The writer Gaston Leroux appears to have been inspired by several events that occurred during his lifetime when he wrote the dark love story The Phantom of the Opera which appeared in 1910.
The Paris Opera was commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III in 1861. In order to start building, the land was cleared but workers were unable to commence as a steady stream of water would bubble up. In 1874 Le Palais Garnier was completed with rumors of a vast fish-filled lake that was said to exist underneath the opera house which was fed by an underground river called Grange-Batelière.
The story which was the nexus of the phantom character was an event that took place in May 1873. The Opera House in the Rue le Peletier caught fire and was burned to the ground. It had been there since 1821, and this was the third time the opera house had been lost to fire. The only death was a fireman who fell into the flames, but an urban myth grew out of the event where it was told that a pianist named Ernest was disfigured and his fiancee a ballerina died in the fire. After this event he supposedly started living underground in the shadowy lairs of the l'Opera Garnier.
There were other tragic events that took place which Leroux wove into his storyline. On May 21, 1896 a concierge who visited the opera house was killed by a chandelier counter weight which fell on her head. Another tragedy took place in May 1897 when there was a fire at a Charity Bazaar on the Rue Jean Goujon, where over a hundred were burned to death and many others injured. Many of the victims were aristocratic ladies who had organized the charity event.
The character of Christine Daaé appeared to be inspired by Christine Nilsson a Swedish soprano, whose own personal life dovetailed the events of the fictional Christine. She was famous for her performances in the operas Hamlet and Faust.
The curator of the Palais Garnier's museum and library has explained that the lake is only a huge, stone water tank created by the construction workers in order to stop the rising water and stabilize the building. It is indeed full of white catfish which are fed by the staff, and is presently used by the Parisian police department for underwater training.
Underneath the opera house there are passageways that possibly stretch out to other cellars in Paris and no doubt Leroux was also inspired by Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre-Dame. In that story the disfigured Quasimodo has fallen in love with the gypsy girl Esmeralda. This story also shares a beauty and the beast theme.
Another event that he blended into his story was when in 1907 the Gramophone Company sealed 24 recordings of the greatest opera singers in a vault in the cellars underneath the Paris Opera. They were opened in 2007 as it was intended and the recordings were digitized.
That the Paris Opera is haunted, most probably, but not by a disfigured genius, but possibly by more than one ghost of one of the thousands that lived, loved and suffered inside the walls of the Opera House. Even a dressmaker could have suffered from a broken love affair, no doubt there were ballerinas or chorus girls who had their hopes dashed in their attempts to reach fame. Were there any janitors who looked with longing eyes to a beautiful singer who was unaware of his existence? All of these human dramas are the fodder of earthbound spirits that seek redemption, love or forgiveness within the place where they experienced the most poignant moments of their lives.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer