Thursday, 25 May 2017


Contemporary engraving depicting the second fire of La Salle Favart
It was the spark heard across the globe: on this 25th day of May in 1887 Paris, spectators who had patiently lined up to attend the Opéra-Comique production of Ambroise Thomas’ Mignon calmly filed into the Salle Favart Theatre and settled into their assigned seats for the evening’s main event.

What the patrons of the opera didn’t know was that the main event would be anything but a spectacular show of sopranos expertly belting out bravura arias - but rather a spectacular show of a far more sinister kind.

It was only halfway though the Goethe-inspired opera’s first act that a flame of illuminated gas from a primitive lamp used to light the stage set fire to one of the wings, setting off a horrific chain reaction of unimaginable disaster: with the entire stage now engulfed in flames, the formerly calm and orderly members of the audience - who had only moments before entered the venue in such a dignified manner - were now elbowing their neighbors in a frantic effort to escape the blazing inferno that threatened to bring the entire house down. It was nothing short of a stampede toward safe terrain.

An article published in the Australian periodical The Bendigo Advertiser would report some 8 days later on the full extent of the damage caused by the entirely preventable disaster – and, most shockingly, on the present running tally of fatalities – both known and assumed - and of those who were still missing for more a week after a large portion of the theatre burned to the ground.

Here are some of the most hair-raising (and pity inspiring) quotes from the article:

“… A fire broke out in the Opéra-Comique last evening during the first act of "Mignon." One of the wings caught fire from a gas jet, and the entire stage was immediately enveloped in flames. The fire soon spread to the whole house... All the actors ran out in their stage costumes. The audience got out... but it is feared that some were left in the upper tiers. The roof soon fell in, sending showers of sparks as far as the Place de la Bourse. With the exception of Mme. Sellier, who perished, all the actors escaped, though a number were seriously injured. Five bodies were terribly burned and were conveyed to the National Library, among them the body of a woman clasping a little baby in her arms…

An artificial fire apparatus, which had been placed in a position in readiness for the burning of the palace in the second act, rolled down from its place near the roof, and exploded below. The flames spread with great rapidity. In 15 minutes the stage was a vast furnace... The scene outside was one of the wildest excitement. The falling embers struck horses in the surrounding streets, causing them to plunge and rear. The flames shot out of every window, forcing the crowd into the narrow streets, where the crush was terrific…

Ambroise Thomas never could have foreseen such a
disastrous production of his 1866 opera Mignon at Paris.
The opera in three acts is famously based on
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's second novel, Wilhelm
Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship),

published in 1795.
it is believed that the staircase became blocked. Charles A. Duvivier, of New York, who was in the house with his son, says:—"Toward the end of the first act we noticed piles of burning canvas falling from the flies, and we concluded to get out. As we were passing along the aisle, Takin, who was singing the part of Lothario, besought the audience to remain seated. His courage was magnificent, but his judgment was faulty, for I reached the foyer amid a mass of flames. Cries could be heard on all sides and the house began to fill with smoke. I believe I saw nobody descending the stairway leading to the galleries, and everybody in the parterre escaped alive, but I am sure many people were suffocated in the galleries...

The loss of life by the fire at the Opéra-Comique was much greater than at first reported. Today 156 missing persons have been inquired for by relatives. They are supposed to have perished in the flames… The bottom of the theatre is flooded with water to a depth of 5 feet. Sixty bodies have been found floating in the water by firemen. The remains are principally those of ballet girls, choristers and machinists, the remains of three men and two women were found in a stage box, where the victims had taken refuge from the flames. It is ascertained that many bodies are buried in the upper galleries, where escape was exceedingly difficult.

The Government proposes to close several Paris theatres because of their deficiency in exits. Late this afternoon the bodies of 18 ladies, all in full dress, Were found lying together at the bottom of the staircase leading from the second story. These ladies all had escorts to the theatre, but no remains of the men were found near where the women were burned to death. In the Rue Favart a sudden gust of wind cleared away the dense smoke, when a woman and two men were seen standing on the edge of the uppermost corner. The woman tried to jump, but the men prevented her. When all were finally rescued the woman was a raving maniac.

A singer had a miraculous escape from his dressing room by an edge at the top of the building. He says the wind kept the flames off that part of the building, but a river of molten lead poured from the roof, the course of which he diverted with a board to prevent its weight carrying down the shaky floor.

The walls of the theatre began falling this evening, and search for the bodies had to be abandoned for the day. The library attached to the theatre was entirely destroyed, with all its contents, including many valuable scenes. Six thousand costumes were burned in the wardrobe. The work of searching for bodies was resumed to-night, and a number more were exhumed. The official statement says that 50 bodies have already been recovered. Revillion, speaking in the Chamber of Deputies this afternoon, estimated that at least two hundred persons lost their lives in the fire."

The fire of 1887 was not the first fire to ravage the Salle Favart. The presently burning home of the  Opéra-Comique - who had settled on the site in 1840 - had built its foundation upon the ruins of a previous fire that had destroyed the first hall two years previous. According to the article in the Bendigo Advertiser, the “interior construction” of the venue, which could seat around 1,800 persons,  
“was in every way defective, and it has often been remarked that should ever a fire break out terrible damage would result."

Although the conclusive report on the 1887 disaster would alter the death toll by more than half – from 200 fatalities by fire to 84 by asphyxiation, the damage and loss of life incurred by those fateful souls of May 25th remains catastrophic in scope.

For his “role” in the disaster, theater director Léon Carvalho was quickly rounded up and imprisoned for “negligence” leading to death and was forced to resign from the venue. He would later be acquitted of all charges after making a successful appeal and reinstated 4 years later.

The third La Salle Favart, designed by the architect Louis Bernier opened for business on December 7, 1898, with French President Félix Faure attending the inauguration ceremony.

Listen below to Spanish mezzo soprano Teresa Berganza performing a rendition of "Connais-tu le pays" from the first act of Ambroise Thomas' 1866 opera Mignon (arranged for soloist and piano). It is a distinct possibility the tender aria was the last echo of beauty heard by the audience of La Salle Favart on May 25th, 1887 before the sounds of blood-curdling screams and the crackling of flames arose to a deafening pitch:

Did You Know? / More articles like this:
The primitive use of gas lamps and candlelight for stage illumination claimed the lives of many an opera/musical spectator throughout the early 17th to late 19th centuries. Although the application of such hazardous materials (some employed lime for illumination) seems an obvious and entirely foreseeable disaster waiting to happen, in the earliest days of theatre and prior to the invention of the incandescent electric lamp in 1878, venues were left with little other option for lighting theatres at night. It wasn’t until 1881 at London's Savoy Theatre that the world's first electric lighting system was installed – and not until the close of the century that the majority of ‘modern’ theatres followed suit.

Unraveling Musical Myths previously covered another fire related disaster – this time by the excessive use of lit candelabras. Read about the Covent Garden tragedy here.

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