Saturday, March 28, 2015

Revisiting The Phantom of The Opera


By Doug Vehle, The Daily Bosco

So Mame Giry says the man should watch his tongue. Daughter Megan asks why, the Mother answers to the effect of 'The Opera Ghost doesn't like being spoken of that way.' And before that first chapter of 'Phantom of the Opera' ends, the man in question plunges to the stage during a performance, stopping just before striking it. He hangs by his neck. Thus begins the adventures of probably the most misunderstood antihero in literature. Who better than me to cast such a man in his proper light.

Ah, the summer when I was ten, such a crossroads for me. I was reading 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' after seeing reruns of the old 'The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' television series. I was going to the day camp at Laguna Lake in my hometown of Fullerton, CA. And we took a trip to Movieland Wax Museum: a walk to the busstop near the lake, a few transfers, as we were there.

The most striking exhibit was of Christine Daae, the antiheroine, unmasking the Phantom as he plays 'Don Juan Triumphant,' his adaptation of Mozart's Don Giovanni. This reveals the landmark Lon Chaney "Death Face," a horror audiences weren't quite ready for in 1925. I wonder if the author of the novel, Gaston Leroux, was ready? Leroux, you see, insisted his version of the story really happened. Really.

Shortly there would be TV promos for an overnight airing of a later version, sound and music this time. This was starting to pique my interest. I found a copy of the original novel, I suppose at Fullerton Library. The direction of my life as an irrepressible reader was taking shape. So was my impression of Opera Ghost, one that would diverge greatly from the film versions most people identify him with.

So the suicide of the stagehand was hardly unexpected among the opera company. As there were warnings about the condition of the chandelier that would fall and kill members of the audience. But both offered an opportunity for one of the favorite pasttimes among them --- blaming the Opera Ghost. He would appear and disappear as suddenly, sometimes in the company of his friend 'The Persian.' He watched the show from his personal box, sometimes visiting the occupants of other boxes. On such an occasion he used his influence to find Megan Giry a government job, winning him the loyalty of Mame Giry. His ability to win followers would serve him greatly. As would the many secret passages of the opera house.

The author Gaston Leroux was a journalist, perhaps his most famous investigation was of the underground of the Palais Garnier. (Indeed the location of choice for filming a 'Phantom of the Opera' movie.) Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier , called the appearance of the opera house ". . . .A decor of death." But the work of Le Corbusier could hardly be called lively. Under the Palais Garnier runs a river, and more. Under the Second Republic construction began in 1861 and endured through the siege during the Franco Prussian War as the completed portions were used as a hospital and a food warehouse, through the reign of terror and the killing of as many as 20,000 people by the Paris Commune Socialist revolt, then through the establishment of a new government in the Third Republic that considered it an unwanted symbol of the old government. Though some construction and use continued, the opera house project itself seemed doomed.

Then came the fire that destroyed the Salle de la rue Le Peletier , the 52 year old home of the Paris Opera. From then the focus was on the immediate completion of of the Palais Garnier. When it opened in 1875 it gave the Second Republic a symbol that's been called "unquestionably a masterpiece of the first rank."

It also gave the Third Republic a prison to hold what was left of the Paris Commune, as Leroux's investigation revealed. There were passages beyond the knowledge of the public as they attended shows. The realization that there was far more to the opera house than met the eye would become one of inspirations for the novel. As would the continued finding of human remains in the theatre decades after the Paris Commune.

We see Christine's father, trying to raise his daughter alone and fearing he might not be able to continue to play the violin, until a rich patron decides this is the greatest violinist he has ever heard. Not only can he continue his career in music, but Christine can be tutored, becoming a promising singer. One day, with the wife of the patron who is her foster mother, Christine sees her scarf blown into the ocean and a boy her own age braving the high surf to recover it. Thus does she complete her childhood in the company of Raoul, who shares moments when her father tells stories of Little Lotte and the Angel of Music. As he is dying, he tells 16 year old Christine that from heaven he will send her the Angel of Music. While the becoming an adult Raoul begins to talk of being together forever, the foster mother warns that he is the son of a count; his family won't consider such a commoner suitable. To him, Christine seems to vanish.

In fact, Christine has joined the opera company as a background dancer. The continued grief at the loss of her father has left her unable to sing. As she hides away in her tiny dressing cubicle, a voice begins to talk to her and convinces her to sing, if only by herself. She becomes convinced this is her Angel of Music, if not the ghost of her father himself. Yet others can hear her sing; when the diva Carlotta falls ill shortly before the show the cast is convinced she can fill in. As she tries to hide away, the voice convinces her she should try. The result is a great triumph where all say they have witnessed the birth of a star. But the sheer emotion of her debut so drains Christine she is again unable to sing.

From the audience, Raoul realizes he has found her again, though she attempts to deny it. Christine is facing the reality of his station in life, while he might 'Sew his wild oats,' she could expect his family to find him a bride more suitable than her. Meanwhile, there is someone else. Someone who can use the opera house to his advantage, finding stage horses in the basement of this increasingly wonderous theatre and sweeping her off to visit the grave of her father, where he plays a somber violin as she mourns. And she begins to realize this is neither an angel or her father, but a man who can provide excitement, romance. . . .

 . . . .Anything that isn't normalcy. Yet isn't that an important thing we all need. Such is the draw to the well meaning Raoul, a link to the life she was creating for herself when her father died. Alternately she runs to him, then from him. In fact it is Raoul who utters the line that in the Andrew Lloyd Weber production is sung by the Phantom: ". . . .And though you come to me, you look behind. . . ." And though we witness through the author her moments with Raoul, her time with the Phantom is revealed only in her telling to Raoul, such as when she tells him of being kidnapped and taken to his home hidden well within the theatre.

But that's not true. Prior to her sojourn, she tells the opera company she's going away for a time because she's "Sick." Indeed, when she returns during the costume ball in the theatre she leads Raoul to believe she is dying and removes her mask to reveal the very 'Death Face' so closely associated with the Phantom of the Opera. Though momentarily ready to honor her wish to let her die in peace, he is elated when she returns to him and reveals she is in fact just fine. But this is where she tells of the "Kidnapping" and removing the mask of the Opera Ghost as he played 'Don Juan Triumphant.' If you've seen the Andrew Lloyd Weber production, you're aware that the Phantom is depicted as listening in to the conversation. This is a departure from the novel, though I've found online where others claiming to be summing up the novel say he is there listening. Well, SOMEONE is listening in, someone who proves a surprising figure later. And somehow Christine has lost her engagement ring, given to her by. . .The Opera Ghost.

Thus does the duplicitous Christine embark on engagements to both the Opera Ghost and to Raoul, claiming she doesn't really intend to marry either, yet also talking of running away with Raoul. It is during this time that she is finding her voice again, taking up singing roles with the opera company and again replacing the "Croaking Frog" Carlotta, who loses her voice during a performance. (You can't help but wonder if the Opera Ghost caused this with those mysterious "Sweets" that appear in the fat divas' dressing room.) One would guess the real reason Christine does not wish to marry is she would have to give up not only her other lover but also her career, which is fueled by the madness of her new life. It seems the Opera Ghost is ready to respect this, Christine even says he gave her permission to also become engaged to Raoul. Raoul instead wishes to run away with her, another irresistable prospect.

And if you don't yet realize the Opera Ghost, as they call him in the novel, is a far different character from anything you see in a 'Phantom of the Opera' movie, consider that while Christine is revealing her death face makeup to Raoul and claiming to be dying, Erik, the Opera Ghost, is having the time of his life as the belle of the costume ball, dazzling the crowd with his dancing and his costume from Edgar Allan Poe's 'Masque of Red Death.' The other guests run to him to be theatrically 'Killed.'

Oh the myths. I read online where those who claim to be summarizing the novel describe a kiss, followed by Erik claiming it is the first kiss of his life. Not only is that scene NOT in the novel, we will eventually learn of his time in India, hiding from assassins the Persian helped him escape from, where he is the lover of the Sultans' daughter as he learns to use the 'Punjab Lasso' of the Thugees. As much as I love to plug fictional characters into other works of fiction, I'm left thinking of Erik as the foreigner and forbidden lover of the daughter that the Sultan puts to the question of 'The Lady or the Tiger.' Do YOU think the Daughter could stand to see Erik married to a member of her court? Or that she'd trick him to choose the door of the tiger, thus sparing her that indignity? Or that if she DID try to send him to his death, that Erik, whom is truly a James Bond agent/provocateur in the novel, would find a way to escape the tiger? I certainly think of Erik as the one that trust the daughter who would then in fact betray him.

Ah, what great fun is this novel, 'The Phantom of the Opera.' As Christine promises Raoul she'll run away with him AFTER this last performance instead of before, don't you just wonder if she hasn't made the same promise to Erik? Indeed, when she vanishes from the stage, right in front of the audience, why would anyone suspect Raoul of sneaking her away and pretending for his family to know nothing? Why would anyone suspect his brother of eliminating the inconvenient woman, of Carlotta of putting an end to her new rival? There's only one landlord of this building who collects the rent not by mail, not face to face, but by picking the pocket of the tenant as he carries it in his pocket. If the Opera Ghost is going to run away with his lover, he's going to do it in grand style.

I'm still left to wonder at one thing: The Persian helping Raoul. This is the longtime friend of Erik, banished when the Shah wishes to silence the 'Trap Door Lover' who built the palace and knows the secrets of the passages and aids his escape. Why is he suddenly describing Erik as so thoroughly evil? And why does it seem the author never shows them together at the same time, only having other characters mentioning one popping up when the other has been around? Is the Persian Erik in disguise? Is Erik showing Raoul to his home for the same reason he does anything; his own amusement? Indeed, if he HASN'T gone in disguise to help Raoul search, where DOES he go when he leaves Christine alone for so long in that time?

But that's the kind of novel this is, you're never really sure who's telling the truth, so much of the story is what a character tells you and not what you witness for yourself. I suppose you can make some excuse for those who take literally the moments of his apparent disfigurement to use in their films. But the active reader dismisses that, there's too much to suggest otherwise.

The one film version I don't have a quarrel with is the Andrew Lloyd Weber version. About the closest thing to the original before the camera, one has to remember the stage production required some simplification of events. And such a moment when Erik and Christine sing the theme with the well known line "The Phantom of the Opera is there --- Inside my mind!" (Watch and listen to it  Here ) . Doesn't look like she's being kidnapped to me. And the point where she's just vocalizing as he calls "Sing, my Angel of Music. . . ." I just wish they hadn't insisted once again on making him some psycho killer.

One other work of fiction I like to plug him into: As we learn he comes from Rouen, France, I'm reminded that's the home of 'Madame Bovary.' Erik speaks of the father he never really knew, Dr. Charles was busy with his patients from sun up to sundown. Emma obviously was too busy running from lover to to lover to make time for her child, inconveniently a daughter but I can look past that. The mother committed suicide and the father drank himself to death while the child was still young and depicted as living a miserable existence, Erik departed his miserable life in Rouen at a young age. The time frame of the two novels certainly fits. I can see Erik as the child of Charles and Emma Bovary.

The Opera Ghost is at times described as having a large 'Cyrano de Bergerac' nose, sometimes seeming to have no nose at all. After forcing Christine to promise to marry him to save the life of Raoul, the switch to free him apparently is a trick to cause him to die by Christines' hand. Yet Erik then risks his own life to save Raoul, as though he just can't go through with it. The Persian has already claimed that Erik has killed a number of times suppressing a revolt in Persia as well as resisting the murders by the Paris Commune. Yet again, we witness no such thing, we have only the word of another character, again I wonder if that character is Erik himself, in disguise. So many clues are there to suggest it, the author is known for writing intricate mysteries. Erik does indeed claim he can disguise himself to go unnoticed in any crowd.

Yet why would he need to disguise himself? Are you still thinking Erik is disfigured? At one point Christine describes a ghoulish appearance (Lon Chaney dubbed it the 'Death Face') much like her own at the time she claimed she was dying, but we never actually see Erik that way. Erik would have had to be the one who made her up that way, so he'd know how. My own feeling is that there is nothing disfigured about Erik, it's just another of his mind games. And isn't it entertaining that they are even working on so many readers, so many years later it's still about the mind games. As is his having Christine promise to return with his engagement ring (Wait, didn't she lose that?) for his funeral when he dies, reportedly just a few weeks later. Oh, noone else has seen Christine or Raoul in that time, or some 20 years since. Although we don't see any of that. Decades later, the Persian is telling us how it REALLY ended. Really.

Which brings us to another thing I think Andrew Lloyd Weber got right. The Opera Ghost lives. To this day. Really.

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