Paris Opera House Fire of 1763

Fire at the Opera House of Paris in 1763, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Over the years, several fires happened in Paris, but one of the most interesting 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.

Several stories as to how the 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 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.

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 of the Palais 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. One person wrote:

“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]

1780 plan of the Palais-Royal with Moreau’s Opera House (1770–1781), Courtesy of Wikipedia

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 and others at the Louvre, but the Duke of Orleans, who owned the Palais-Royal, wanted the Opera House to remain at the Palais-Royal.

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 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. Another fire consumed it in 1781 and the Opera House was again rebuilt. 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. However, the Opera House burned again in 1788.

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.

 

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