Paris Opera House Fire of 1763

One of the most talked about fire that happened in France was the Paris Opera House fire of 1763. Columns of thick black smoke were noticed at the Opera House the day after Easter on 6 April around midday. Word quickly reached officials, and they immediately rushed to the Opera House hoping to put it out. Unfortunately, by the time they arrived, the building was beyond help. Within an hour and a half, the Opera House was completely consumed by fire.

Paris Opera House fire in 1763

Paris Opera House fire in 1763. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Several stories as to how the Paris Opera House fire started soon came to light. The first story reported that around 8am workmen were employed in the interior and through some unknown incident or accident, the fire started. It was then claimed that the situation was made worse because the workmen did not call for help, and, in fact, they attempted to conceal the fire.

A second story is that there was a stove and the stove’s funnel entered the chimney in the ballet dressing rooms. The stove was stoked and became extremely hot, and “when it was quite choked the funnel split, and set fire to the chimney. Then the flames escaping caught some woodwork, which lighted up instantly like a match.”[1] The remainder of the story is that no one was aware of the fire until a singer, who was making his debut, arrived early to prepare. He observed the fire and cried for help. Unfortunately, by the time he noticed the fire, it had advanced to such a degree, there was no way the fire could be stopped, a similar incident that happened during the tragic 1897 charity bazaar fire.

A third story about the origins of the fire came from a machinist named Boullet. He claimed that an early morning sweeper lit a candle and placed it near the counterweight of the drop-scene curtain. The sweeper then left and while he was gone, the candle set fire to the ropes of the counterweight. This affected the curtain. It fell and the ropes served as wicks for the flames and the flames quickly enveloped everything.

Plan of the Palais-Royal in 1679 showing the location of the Paris Opera’s theatre (in blue). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

No matter how the fire started, according to witnesses, the fire threatened one side of the Palais-Royal and houses on the other side near the Rue Saint-Honoré. To put out the fire, 2,000 people quickly formed two long chains that were “composed of persons of every rank, without distinction of dignity, age, or even sex.”[2] One chain attempted to save what they could inside the Opera House. They piled the archives, furniture, and pictures in huge heaps in the middle of the court and then had an armed guard secure everything. The other chain of people supplied water nonstop for the fire engines, but, unfortunately, no amount of water or human intervention could control the blazing fire.

At about half-past one, the cupola of the grand staircase came down. It was followed by a loud crashing noise that involved the dome of the Opera House falling in on itself. That was followed by part of an adjoining roof catching fire and the falling debris adding more fuel to the fire. Thus, the fire raged on until 6pm, at which time, the Palais-Royal was said to no longer be in danger. (It was later determined part of the reason the fire continued to burn was that buildings were too close together and could have possibly been stopped if they had been detached.) Parisians were upset about the fire and the loss of their Opera House:

“The next morning, the people regarded the fearful ravages of the fire with consternation, when a cart loaded with dresses that had escaped the flames passed the square before the palace. A fellow who was in it thought proper to place a helmet, which he found hear him, on his head, and throw a royal mantle over his shoulders. Erect in his car, like a conqueror making his public entry, he soon drew the attention of the people; whose sorrow immediately changed into peals of laughter. … In a few days, they were dressed in flame coloured robes, named after the conflagration feu d’Opera.”[3]

Several days later, King Louis XV ordered a provisional Opera House be constructed. He also ordered the actors and actresses not to leave Paris. In addition, many projects were suggested for a new Opera House. Some people wanted the new Opera House located at the Place du Carrousel, essentially the yard in front the Tuileries Palace and the spot where the Royal Family met to escape France in what became known as the “Flight to Varennes.” Others voted the new opera location be at the Louvre, but Louis Philippe I, Duke of Orleans, who owned the Palais-Royal, wanted the Opera House to remain at the Palais-Royal.

Louis Philippe 1, Duke of Orleans. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Duke then offered a site to the east of where the original Opera House stood and gave 100,000 crowns to make it happen. Louis XV decided in his favor. During the construction, the opera company performed at the Tuileries Palace in the part known as the “Salle des machines,” which was reduced to a more suitable size with a capacity of 2,000 spectators. The new Opera House opened on 20 January 1770, about six months after Napoleon Bonaparte was born on Corsica, and of the new structure Eliza de Feuillide, who was living in Paris at the time, wrote to her cousin stating:

“A new and elegant Opera house has been built since the dreadful accident which destroyed the other two winters ago, but the Public who are rather hard to please are not satisfied with it, & there is therefore a much finer on fitting up at the Thuilleries [sic]. You may judge of its extent when I tell you that I have been assured of its having had Operas represented in it in which appeared a troop of five hundred horse for this theatre has been built for some years, by an Italian named Servandoni in imitation of those of Italy. I have not yet seen it & therefore cannot judge of the truth of the above report but in my opinion the most agreeable circumstance is being situated in the midst of so fine a Garden as the Thuilleries as by this means people will be able to take the air both between the Acts & after the Opera a thing necessary in this place where the theatres are open the whole year & as much frequented in the mist of summer as at any other time.”[4]

Another fire consumed the Opera House in 1781 and it was again rebuilt. However, after the fire of 1781, architects attempted to make theatre’s safer and reduce fires. They tried to accomplish this by creating buildings from incombustible materials, improving escape routes, and stopping fires before they started.  Unfortunately, the Opera House burned again in 1788.

Paris Opera House fire 1781

Paris Opera House fire in 1781. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

References:

  • [1] Shaw, Eyre Massey, Fires in Theatres, 1876, 29-30
  • [2] Ibid, 30.
  • [3] Holcroft, Thomas, Travels from Hamburg, Through Westphalia, Holland, and the Netherlands to Paris, 1804, p. 206.
  • [4] Le Faye, Deirdre, Jane Austen’s ‘Outlandish Cousin’, 2002, p. 57.

 

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, every month.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Leave a Comment