Andrew Lloyd Webber has a lot to answer for: cashing in on the Bible (Jesus Christ, Superstar), writing an entire musical about Thomas the Tank Engine (Starlight Express), forcing us all to think about T.S. Eliot’s senescent ditties (Cats)…the list goes on. But possibly the worst thing he has done is to superimpose a bunch of pop tunes over Le Fantôme de l’Opera. The novel was already a musical, a much better one.
Le Fantôme de l’Opera (first published as a serial 1909-1910) is not only a gothic horror story but also a paean to and a parody of grand opéra, the spectacle that was an important part of Parisian society for much of the nineteenth century. Before Gaston Leroux turned to writing fiction full time, he was a lawyer, an international correspondent and…a theater critic. He loved music and his brother Joseph (to whom Le Fantôme de l’Opera is dedicated), who was a singer. Leroux’s novel is full of references to the operas, singers, rumors, lore, technical details and customs associated with the Paris Opera of the nineteenth century. The novel is crammed with allusions to particular dances, operas and arias that echo or foreshadow the novel’s own events, and the melodramatic plot is itself worthy of Eugène Scribe, the librettist behind some of the best known operas of the age. Jann Matlock, in (2011) introduction to the Penguin Classics English translation by Mireille Ribière, observes his recreation of the grand opera scene:
“Leroux’s novel reproduces in astonishing ways exactly that ‘heure historique’ of the opera house of the Third Republic (1870-1940)…It is an extraordinary evocation of the fantasies that surrounded that space and that population of thousands of spectators, performers and workers who came together every day in central Paris to fabricate jointly a dream world of spectacle.”
Grand Opera was extremely popular in Europe and America in the Victorian era. It was an extravagant experience, each production divided into four or five acts and requiring huge casts, elaborate stage sets, beautiful costumes and at least one ballet interlude and a vast supporting staff. Many of the most famous works of grand opera are no longer staged today because of their staggering scale, length and expense. By the 1880s, when Le Fantôme de l’Opera is set, the form was yielding to verismo, a genre whose plots deal with ordinary people rather than gods and kings. Even so, a new generation of French composers continued to produce works on the old grand scale: works like Jules Massenet’s Le roi de Lahore (1877) and Gounod’s Polyeucte (1878) and Ernest Reyer’s Sigurd (1884), all of which are mentioned in Le Fantôme.
The novel’s primary setting is the fabulously ornate Palais Garnier—seat of the Paris Opera from 1875. As in a cut-away drawing, the book provides a glimpse of the theater at every level, particularly the people and machinery working behind the scenes: the directors, the men who carried props, the female concierges, the little dancers, costumiers, rat-catchers, even the man who kept horses reserved for tricks on stage. Although Gaston Leroux invented some sections of the building, most of the descriptions are recognizable today. In the novel, for example, there is a lake under the opera house, in reality this is an enormous concrete cistern. When the Phantom drops a chandelier on the crowd during a performance, it would have reminded the novel’s original readers of the time in 1896 when a heavy counterweight fell during a performance of the opera Hellé, killing a concierge. When the heroine Christine and her lover Raoul have a rooftop assignation, the scene would be recognizable to every Parisian:
“The shadow that had followed them still clung to their heels, lying low on the roof, reaching with its black wings over the metal crossroads, stealing by the tanks, skirting silently round the domes; but the trusting young lovers suspected nothing when at last they sat down under the mighty protection of Apollo thrusting his monumental lyre against the crimson sky with bronze grandeur.”
A big part of grand opera was ballet. The very first chapter “The Ghost!” begins with a scene that could be a Degas painting:
Suddenly, the dressing-room of Sorelli, one of the ballerinas, was invaded by half-a-dozen young ladies of the corps de ballet, just back from dancing Polyeucte. They burst into the room in a state of great agitation, some of them laughing excessively and unnaturally, others uttering cries of terror.”
Leroux gives a description of the lavish and erotic paintings on the wall of the Foyer de la Dance, the hall where wealthy subscribers gathered to meet the young dancers and arrange sexual favors in return for money and protection. The dancers, nicknamed in the novel and in life ‘les petits rats’, were generally girls from impoverished backgrounds who danced as a way to earn a small living and to attract the attention of rich patrons, probably with an eye to rising in the social scale either through marriage or as courtesans. Degas, another artist obsessed with capturing all aspects of the opera, captured les petits rats and their predators in hundreds of paintings—you can watch an introduction to the exhibition Degas at the Opera here.
…the Count was, as usual, in the Ballet Room with Sorelli. She often asked him to stay with her until she went on stage, sometimes even handing him the little gaiters that she wore while descending the stairs to protect her shiny satin dancing shoes and her immaculate flesh-colored tights. We must indulge Sorelli for she had lost her mother.
Likewise, Leroux mentions several singers of the day. One of these was the popular soprano Madame Marie Miolan-Carvalho (1827-1895), whom Phil Riley, in his book about the 1929 silent film adaptation, , suggests Miolan-Carvalho was probably the model for La Carlotta—Christine Daaé’s arch-rival. Our heroine Christine Daaé actually shares the stage with beloved baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure (1830-1914), the great singer-actor Marie-Gabrielle Krauss (1842-1906) and Denise Bloch, probably referring to Rosine Bloch (1844-1891) who was a beautiful woman with a warm contralto but without much stage presence. Leroux’s own heroine Christine Daaé is modelled on one of the most famous sopranos of the era, Christine Nilsson (1843-1921). Like Nilsson, his heroine is Swedish and comes from a humble background, getting her musical start by playing the fiddle and singing at country fairs. Nilsson was especially famous for playing Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust.
Faust is a thematically significant reference throughout the novel. The premise of Gounod’s opera (based on Michel Carré’s dramatization of Goethe’s poem) is that Mephistopheles grants old Dr. Faustus a second youth on the condition that Faust will later join him in Hell. The rejuvenated Faust then falls in love with a girl named Marguerite who is already being courted by young Siébel. Marguerite is seduced by Faust but his love brings her nothing but pain, leading her to kill their illegitimate child and so to be condemned to death for infanticide. Faust then tries to rescue her from prison but she rejects his tainted help, preferring to be ‘saved’ in the larger sense by dying and going to Heaven. In Le Fantôme de L’Opera, Christine longs to play the star role of Marguerite but the lead soprano Carlotta is too jealous to let her try. It is only when the Phantom arranges for the lead soprano to suffer a spooky mishap that Christine is able to perform—to great acclaim: Christine’s audience is particularly impressed by her rendition of the dramatic finale , when Marguerite refuses to be rescued by Faust and Mephistopheles. Christine’s own life seems to mirror Marguerite’s: she has become the love object of a deathly, magical figure and his obsessive love threatens to doom her. And she has the equivalent of Siébel in Raoul, a sincere young lover in whose efforts to extricate are ineffectual against his rival’s diabolical power.
The Phantom Playlist
Given that so many pieces are referred to in Le Fantôme de l’Opera, I thought I would put together a list of some of them and why they are relevant to the plot. Happy listening!
- Danse macabre (‘Dance of Death’) by Camille Saint-Saëns This is a tone poem that began as setting for a poem by Henri Cazalis that alluded to the artistic allegory of the Late Middle Ages in which the figure of Death summons people from all walks of life to the ‘dance’ of death. Death is central to Leroux’s Gothic plot. The Phantom himself, though living, has a deformity that makes him seem dead. Christine and Raoul meet in a graveyard and seem to hear Christine’s dead father pay the fiddle there.
“The air of this wintry corner of Brittany was filled with the fragrance of the flowers, glorious red roses that seemed to have blossomed that very morning in the snow, bringing a breath of life to the dead. For death was all around and had even spilled out above ground. Skeletons and skulls by the hundred were piled up against the wall of the church and held there by flimsy wire netting, which left the macabre edifice entirely exposed.”
2) “Rien! En vain j’interroge” In the opening lines of Faust by Charles Gounod, Dr. Faust laments that he has spent his life uselessly. Faust is an analogue to Erik the Phantom.
3) The final trio from Faust by Charles Gounod. Marguerite, condemned to death for the murder of her illegitimate child, ignores Faust’s entreaties and rejects Mephistopheles offers of escape from prison and execution.
Yet nothing compared to the unearthly power of her singing in the prison scene and final trio of Faust that she performed in place of Carlotta, who was indisposed that night. Nothing quite like this had ever been heard or seen before! Daaé revealed a new Marguerite, a Marguerite of a splendour and radiance hitherto unimagined. Moved beyond words, the whole house cheered and clapped ecstatically, while Christine sobbed, fainting in the arms of her fellow performers.
4) Carnaval from the Suite for Orchestra No. 1 by Ernest Guiraud [The Carnaval is at 23.32 in the video below] prefigures the masked ball where the Phantom appears as Christine and Raoul meet. Carnival or Shrovetide is often celebrated by masked balls and a period of dancing and feasting. Giraud himself was a native of New Orleans, where Carnival is still celebrated in style.
5) Valse lente: L’Escarpolette (Slow Waltz: The Swing) from Sylvia by Léo Delibes. In this ballet that was first performed at the Palais Garnier in 1876, the chaste huntress nymph Sylvia falls in love with a shepherd boy named Aminta but is abducted by the evil Orion who carries her off to his cave (she’s eventually saved and reunited with her lover). Notice Orion lurking in the forest at 3:57 in the video below. In Le Fantôme de L’opéra the chaste Christine is abducted by the Phantom and eventually saved by and reunited with her young lover Raoul.
6) Coppélia by Léo Delibes. In this ballet, Franz casts aside his love for Swanhilde for a beautiful doll until Swanhilde shows him his mistake. As Ribière says in her notes to the translation, “Erik’s feats as a maker of automata in Istanbul and the whole make-believe world of opera are evoked by Delibes’s Coppélia .”
7) “Je vieux vivre” from Romeo et Juliette (1867) by Charles Gounod is an aria in which Juliette glories in her first love. This reflects Christine’s happiness in the pure love she feels for Raoul, as opposed to the dread she feels at the Phantom.
8) “Amour, ranime mon courage” from Act IV of Romeo et Juliette, in which Juliette decides, to avoid marrying Paris, to drink the potion that will make her seem dead. Like Juliette, Christine must choose between rival lovers with potentially fatal consequences; just as Juliette is must steel herself to take the potion, Christine determines to marry the Phantom in order to prevent mass murder.
“Ah! How we must pity those who did not have the good fortune to hear Christine Daaé as Juliette, admire her graceful candour, be touched to the quick by her seraphic voice and feel their spirits soar with her own above the tombs of the Verona lovers in the final ‘O Lord! Lord! Lord! Forgive us!’
8) Scene de la Crau from Mireille by Gounod — Mireille wanders through the desert determined to reach Saintes-Marie where her lover Vincent has been wounded. In the last part of the novel, Raoul must wander through an artificial desert to get to Christine, who is in danger.
9) “De moi je veux bannir” from La Roi de Lahore. In Act IV., Sîta Princess of Indra mourns the death of her husband Alim, King of Lahore. This opera premiered at the Palais Garnier in 1877. It features in the novel when the chief machinist is found hanging “between a flat and scene from Le Roi de Lahore”–in a storeroom where old scenery is kept.
10) Lazarus, oder Die Feier der Auferstehung (Lazarus, or The Feast of the Resurrection) by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), an incomplete piece (lacking the third act) published posthumously 1865. In Leroux’s novel it is a piece associated with Christine’s dead father, who was a fiddler. In the quote below they are in a graveyard and seem to hear him playing it once more.
“I scarcely knew what to think of the unforgettable sound we heard and which—were it not coming down from the heavens—revealed nothing of its earthly origins. No instrument nor hand holding the bow was anywhere to be seen. Oh! I will never forget that sublime melody. It was Lazarus, which the old fiddler used to play for us at times of sadness and pious contemplation. Had Christine’s Angel existed, he could not have played better on her father’s fiddle, that night. We were so entranced by Jesus’ Invocation that I almost expected to see his grave open. The idea also came to me that the old man had been buried with his violin and, in all truth, I cannot say how far, during those doleful, yet glorious moments in this small, remote provincial graveyard, standing beside those skulls grinning with their motionless jaws…no, I cannot say how far my imagination wandered and where it stopped.”
11) “Tamino mein, o welch ein Glück” from The Magic Flute by Mozart. In this scene, a magic flute helps Tamino and Pamina pass unscathed through chambers of fire and water. Leroux’s chapter “The Magic Fiddle” is a reference to this, though in this case the magic is rather black.
12) ‘Ballade d’Adamastor’ is from L’Africaine by Giacomo Meyerbeer, first performed by the Paris Opera company on 28 April 1865. Adamastor was a mythical giant in the Portuguese epic The Lusiads representing the dangers that Vasco da Gama had to overcome when he rounded the Cape of Good Hope (1497). In the novel the two opera directors Moncharmin and Richard find themselves harassed by the Phantom’s monstrous machinations.
“The dust-covers thrown over the surrounding seats suggested an angry sea whose dull, grey-green waves had been suddenly stilled by secret order of the Phantom of the Sea—or Adamastor, as we all know. Moncharmin and Richard were as if shipwrecked amid the motionless turbulence of a cloth sea. Like sailors who have abandoned ship desperately trying to swim ashore, they made for the boxes on the left.”
13) “Il Reverie du soir, a Blidah” from Suite algérienne by Camille Saint-Saëns. This piece foreshadows the exotic oriental backstory in which Erik gets up to no good in Persia.
14) The overture to Sigurd by Ernest Reyer. At the gala performance where Christine makes her debut, the audience hears “the beautiful overture to Sigurd”. This popular French opera, like Wagner’s Ring Trilogy, is based on the Nibelungenlied and Eddas. It also reflects the novel’s Scandinavian influence. Christine Daaé, for example, is Swedish and Erik is a name derived from Old Norse meaning ‘Eternal Ruler of All’.
15) Marche funèbre d’une marionette by Charles Gounod. The cute storyline behind the music is that a marionette dies in a duel, a funeral march commences, mourners get refreshments and then everyone goes home. It was used as the theme music for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and also for a horror radio program called The Witch’s Tale. Here it possibly indicates the whole artifice of opera and the Phantom’s formidable abilities as puppet master.
16) “Selva opaca” from William Tell (1829) by Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868). In Act II scene II Matilda sings, “Dark forest, sad and wild wilderness,/ I prefer you to the splendours of the palace” as she hangs around waiting for her lover Arnold, who is Swiss and therefore should hate her as she is of the occupying Austrian race. This aria reflects the secret, dangerous love of Christine and Raoul, as their relationship rouse the Phantom’s envious fury.
In short, the said instrument was wide-ranging, powerful and perfectly tuned. But no one could have said to Carlotta what Rossini told Krauss after she had sung ‘Selva opaca’ in German for him: ‘You sing with your soul, my child, and your soul is beautiful!’”
17) “Il va venir!” from La Juive by Jacques Halévy. The Jewess was one of the most popular grand operas of all and tells the story of forbidden love between a Jewish woman and a Christian man. In this aria, from the beginning of Act II, Rachel is at a Passover celebration awaiting the arrival of ‘Samuel’, with whom she is in love, little knowing his real name is Léopold and that he is a Christian.
Daaé was invited to temporarily fill the vacancy and she sang La Juive to rapturous applause.”
18) The bolero from Les Vêpres siciliennes (1855) by Giuseppi Verdi (1813-1901) a bolero sung by a soon-to-be-married heroine, unconscious that her wedding bells will signal the bloody massacre of French occupiers and her own father-in-law. Gabrielle Krauss sings this on gala night, foreshadowing the end of Le Fantôme, where Christine’s decision to marry could potentially end in murder and mayhem.
19) “Il segreto per essere felici” (a brindisi or drinking song) from Lucrezia Borgia by Gaetano Donizetti. This aria, sung by a woman playing a ‘breeches role’ (man’s part), ironically ends with the whole party being poisoned by Lucrezia. In the novel, Denise Bloch sings this ‘seize the day’ aria at the gala where Christine shines, thus foreshadowing tragedy at Christine’s own wedding.
20) “Don Giovanni, a cenar teco m’invitasti, e son venuto” from Don Giovanni by Mozart. This aria is the thrilling finale of one of the greatest operas ever, ending as the conscienceless rake Don Giovanni cries out in pain and terror as he is dragged down to Hell. The Phantom of Leroux’s novel is clearly associated with this hero/villain. He is composing a masterpiece called Don Juan triumphant. But when Christine disobeys the Phantom’s injunction never to look at his disfigured face, his identification becomes much more explicit. He reacts with fury:
Well, are you satisfied? Quite a handsome fellow, eh? When a woman has seen me, as you have, she is mine. She loves me forever. Rather like Don Juan, you see!” He drew himself up to his full height with his hand on his hip, shaking the hideous thing that was his head, and roared, ‘Look at me! I am Don Juan triumphant!'”