“What’s that?” he asked.
“The key of the gate to the underground passage in the Rue Scribe.”
“I understand, Christine. It leads straight to the lake. Give it to me, Christine, will you?”
“Never!” she said. “That would be treacherous!”
~ Gaston Leroux, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1910)
Searching the lobby for the concealed gateway to the Opera basement proved to be a fruitless exercise. We had been to see ‘Coppélia’ played by the young debutantes from the Ecole de Danse de l’Opéra National de Paris, in a version by Patrice Bart.
I had heard that even if you managed to get clearance to visit the dark loins of the building, you still required of a special permit in advance to see the lake, as the place is closed to tourists – presumably for security reasons. Which is understandable, I suppose. But did this secret underground lake really exist? Or was it just as fictitious as the Phantom?
Well – while Erik (the Phantom) may be a fiction character, author Gaston Leroux did find his inspiration for Erik in a real life person who actually lived under the Palais.
The lake, on the other hand, was supposedly real, built by Opera Architect Charles Garnier, after he succeeded in constructing a double wall to contain the pressure of seeping waters inside a cement and concrete tank. And all kinds of horror stories took place down there in the 1870s, at the vaults that served as hiding places and execution spots by the Communards. In those days, Paris was very, very hungry and many dined regularly on rats… awful times.
So, were there any pictures online? A quick search brings up some neat ones of the basement structure, taken by an Austrian fellow, Harald Jahn… but no underground water bodies. So I wrote him a brief message a few days ago, asking him about the lake – had he seen it?
“The “lake” is just a pool of water for the fire brigade. It’s an unspectacular hole with a steel ladder going down. No lake, no boats”.
Disappointing, isn’t it?
But later I found a picture of it!
On her website, ‘Memories of a small rat’, a ballet dancer, Nina, refers to the singular story of 3 girls, very young dancers (Claude, Josette and Raymonde) who managed to elude the concierge, Monsieur Hachet, and went past the forbidden door, only to be rescued later by the firemen… Nina shares the story of this charming adventure as she got it by her friend Raymonde. And she posted
… thanks, Nina!
As for access these days, one would have to ask Guillaume, the Head of Security Services of the Opera Palace. Drop me a line if you find a way to get in… don’t forget to take pictures!