Friday, February 2, 2018

The Music of the Night: 30 Years And Counting of Phantom of the Opera [Contributor: Melanie]

“Swear to me never to tell the secrets you know of this angel in hell... ”

In a bygone opera house, sitting in dust and ruin, a quiet group stands in dim light, listening to an auctioneer announcing lots of antiques from shows of the theatre’s great past. An elderly man in a wheelchair seems transfixed by a small, ethereal music box as the auctioneer moves on to the threateningly named lot — 666 — the remnants of a chandelier in pieces. As the lights kick on, the sheet is pulled away, and the chandelier comes back to life. A massive blast of organ music fills the hall, the dust disappears, the paint restores, we’re taken back decades to the height of the Paris Opera where the opulence of the theatre hides a dark underbelly. The ghosts of this opera house are literal. Deadly. And vengeful.

In 1910, well-respected French mystery writer Gaston Leroux penned a novel that departed from his usual fare: Le Fantome de L’Opera. The novel is an apocryphal story detailing a period in a the Paris Garnier where a young chorus girl, Christine Daae, steals the spotlight from the reigning Prima Donna after taking lessons from a mysterious and anonymous teacher who seems to have an hypnotic hold over the singer, which only grows as he become more and more obsessed with her. In truth, her teacher is a deformed outcast, Erik, who took refuge in the bowels of the opera house where his genius was forced to fester in lonely, self-imposed imprisonment before the shy, Danish chorus girl caught his ear and he — in turn — captured her entire mind.

The Phantom has an equally powerful hold over readers and audiences, now over 100 years old, still in print, and still playing on Broadway. January 26th, 2018 marked the 30th year of the show’s presence in its original home in London’s West End. What is it about this story that has kept people enthralled for generations?

For starters, it’s so much based on historical events that many people have come to believe the story itself might have transpired in some way. There is a subterranean lake beneath the Opera Garnier, though it isn’t as grand as the Phantom’s lair. There was a Danish singer named Christine whom Leroux based Daae on. And there was a chandelier accident that resulted in the death of one patron. In mashing all these elements together and telling the story like a true crime account — complete with footnotes and mentions of interviews, in an age long before this novelty of “found footage” was commonplace in media — has made it hard for the diehard fans to distinguish fully fact from the romantic and grand fiction.

Lon Chaney’s early interpretation of the Phantom on screen, complete with his now iconic makeup that he designed himself, shocked and frightened audiences. The 1940s saw a reinvention of the story to reflect the independence of women in the World War II world. The 1960s saw an uninspired version with an abrupt ending that attempts to redeem the Phantom. The 80s, because you know, you know 80s cinema, viewed it as a gory slasher. But in 1986, the story is reborn in romantic opulence and a dynamic villain who isn’t always staunchly the villain.

Beyond the obvious answers — the haunting music, the blockbuster ending to the first act — there’s something far more complicated at the core of the Phantom’s story. And it is the Phantom’s story. Despite the novel being told mainly from the point of view of Raoul, Christine’s childhood sweetheart who enrages the Phantom by proposing to her, and detailing his heroics to save his fiancee from her tormentor, the person people most identify with is the Phantom himself. The novel seeks only to earn the reader’s pity for Erik at most, asking that they not judge his actions too harshly while celebrating the happy ending for Raoul and Christine. The ultimate emotion, however, is empathy.

And it’s somewhat unsettling to think about.

The Phantom is hard to define as a character: he’s in the vein of tragic Heathcliff with overtones of villainous Dracula. He’s a seemingly supernatural foe, an antagonist, the man in black. He’s a murderer several times over, he’s a vandal, he blackmails people, he kidnaps Christine, he threatens to blow up half of Paris if she does not agree to marry him. There is absolutely nothing redemptive about him. So why do we feel bad for him? He demands Christine marry him, stay with him love him and the logical mind says “absolutely NO” but the emotional part of our decision making wants some kind of resolution to his longing.

The Phantom appeals to a very dark part of longing and desire that we don’t always want to recognize. It doesn’t advocate for his actions, it doesn’t excuse the evil, but you can understand where he’s coming from. He’s a mirror to the worst possible parts of a person. The fact of the matter is, Christine and Raoul are stock characters: the ingenue and the dashing hero. They play those parts perfectly. The Phantom is altogether harder to define. As mentioned, he is part-Byronic hero, part-supernatural monster. His relationship with Christine is drawn heavily from the myth of Hades and Persephone. He’s an antagonist you kind of want to root for: a villain you shed a tear for at the end.

It’s by virtue of being more than one thing that makes him the most human character in the book, on the screen, or on the stage (depending on your choice of adaptation). He can kidnap a young woman to the sounds of an 80s drum machine and roaring organ music while riding over what seems to be the River Styx itself and follow it up with a sweeping ballad about the heavenly power of music and his own inner genius. He’s evil, but he’s also hapless. He understands he’s taking lives and does not care, but he can enthrall with his incredible mental gifts.

It’s a dangerous line of thinking, and one that has puzzled and enraptured scholars and audiences. How do you reconcile something so presently horrid with the potential for great beauty? The answer comes from the Phantom himself. He tells Christine early in the show, while she’s still transfixed by thrall, that for this facade dream to come true she must “let (her) darker side give in.” She almost does, just as we almost do. But Christine sees it all, by the end, for what is. “I gave my mind blindly,” she tells the Phantom as she rejects him. And we realize we’ve made the same mistake. No matter how he dresses himself in expensive clothes and surrounds himself with distracting art and musical gifts, he’s a murderer who — in all likelihood — is incapable of truly loving anyone.

Almost 120 years since its first publication and 30 years since it hit the stage, the story of the Phantom still offers more questions than answers and continues to draw in generations of fans. Here’s to 30 more years of the Phantom’s opera!


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