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Posts tagged ‘Palais Garnier’

No. 70: Young Artisans, les petits rats de l’opéra

Today I spent the afternoon watching a very young group of artisans at the annual demonstration of the petits rats de l’opéra at the opulent Palais Garnier.

Les petits rats are a select group of students of the Paris Opéra Ballet, all of whom dream of becoming stars, the best of whom go on to become professional dancers in the Paris Opera Ballet Company.

There is limited information on where the term “petit rat” comes from. When I first saw the term, I thought it referred to the fact that the very young students are always cast in the role of the mice in the Nutcracker. But what I learned today, is that the term more likely comes from the dodgy early history of the lives and “careers” of the young children who danced for the opera house.

Louis XIV established the Paris Opera Ballet and School in 1713. En fait, the school is the oldest ballet school in the world and is where classical ballet technique and terminology was standardized. Louis had high hopes for his ballet but unfortunately his drive for excellence took quite a toll on his dancers, especially the children.

The young dancers in training were not the children of the haute bourgeoisie who lived in the elegant quartiers of Paris. Rather, most were children of the working poor who lived in an extremely different world in the marginal quartiers of Paris. They joined the Opéra between the ages of six and eight to help support their families and worked six day weeks like factory workers. Mostly malnourished, with not much more than the clothes on their backs, many of the dancers were forced to supplement their income by offering sexual favors to the abonnés (bourgeois ballet subscribers). Because of their poor living and working conditions, they became known as the “petits rats de l’Opéra”, or the little rats of the Opera.

Nowadays the rats train in a modern, state-of-the-art location in a suburb of Paris, which houses dance studios, classrooms and dorm rooms. Children come from across the economic spectrum. They attend academic courses in the morning and train between four and six hours in the afternoon. They live and breathe ballet, and pretty much give up their childhood in exchange for the hope of becoming l’étoiles. There are still rumors that their lives are not much better than the earliest rats, published reports (denied by the Opéra) have described an extremely grim daily existence at the school.

Still there is no denying the results are magnificent. The children are thrilling to watch. Their strength, poise, talent and stage presences is staggering for such young dancers. It was inspiring, albeit a bit sad after researching the school, to see these young artisans expressing their passion for their craft, and dancing as if it was the only thing in the world worth doing.

Ecole de danse (saison 2010-2011)

Sur cette photo, tu peux voir les “petits rats” de l’Opéra de Paris lors d’un cours de danse avec un de leurs professeurs. (© Agathe Poupeney)

No. 57-58: l’Opéra (gâteau) & l’Opéra (Palais Garnier)

I am crazy for the opéra, both the one with the colorful Chagall ceiling and the one with six layers of divine chocolate and coffee cream.

I started buying l’opéra when we first came to Paris because it was the easiest thing to pronounce (and read) at the pâtisserie. Thank goodness for bad handwriting and a language with strings of silent letters, without which I may have never ordered this yummy chocolate prize.


There are several different theories about who invented l’opéra cake and where it was first served. But whether it made its debut in 1890 at the Paris Opéra itself (filled with coffee to keep the audience awake) or in the early 1900s under another name (the Clichy cake), or did not arrive on the pastry stage until the pastry chef at Dalloyau introduced it in the 1950s (honoring a ballerina or the Garnier itself), I’m just glad that some brilliant chef pâtissier came up with this  tasty cake recipe.

The gâteau opéra is a great piece of theatre—a work in six acts, you might say. The play begins with three thin layers of sponge cake soaked in a heady coffee syrup and in between those scenes, a layer of espresso-flavored buttercream, followed by a layer of bittersweet chocolate ganache and concluding with a topping of chocolate glaze. Et enfin, l’opéra is always crowned with some subtle jewel, usually a bit of gold leaf, often toasted almonds, and sometimes the word opéra is delicately penned across the glaze.

My other great love is the real opéra, le Palais Garnier (Garnier Opera House) in Paris. Built on the orders of Napoleon III and carried out by Baron Haussmann as part of the “great Parisian reconstruction”, the opera house is one of the greatest legacies of Napoleon’s reign. Unfortunately for Napoleon, his empire fell before he ever got to ride up in his carriage or had the chance to use his personally designed box seats.

Completed in 1875, the Garnier was the place to see and to be seen. The sweeping staircases were designed so that two finely dressed nineteenth century women could make their grandiose entrances in their grandiose gowns at the same time. Aside from the velvety red theatre, there is a grand foyer that resembles the hall of mirrors at Versailles and is often used by Hollywood when they can’t secure the real deal. If you are a fan of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera this is the place for you; the opera house, rumors of haunting, and a vault lake, inspired his story. Marc Chagall’s vibrant ceiling playfully dancing around an 8-ton chandelier is one of my favorite bits of “decoration” is this wildly over-the-top French treasure.

Looking through my pictures this morning of my two beloved opéras, I came up with another theory of why the opera cake was created. I think the two actually resemble one another. Layer after luxurious layer. What do you think?


…if you are going to have l'Opéra, you've also got to have la symphonie…my latest yummy find...

…if you are going to have l’Opéra, you’ve also got to have la symphonie…my latest yummy find…


chef pâtissier: pastry chef

et enfin…and finally

gâteau opéra: opera cake


No. 10: Chagall

La Danse 1950-1952

La Danse 1950-1952

I am a huge fan of Marc Chagall.

I was lucky enough to see the Chagall exhibit at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris at the end of summer, and it was stunning. I adore his vibrant palette and enthusiasm. Boy, could Chagall do color! As Picasso said, “When Matisse dies Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is”. Je suis d’accord, brother.

Although Chagall was born in Belarus, the French considers him first a French artist, and then a Russian painter. While he did spend the majority of his life in France, much of his work reflects and was inspired by his memories and dreams of his homeland in Vitebsk. But, fortunately for all us admirers, many of his most famous works can still be found in France.

Le Paysage Bleu, 1949

Le Paysage Bleu, 1949

The expos. A remarkable thing about living in Paris and France is the exceptional access to great works of art. At this exhibit, I fell in love with his fiddlers dancing on the roofs and his ghostly figures gliding through his magical sky, the green and yellow dancers and whimsical forms, the purple roosters and blue violins, the stuff that dreams are made of…his hopes, longings, and losses—a delightful and thought-provoking display of some of his major works.

A night at the symphony. The Palais Garnier, Paris’ famous opera house, is also the home to his famous, fanciful ceiling. Although there was a whole heap of debate and some very disgruntled Frenchies when he was first commissioned to paint it in 1963, it has become a much beloved part of any evening at the opera or ballet.

Palais Garnier, Paris

Palais Garnier, Paris

The windows. You may not know that a set of Chagall stain glassed windows is housed in Reims at the gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral. I was oh so pleasantly surprised to find them when touring Champagne country. Someday soon I hope to make it to Metz to visit Saint-Etienne Cathedral to see, as one French friend has told me the most “flamboyant” of all of Chagall’s windows.

Reims Cathedral

Reims Cathedral

The sets and costumes. On top of that, I just learned from my lovely daughter and dancer, Kitcat, that Chagall also designed and hand-painted the madly imaginative costumes and sets for the1942 production of Aleko, for the New York Ballet Theatre and did the same for New York’s Metropolitan Opera’s production of the Magic Flute, later in the 1960s. (Do I have to go to New York to see them? Does anyone know where they are housed?)



Clown costume, Aleko

Clown costume, Aleko

Most definitely on my radar this fall, is a trip to the Carrières de Lumières, via Marseilles, to see the “Monet, Renoir… Chagall: Journeys around the Mediterranean” expo…and, of course Nice is my Mecca. Someday I hope I’ll visit the Musée National Marc Chagall.


Je suis d’accord: I agree