A Tale of Two Opera Houses
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Paris, je t’aime. I really, really do. But with your thick smog, crowds, and rude service workers, I wouldn’t say that our visit with you was the “best of times.” Frankly, your neighbors to the south in Provence offer a more relaxed, serene getaway from the hustle of everyday life. Budapest, you know that we didn’t really gel too well. Your architecture is gorgeous – quite unlike any I’ve ever seen. But honestly, your Gothic vibes and vestiges of Communism kind of darkened my mood. Yet, I wouldn’t call our time with you the “worst of times.” That would be too harsh!
Paris and Budapest, although our time with you was neither the best nor the worst of times, our visits to each of your opera houses were inspiring, unforgettable, and just as phenomenal as I’d hoped they’d be. Yet, our experiences at each were uniquely different. Let’s take a look back, shall we?
Hungarian State Opera House
After making our way from the airport and checking into our hotel in Pest, we quickly freshened up and caught a taxi to the Hungarian State Opera to catch the ballet, Taming of the Shrew. Sitting on Andrássy út (Avenue), Budapest’s main shopping street which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the opera house is a neo-Renaissance structure designed by Miklós Ybl that opened to the public in 1884. The building was renovated from 1980-1984.
Our cab driver did a great job of navigating us through the traffic despite the rain, and although we were running later than we’d planned, we arrived just in time to hand over our coats to the attendants manning the mandatory coat check (approx. 200 forint/$0.82 per coat) and snap a few pictures of the inside of the theater.
We noticed that while most people were dressed in business casual attire, a few donned jeans. In my opinion, the grandeur of the opera house warranted a bit more effort in wardrobe selection. Back in the 19th century when going to the opera was a big social occasion, women would flaunt their new gowns while descending the marble stairs of the opera house.
Soon enough, the lights were cut off and an usher standing by in the aisle motioned for guests to put their phones and cameras away as no pictures were allowed during the performance. That didn’t stop the lady in front of me from snapping a few shots of the ballerinas on stage which upset the usher. I wish I’d had her nerve.
During a fifteen minute intermission, we admired the theater’s painted ceiling which is covered in a mural depicting the nine Muses. During our break, we also walked out into the hallway to snap a few pictures. Because the hall was getting crowded and we didn’t want to venture too far from our seats, we didn’t explore too much around the opera house.
Jave treated the rest of the ballet as his chance to catch some shut eye while I stared at the stage, mesmerized by the grace and seeming ease of the ballerinas’ movements.
All too soon, the performance was over, and we made a quick exit in hopes of beating the crowds to the foyer of the opera house so that we could take some more pictures.
Having had his fill of opera houses back in Budapest, once in Paris, Jave decided against venturing in to the Palais Garnier with me, so my parents, who’d met up with us in the City of Light, both offered to take a self-guided tour with me. I chose my mom as my partner in crime for the simple fact that knowing my dad, he would’ve stopped to read every single exhibit placard we came across, and we were pushed for time. So we left our men outside with a promise to return soon.
I would’ve been on top of the world if I could’ve seen a ballet at Palais Garnier as well, but our time and budget dictated otherwise. So I settled for a quick tour of the opera house and gladly paid 10 euros (approx. $12.50) each for myself and my mom; we opted not to pay extra for the audio guide.
Named after architect, Charles Garnier, Palais Garnier, which is frequently referred to as Opéra Garnier, sits in Paris’ 9th arrodissement on the Boulevard des Capucines, and was constructed in the Beaux-Arts style.
The first level of the building’s grand staircase leads to the amphitheater which was unfortunately closed during our visit, so we didn’t get a peek inside the auditorium which seats 1,979.
On this level, the staircase splits in two directions leading to the Grand Foyer. From the top of the staircase, we were able to get a better look at the opera house’s ceiling. Painted by Isidore Pils, the ceiling depicts various scenes from Greek mythology.
To say that Palais Garnier is ornately decorated would be an understatement. This became evident as we made our way into the jaw-dropping Grand Foyer. The foyer’s hallway stretches over 500 feet in length and is lined with huge chandeliers and gold-gilded columns. To top it off, the ceiling, which was elaborately painted by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, depicts different moments in music history.
Just outside the Grand Foyer, we found open doors that open to a colonnade outside from which we were able to enjoy views of Paris bustling below.
Apart from the Grand Foyer, my favorite part about Palais Garnier are the costumes on display. Beautiful opera gowns, Renaissance costumes, and masks from various performances are safely encased in glass, and they gave us an idea of the amount of detail that goes into designing costumes for the stage. There was even a display highlighting ballerinas getting their hair and makeup done in preparation for a performance.
As if that’s not enough, Palais Garnier even features a library, the Bibliothèque-Musée de l’Opéra de Paris (Paris Opera Library-Museum), which is managed by the National Library of France.
Overall, our visit to the opera house in Budapest definitely made our visit to the city that much more worthwhile, and our visit to Palais Garnier was one of many highlights of our visit to Paris. But the next time I’m in either city, I’d love to switch up my experiences by taking a tour of the Hungarian State Opera House while watching a ballet at Palais Garnier.