I blame 10th grade band. For our fall concert, we played a medley of tunes from Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera.” I found the music intriguing and could tell that there was a story to all this, but I didn’t know a thing about it. I was curious, so I went to the library and found the book by Gaston Leroux. Fascinated. Enthralled. Riveted. Yet another book that I couldn’t put down. And there began the obsession with all things Phantom and Opéra. Living in Idaho at the time, I knew a big production like the musical would never come close enough for me to see it, so I bought the soundtrack and would listen to it while doing my homework. I watched old movies; I studied the building itself. It was Phantom immersion.
During 12th grade, I was thrilled beyond belief to get to take a trip to Paris with my French teacher and other students during Spring Break. Just going to Paris was a dream come true, but to get to see the Opera, too? Euphoria! One of the first places we visited was the Musée d’Orsay, across the Seine from the Louvre. In addition to beautiful works of Impressionist art, there is also a cutaway scale model of the Opéra Garnier revealing one of its most interesting features — the many sub-basements that play such a critical role in the story of the phantom.
A couple of days later, our group made its way to the Opéra. Once we had our tickets, our teacher told us to just meet back at the front in about an hour and let us go. I absorbed as much of the red velvet and gilded opulence as I could. The staircase: magnificent! The chandelier: impressive! The Marc Chagall ceiling: eh, I could have done without it.
I was frustrated, though, by the few places we were allowed to tour. Most staircases were blocked with velvet ropes. After I had wandered around everything twice, I heaved a sigh and headed back towards the foyer. But, just before I passed the Point of No Return (fellow Phantom-philes should like that!), I noticed one set of stairs where the rope was down. The rope was down! That’s fair game! I went down the few steps and found myself in a long, narrow antechamber with a door on each end and a set of double doors in the middle. Behind me was a large vase with an electric flame atop it.
I tried the door on the left. Locked. I could see lights on underneath the double doors, but they were locked, too. Man! I moved on to the door on the right and jiggled the handle. To my utter surprise, it opened! I glanced around and then poked my head in. Ah, zut. It was a janitor’s closet. It was full of paint buckets and mops, even a section of scaffolding. With another sigh, I closed the door and lingered for just a moment more near the flame lamp. But wait! In my mind’s eye, I saw something else in that closet. Wooden stairs leading down to a plain wooden door. To verify that it wasn’t just wishful thinking, I scurried back over to the closet and peeked inside one more time. Yes! This was not a dead-end! I slipped inside the closet and pulled the door closed behind me, leaving just a crack. I’ve watched enough Scooby Doo to know how these things work.
Picking my way around paint buckets, I made my way to the worn, wooden stairs and tried this next door. Astonishingly, it was unlocked as well, and through it I went! Blinking for a moment to adjust my eyes, I saw that I was in a long, concrete corridor, lined with low archways and an occasional wall sconce to shed a feeble glow. The silence was all-encompassing, like being wrapped in a blanket. I wasn’t brave enough to go through one of those dark arches, but there was a set of concrete steps to my left that didn’t seem too frightening. I went down. And down, and down. Six half flights, each with a landing in between running into more arched corridors, until finally I was at the last set of stairs. To the right was an open doorway that appeared to open into a large room with more light. I don’t know now whether my ears were playing tricks or not, but I thought I heard voices coming from inside. I was afraid of being found and afraid at how much time had passed. Was my class all waiting for me, many stories above? I snapped a quick picture from the top of that last staircase and then ran back to the surface as quickly as I could.
I met one of the teachers sitting in the foyer with a few students, waiting for the rest of the group. I wasn’t the last one there, after all. When they heard where I had been, they all exclaimed that I should have kept going, even if I kept everyone waiting. Unfortunately, at that point it was too late; I would have had to buy another ticket to get in.
Eight years later, Mr. Gren and I made our first visit to the Opéra since moving to Paris. Of course, he had heard my story and was excited to see whether we could go exploring under the Opéra. First, we discovered that they had installed a coat check right in front of that little antechamber. Mr. Gren and the friends who were with us made a screen while I slipped under the rope to check my magic door, portal into literature, history and frisson.
They had installed a keypad lock on it.