Paris has two grand opera houses and it’s possible to enjoy performances in both of them in one weekend — with a little bit of planning ahead. Here’s how:
Stay in a Strategic Location
Arriving by train in the Gare du Nord, it was only a few stops on the Metro to the Montorgueil neighborhood. We followed the directions from our Airbnb host to unlock the security codes and lockboxes to a charming top floor apartment on the Rue St. Denis, overlooking the rooftops of Paris. We picked this location precisely because it was centrally located within walking distance of the Palais Garnier and an easy Metro ride to the Bastille opera house. It also happens to be a mecca for foodies; we loved eating on the Rue Montorgueil and shopping for French wine and artisan cheese to enjoy in the apartment.
Be advised that the neighborhood is a bit gritty. Garment district pop-up stores featuring the latest designs will appeal to fashionistas, but they jockey for space with a few remaining sex shoppes in an area that is gentrifying. During the day we saw lots of families with kids, but returning from the opera late at night we saw a few “working girls.” Walking beside my opera buddy — my twenty-something adult son — and speaking a decent amount of schoolgirl French, I felt safe. Keep your street smarts about you and you’ll be left in peace. As a reward for venturing into a less touristy area, you’ll experience authentic Paris.
Buy Tickets Online
It’s easy to create an account on the website of the Opera de Paris in English. Tickets are sold for operas, ballets and other events in both theaters. I purchased my tickets for mid-October about six weeks in advance. Opera tickets in Paris are generally less expensive than in Los Angeles or New York, but not as much of a bargain as you’ll find in Central and Eastern Europe. I generally budget around $100 per ticket for decent seats. Cheaper ones may be obstructed or uncomfortable, as described below. No need to pack your opera gown and your tuxedo; attire was what Americans would consider business casual.
We arrived early by Metro to enjoy a drink at one of the cafes near the Place de la Bastille. You should also take into account the extra time needed to navigate the security line at the entrance to the Opera Bastille, a sad fact of life for most venues in the French capital these days. A Friday night performance of Lucia di Lammermoor had some empty seats, so a few seconds before the curtain, those in the rear of the parterre (orchestra level) were encouraged to move up to better seats. The performance was, of course, world class. However, I gave it four stars instead of five on Trip Advisor because of acoustics that seemed to muffle the orchestra and the chorus.
This is the cultural landmark made famous by The Phantom of the Opera, and daytime tours are popular with tourists. But why just see the building when you can experience a performance here? Again, arrive early to navigate the security line and allow extra time to admire the splendid building. You might even want to read the original story by Gaston Leroux to get in the mood for your visit.
We bought tickets online to the closing Saturday night of Eliogabalo and we could only find two remaining seats in our price range: one in a forward-facing box for 99 euros and another in the last row of the nosebleed amphitheater, which is to be avoided if you are over five feet tall. There was no way my six-foot-tall opera buddy could sit there. The fold-down seats have zero legroom and your back is against the wall. Although the view isn’t bad from that high and it was only 55 euros, I would pay a little more for a real seat. I was delighted to get up and walk back down to the box level at the first interval.
Guests are escorted into their box by a ticket-checker and the door is locked for the duration of the performance. This early opera by Cavalli was exquisitely staged and performed, with the lead roles taken by the counter-tenors. The ultra-high male voices recall the bygone era when the “castrati” were superstars in the music world. But it’s not to everyone’s taste and some people left at the interval. One of the people leaving the box gave me the ticket for his seat and I joined my son to enjoy the rest of the opera in comfort.
Overall, I’m glad I experienced both venues. Although the modern Opera Bastille allows for more of a “wow” factor in the staging, the breathtaking architecture and acoustics of Palais Garnier make it a bucket list experience. As the electronic opera billboard in the Place de la Bastille proclaims: “Why Choose?”
Day Trips in Paris
During the daytime, we made the most of a few free hours in Paris to see some sights we had missed on earlier trips. Recently restored Sainte Chappelle is a wonder in stained glass. Don’t be intimidated by what looks like a long line to buy a ticket and get in. It moves quickly. We also marveled at Monet’s Water Lillies at the Orangerie and enjoyed a temporary exhibit of American art curated through French eyes. Obviously, if it’s your first time in Paris, you might opt for Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre instead. The Impressionists are mostly in the Musee d’Orsay. The weather in mid-October was splendid. And whether it’s your first or 100th visit to Paris, strolling the banks of the Seine or wandering in the Latin Quarter are as timeless as the city itself.
Terry’s Travel Tips
High speed rail: We travelled from Brussels to Paris and back on the high-speed Thalys train. Buy tickets online. The ride is smooth and the cars have comfy assigned seats. It was nice to have fast, free wi-fi when I wasn’t busy looking out the window. In Paris, save time in the Metro by figuring out how many journeys you will need for the weekend and buying that number of tickets when you first arrive. There can sometimes be a line for the kiosks or ticket machine.