empress were on their way to a performance there when Italian anarchist Felice Orsini tried to bomb their carriage. Although the Bonapartes were unscathed, thanks to their iron-lined carriage, the strength of the blast left 156 people injured, eight fatally, and blew out the glass of the neighboring buildings. A new opera house was declared in public interest and necessary for the safety of the head of state.
Considering this, it isn’t surprising that a very special entrance was built for the Emperor, which Elodie was now in front of. Found on the west side of the Opera, it had a curved ramp, designed so the Emperor’s carriage could go up it and straight into an enclosed entrance, emblazoned with the Napoleonic eagle. This meant he could safely attend the opera without ever having to set foot out in the open. Clever as it was, the Emperor never got to use his ultra-safe entrance. The Opera House was completed in 1875, five years after Napoléon was ousted from power upon the disastrous Franco-Prussian war. Elodie’s destination was found just above the Emperor’s designated entrance.
But to get there she took a side door to the left of the main entrance, flashing a card at the security guard. Many visitors quickly fall to whispers as they enter the Opera House, like they were going to disturb the atmosphere in a holy place. As much as the facade was completely awe-inspiring, the Opera’s grand staircase was so sumptuous it literally took your breath away. Despite being in a hurry, she lingered for a minute to take in its mesmerizing grandeur. It was the first time Elodie could access the Opera House since the lockdown and the pandemic had made her appreciate its intricate details that much more.
She slowly walked up the regal staircase. She marveled at its architectural accents, the number of columns and balconies, as well as the use of gold ornamentation and candelabras; these were the perfect examples of the ‘excess’ used in the design. These features also spoke volumes about the expectations of the Emperor, his desire to be noticed and to be remembered for what he did for Paris and his noble subjects. She gazed up at the meticulously painted ceiling overhead, complete with soaring angels. She could only imagine what it might have been like to saunter up this staircase, wearing a magnificent dress, furs and jewels, as she suspected only the very wealthy could do. It was the place to be and be seen in the time period in which it was built.
For some reason, some staircases were, and are currently, built to really attract attention. Not only attention to detail, but attention to the specific people ascending or descending them. An attention grabber if you will. Garnier’s staircase reminded Elodie of another one that became well known. The one built into the Titanic. It was also a grand staircase and was meant to be a design centerpiece of architectural meaning on that ill-fated vessel, as ill-fated as Napoléon III’s military campaign against Prussia.
It was 9:05 am when Elodie pushed open the doors to her final destination: the opera’s library-museum. Home to 600,000 documents, from programs to partitions, since commencing her PhD. in architecture, Elodie had gotten to know its collections extremely well. Perhaps too well. In fact, the day before the lockdown was announced, she’d come across a very curious exchange of letters, a chain of correspondence between Charles Garnier and a certain Monsieur Blanc.
Since the quarantine had prevented Elodie from coming to the library in person, she’d done some digging around online to find out who this Mr Blanc could have been. It turned out that the cost of the Opera House was much greater than anticipated. It became the most expensive building constructed during its time, costing the equivalent of a whopping 313 million euros. One of the reasons for this was towering expense stemmed from the fact that the plot of land chosen for the colossal building was very wet and, despite months spent trying to pump out the water, a large cistern had to be built, resulting in the legendary ‘lake’ which was still found in its depths.
At the fall of Napoléon III the building wasn’t complete, but was well underway. As the French coffers had been drained from the costly war and subsequent repatriations to Germany, there were not enough state funds to finish the Opera House. Therefore, the government of the Third Republic borrowed 4.9 million gold francs from François Blanc, a wealthy financier and real estate promoter.
The letters Elodie had discovered just before the lockdown clearly showed the growing professional relationship between Blanc and Garnier, who would later be commissioned to design a concert hall for Blanc’s Casino of Monte Carlo. This building would later become the official Opera House of the Côte d’Azur principality.
One specific letter had caught Elodie’s attention. Although it wasn’t plainly spelled out, it seemed to make reference to a special request Blanc had made to Garnier, something that would remain just between the two of them. A secret passageway. And Elodie was determined to find it.
Her heart was practically beating out of her chest as she strode down an aisle lined with bookcases, in the direction of the documents section.
“Bonjour Jean!” she breathlessly greeted the distinguished looking librarian, around 40-years old, who was sitting behind a solid oak desk.
“Bonjour Elodie, so nice to see you!” he said, his face lighting up when he lifted his eyes from his copy of Opera Magazine and saw who was there.
“Jean, let’s catch up later over a coffee,” Elodie said. knowing he would want to chat since it had been months since they’d last seen each other. However, she couldn’t make it through small talk right now, she was too excited. “But first, I urgently need to see Garnier’s various plans for the Opera House, especially the final ones he did, and any that show close up details or potential last minute modifications.”
“Sure thing,” Jean acquiesced. “I’ll be back in a jiffy.” Five minutes later he returned bearing a collection of large file folders.
“I know you don’t need reminding, but please make sure you don’t get any dust or dirt on them,” he duly added as he slowly set the precious documents down on one of the large examination tables.
“Of course!” Elodie said. She knew the drill by now. Setting her purse down on a chair, she removed a small pouch containing a pristine pair of white archival gloves which she daintily put on. Despite bubbling over with excitement, she carefully opened the first folder and went about scrutinizing the plans for any clues to the whereabouts of the secret passageway.
“Hungry?” asked Jean, smiling down at Elodie.
“Huh?” said Elodie, completely lost in her plans
“It’s almost 2 pm,” he informed her.
“Oh my!” she exclaimed. She’d been so concentrated on her quest that she hadn’t noticed the hours flying by. Jean could tell she was a little hesitant.
“Let’s go grab a sandwich and you can tell me what you’re looking for,” he suggested. “Maybe I can help?”
“Okay, sounds good.” she agreed. Since she hadn’t discovered anything that morning, she could probably use some assistance.
Elodie removed her gloves, scooped up her purse, and the two headed for the exit. In addition to being surrounded by offices, the Opera Garnier was in the heart of Paris’ main shopping district. This meant there were a lot of chain eateries in the area, however, Jean knew where there was a hidden local bakery. As they were on the late side of lunch, there was fortunately no line up so they were in and out with their baguette sandwiches in a flash.
“Shall we go to the Palais-Royal with these?” proposed Jean.
“If you don’t mind, perhaps we could just sit on the steps,” said Elodie anxiously. “I really want to get to the bottom of this mystery as soon as possible.”
“Sure, no problem,” he replied somewhat reluctantly.
“Oh, don’t worry, Jean,” said Elodie, knowing very well Jean’s strong dislike of anything dusty and dirty. “I have one of those free newspapers they give out on the subway in my bag. We can sit on it.”
His furrowed brow relaxed and they found a place on the steps far enough away from the few others who’d had the same idea as Elodie. In between bites, Elodie spilled the beans on what she had discovered.
“Well, there are a few official secret passages, like the narrow one that goes from the lake all the way up to the fourth floor,” started Jean. “But it really isn’t out of the question that there are others.”
“I scoured all the old plans this morning and didn’t find any clues,” said Elodie, frustrated.
“If there’s anyone who might have actually noticed something suspicious, it’s Michel,” stated Jean.
“Michel, the old custodian,” he clarified. “He knows the building like the back of his hand. He’s been working here forever. Okay, he hasn’t quite been here since the Opera House opened, but for at least 40 years. He must be up for retirement soon.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to ask,” said Elodie.
“Okay, I’ll help you find him, then I really need to get back to work,” said Jean, looking at his watch.
After finishing up their sandwiches, they went on the hunt for Michel. They started by roaming the various foyers. Not one detail of the opulent interiors had been overlooked by Garnier and his troop of gifted artists and artisans. These were decked out in sculptures, paintings, crystal, mirrors and gold in every form. Gold paint, gold gilding, and gold candelabras; gold always denoted wealth and/or power and importance. The global effect made you feel like you were at a miniature Versailles, but here you were at the royal court of Napoléon III instead of Louis XIV.
Beautiful as these were, there was no Michel. They checked the more intimate Rotonde du Glacier and Rotonde des Abonnés, vestibules for the public. No Michel. They even popped into the Salon Florence Gould, named in honor of the famous American philanthropist. Still no Michel. This left them with the maze of storage and rehearsal rooms found behind the scenes, these would be a nightmare to search through, or the building’s largest room, its vast 2,000 seat auditorium, which they opted to start with. Jean heaved open the large door and the pair were suddenly enveloped by warm golds and sensual reds, the latter chosen to accentuate the beauty of the members of the audience. Overhead was Marc Chagall’s whimsical ode to opera featuring 14 scenes from the works of Mozart, Stravinsky, Bizet, Verdi, Beethoven and other musical masterminds.
“Michel!” Elodie called out, her words echoed through the cavernous room.
“No use in doing that,” advised Jean. “Despite this room’s acoustics, Michel’s hard of hearing.”
“Poor guy, he can’t even make the most of the place where he works.”
“Oh, sure he does,” corrected Jean. “You can often find him sitting at the back of the auditorium during ballet rehearsals. Actually there’s one about to start just now, that’s why there aren’t any visitors in here.”
“Hey, what’s that?” asked Elodie. The two followed the deep nasal noises towards the back of the auditorium. Sure enough the snores guided them straight to a snoozing Michel, slouched down in one of the room’s plush red velour seats.
Jean cleared his throat loudly, but this had no effect on sleepy Michel. Jean and Elodie looked at each other. Jean was too polite, Elodie would have to take matters into her own hands. She shooed Jean out of Michel’s line of sight. From her pocket, she removed the crumpled receipt from her lunchtime sandwich. Standing behind Michel, she leaned over and tickled his nose with the receipt, then jumped backwards. Prudish Jean put his hand over his eyes, how embarrassing would it be if they got caught!
Michel awoke with a start and quickly took the rag in his hand and began wiping down the wooden frame of the seat in front of him.
“Oh there you are, Michel!” said Elodie, stepping forward as if she’d just arrived. Michel turned around, smiling pleasantly and polishing ferociously, as if he’d been at it for ages. “We need your help with an urgent matter!”
“Oh, what’s that?” he asked. He stood up with some difficulty and propped himself on the chair he’d been sitting on.
“We need to find a secret passageway…” started Elodie. She then gave him a brief rundown of the story. While she was provided the details, some dancers appeared on stage, out of costume and in casual leotards and tights. The rehearsal was about to begin.
“If this Monsieur Blanc was that wealthy, he would have had one of the best private boxes,” concluded Michel. “There’s the Presidential Box, originally designed for the Emperor, but there are other highly coveted boxes. If he’d commission Garnier to make him a secret passageway, it would likely be in there.”
“Great idea!” said Elodie. “Can you show us which one it might have been?”
“Sure, my guess it would have been that one,” he said pointing across the room. “That deluxe box has a perfect view of the stage, plus it’s next to the wall. That would make sense for a secret passageway.”
“Allons-y! Let’s go!” she cheered.
Jean seemed a little hesitant. He looked at his watch again.
“I should really get back to work,” he said.
“Come on, Jean!” implored Elodie. “It’s the first day you’re open to the public, there were barely any people at the library this morning. If your colleagues need you, they could always call you.”
“Bon d’accord, okay,” Jean said, prompting the others to start towards the exit. “Only five more minutes!” he added as he chased after them.
Exiting the auditorium, they went up a set of stairs. Michel guided them to the right and stopped in front of the last of that level’s private boxes. Elodie pointed up at the door, stupefied.
“F.B.,” she read out the initials painted on the door in a faded gold. “François Blanc.”
“This must be it!” exclaimed Jean, now glad he’d tagged along.
Michel pulled a massive set of keys from his pocket. It seemed to contain every type and size of key you could imagine. He selected an elegant old fashioned brass one, the master for the boxes. He slid it into the lock and gently pushed open the door. The trio tiptoed inside like shy young dancers.
“Places!” shouted the choreographer, startling the three amateur sleuths. Elodie crept up to the edge of the box. It certainly granted the perfect view of the stage. The dancers lined up and the choreographer motioned to a technician to start the recorded music. It was from Merante’s Sylvia, although it looked like they would be doing a contemporary version of this classic 19th-century ballet which had premiered on that very stage in 1876.
“I would imagine if there was some secret door, it would be over on this side,” deducted Michel, breaking Elodie’s spell.
“Yes that would make sense,” said Jean. The three of them went about investigating the walls in search of any unusual crevices or openings.
“Hmmm… there doesn’t seem to be anything out of place,” commented Jean.
Elodie ran her fingers up and down the trim. She stopped near the bottom.
“Hey what’s that?” she asked. The spry, youngest one of the group, she agilely crouched down to inspect her possible find. “Yes! It’s a small key hole! Michel, are there any very small keys on your set?”
“I think so,” he said, riffling through his huge collection. “Ah ha! I’ve always wondered what this one was for.” He said, holding up a tiny key. No more than an inch long, although it was tarnished, the key didn’t look like it had had much use.
“Let’s give it a try,” said Elodie. Michel handed her his clunky set of keys and she carefully inserted it into the lock. It fit. She slowly turned it to the left and a section of the wood paneling creaked opened. The trio gasped.
“We found it,” whispered Elodie, in awe.
“Maybe we should go tell the Director what we found?” suggested Jean trepidatiously, always the one to err on the side of caution.
“Let’s just have a quick look first,” Elodie insisted. Michel unclicked a small flashlight which was hooked to his belt and shone the light inside. Elodie peered over his shoulder. At first the space looked more like a closet.
“What are those?” asked Michel. On the ground to one side were scattered pieces of torn up paper. Elodie bent down to pick them up.
“They’re old programs,” she noted. “I wonder why they’re ripped up?”
“That’s strange,” said Jean trying to read the writing on the pages. Elodie skimmed through them quickly.
“They all seem to feature the same lead dancer,” noted Elodie, “Cléo Deschamps.”
“Cléo Deschamps!” exclaimed Jean.
“Do you know of her?” asked Michel.
“Oh yes!” answered Jean. “She’s something of a mystery. As I’m sure you both know, or at least have seen in the paintings of Edgar Degas, there were various categories of ballerinas in the 1800s. At the bottom were ‘les petits rats,’ the little rats, young dancers generally from poor families and with somewhat… flexible morals. Wealthy benefactors would often attend rehearsals and were doted on by some of the girls who were trying to secure the protection and financial assistance of these influential men.
“Of course, not all the dancers resorted to this dubious system. Some of the best ballerinas, who were striving to be chosen as lead dancers, were much more reserved. They often had a mother or an aunt who would also attend rehearsals, to keep a watchful eye on their family’s valuable asset. Cléo Deschamps fell into this latter category. With exceptional beauty and skill, she was quickly spotted and was soon on track to become the danseur étoile, the star dancer, of the Paris Opera. In fact, she was supposed to be the star of Merante’s Sylvia, but she suddenly disappeared. Completely vanished. No one knew what happened to her.”
“Well, it seemed like this Monsieur Blanc was particularly interested in Cléo,” observed Elodie. “I wonder if he was her benefactor.”
“Or maybe he was trying to woo her, hence the passageway,” suggested Michel. Jean and Elodie looked over at the custodian, surprised at his interest in the affair. He shone the light around the secret alcove. His flashlight stopped on the ground. “Elodie, is that a lever down there?”
She set the programs down on one of the box’s velour chairs and got down on her hands and knees. She worked her fingers around the edge of the board Michel was referring to.
“Ah ha!” she proclaimed as her fingers slid under a recess. She pulled the boards, which easily came up in one grouping. ”A trap door!”
Michel leaned over and shone his light down. “Stairs.” he discerned. Indeed, his flashlight revealed a very narrow spiral staircase.
“I wonder where they lead to?” pondered Elodie, looking over at Michel and Jean.
“With my bad hip I won’t be trying those stairs, but here, you two can go,” said Michel, handing Elodie his flashlight. ”I’ll wait here.”
“It looks pretty dusty,” said clean-freak Jean.
“Come on, Jean,” said Elodie. “I promise we’ll inform the Director right afterwards.”
“Okay, fine,” he complied. He had to admit, his curiosity was piqued. Dust could always be brushed off.
“Just holler if you need anything,” said Michel as he went over to sit by the edge of the box to watch the rehearsal, a renewed spring in his step, as he returned to what he had obviously intended to spend part of his afternoon doing. His passion for dance made Elodie wonder if Michel had been a dancer in his youth, a ‘petit rat’ himself?
Elodie turned towards the steps and carefully descended them one by one, Jean closely behind shining down the light. The stairs seemed to go down about the equivalent of two stories, then stopped on a small landing. Here there was another door. The word ‘Loges’ was written on it.
“The dressing rooms,” said Jean. “Just what I thought. Benefactors were allowed to attend the rehearsals, however, visiting a prima ballerina in her dressing room was a very high privilege and not an easy one to obtain.”
“Look! More torn up bits of paper!” said Elodie, crouching down to pick them up. “Hmmm… it seems like there are two types of paper. Here, I’ll give you the beige ones and I’ll keep the light pink ones, then we can try to figure out what they are.”
The two spent a minute attempting to assemble the puzzle of pieces.
“Mine is a cheque,” concluded Jean. “For 10,000 francs!”
“Wow, that’s a lot of money!” bluttered Elodie.
“Well don’t forget these would be ‘ancien francs,’” clarified Jean. “Old francs from the 1800s whose value was different from the francs used in France before the euro was rolled out in 2002.”
“That may be true, but it still sounds like a substantial sum!” said Elodie.
“Yes, I’d imagine that’s equivalent to around 50,000 euros today,” said Jean. “Have you figured out your papers?”
“It seems to be a letter,” said Elodie, holding together the pieces.
Cher M. Blanc,
Thank you for your complimentary letter, the bouquet of roses and your over-generous gift. I am afraid I am unable to accept it. I am in love with Gaston and we are running away together tonight after the performance. We have pledged ourselves to each other. Do not try to find me.
“Wow….” said Elodie upon finishing reading out the letter.
“I guess that solves it,” said Jean. “Blanc had been pursuing her and had even got Garnier involved to help out. Garnier was corruptible, but Cléo wasn’t.”
“But the mystery isn’t completely solved, ”said Elodie. “Where did Cléo and this Gaston go?”
Jean scanned the space they were in with the flashlight.
“Look!” he said. “The passageway continues.”
“Let’s see where it goes.”
The pair followed the passageway, which started as a straight corridor then made a right angled turn. At the end of this was a small door, closed by a latch. Elodie flipped it up and the door came ajar. They were in the Rotonde des Abonnés! That made complete sense. From here, one could discreetly slip in or out of the passageway. The round vestibule was on the level beneath the grand staircase, conveniently found near an emergency exit door.
“Cléo must have discovered this secret passageway in advance,” said Jean.
“Yes, she turned its intended purpose around in her favor,” said Elodie. “Instead of Blanc being able to use it to court her, she used it to escape with Gaston!”
“Clever Cléo!” stated Jean.
“But who was this Gaston?” wondered Elodie out loud. “Do you think he also worked here at the Opera?”
“That’s a good guess, Cléo would have rarely left the building with her intense schedule,” said Jean. Just then his face lit up, hit by an idea. “I know how we can find out! Follow me!”
“Great!” chimed Elodie. She scurried after Jean who was already jogging up the grand staircase and back in the direction of the library.
Rushing through the door, the other librarians raise an eyebrow as if to say ‘where have you been?’ but Jean didn’t even make eye contact with them. He sat down at his desk, put in his password and did some frantic typing and clicking.
“What are you looking for?” asked Elodie.
“We’ve recently digitized the staff records dating all the way back to the Opera House’s opening in January 1875. I can do a keyword search by name. Voila! There have been three Gastons on staff… and one stopped working here in the fall of 1875! That’s exactly when Cléo disappeared!”
Jean clicked on the profile. “Gaston Ledoux.”
“What was his job?”
“He was in charge of raising the massive stage curtain! So he must have spent hours admiring the lovely Cléo from a similar vantage point as Monsieur Blanc.”
“Wait a second,” said Jean. “Ledoux…. That name sounds familiar.”
Jean quickly plugged in a new search.
“Two names have come up for Ledoux: Gaston Ledoux… and Michel Ledoux!” declared Jean.
“Michel!” said Elodie.
“Yes, our Michel!” confirmed Jean.
“Let’s go find him!” said the ecstatic Elodie. The pair zoomed back out of the library, passing the puzzled librarians.
Michel was right where they’d left him, enraptured by the dancers, fingers drumming on the box’s ledge along with the music, like the tiny footsteps of les petits rats.
“Michel!” called Elodie. Startled from his trance, he sat up straight.
“So what did you find?” he asked.
“Before we get around to that, we have a question for you,” said Jean. “Do you know if you had a Gaston in your family? An ancestor?
“Hmmm, why yes,’ he replied after a minute’s reflection. “My great grandfather was called Gaston.”
Jean and Elodie exchanged glances.
“My family used to run a ballet school out in Normandy, but my parents decided to move to Paris,” continued Michel. “I always had fond memories of watching those petits rats practising at the school. I guess that’s why I ended up applying for a job at the Opera House.”
“Why didn’t you try to become a dancer?” asked Elodie.
“Look at me!” he said. “Alas, not the right physique!”
Elodie and Jean smiled. Despite his sturdy size, dance flowed in Michel’s genes nonetheless.
They knew he’d be thrilled to find out the true story about his great grandparents… and they also knew exactly what the team should get Michel for his retirement present: a lifetime season’s pass to the Opera Garnier.
There’s Only One Paris Episodes
Did you like this story? If you missed the others, you can catch up on them at these links:
Curious to know more about the Opera Garnier? Discover more about its history and details in our article on Fascinating Facts about the Opera Garnier. Or you can explore the area around the Opera House via our mini-guide to the most romantic places of the 9th district here.