Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

Chances are that you've heard of The Phantom of the Opera—or at any rate of Andrew Lloyd Webber's baroque pop musical, so beloved by thirteen-year-old girls and middle-aged women. If you were ever a thirteen-year-old girl, you may even have read the original I did.

Of course, my modus operandi was always to start by reading the book before ever getting around to adaptations, so that's what I did. I discovered that Gaston Leroux's legendary book is a sensational, melodramatic gothic novel set in the Paris Opera in the late 1800s, and introduced by a very serious Prologue assuring the reader that the Opera Ghost did, in fact, exist.

The plot will be familiar to most of you, I think. The Paris Opera has just been bought by new owners, who are shocked to discover that the Opera is haunted—by a tyrannical ghost that demands a share in the Opera profits, a reserved box in the theatre, and his protege Christine Daae to become the prima donna.

Christine is naïve, beautiful, and musically talented; her father, a famous violinist, told her before his death that when he had gone to heaven, he would send the Angel of Music to teach her. Soon after her arrival at the Opera, she begins to hear a heavenly voice; when she asks him whether he is the Angel of Music, he tells her that he is. When Carlotta, the Opera's current leading lady, falls ill Christine is asked to sing Margarita in Faust: her performance is a triumph, and her childhood friend Raoul, now the Comte de Chagny, who is in the audience recognises her and determines to renew their friendship.

But after the performance, Christine disappears for a few days. When she finally reappears, Raoul tries to renew their acquaintance, but as she evades him, he becomes more and more certain that something is wrong. Why is Christine avoiding him? Who is the genius teacher that requires her total loyalty? And who is terrorising the Opera's owners into making Christine the new prima donna?

This book is one of two Leroux books I have read; reading another put this one in context. Leroux's books appear to be characterised by a 'police procedural' style—to the point where The Phantom of the Opera seems, in places, less a sensational novel and more an attempt to convince French officials that the events actually happened. In addition, they show a trenchant sense of humour, some totally bizarre occurrences, and a fascination with double or deceiving identities.

If your only exposure to the story comes for the Lloyd Webber musical, you may be in for a slight shock. Leroux's novel is uneven, strange, and unsettling: Raoul is barely twenty, and a self-absorbed, immature and regularly irrational young man; but pitiful and petty as he occasionally seems, it's the Opera Ghost that takes the cake—a musical and architectural genius, yes, but also an unhinged, childish freak whose ugliness is matched only by his taste for bizarre and barbaric cruelty. One sympathises with Christine having to choose between them. This is not like the musical, in which Raoul is boring and the Phantom is tormented but both of them are intended to be attractive. The book Phantom is never remotely attractive to the sober-minded reader: he is a pitiful monster whose dream—to be a normal man taking a normal walk in the park with his normal wife—is pathetic and impossible mainly because of his own near insanity.

It's been a while since I read The Phantom of the Opera, but in thinking it over my attention is caught by the symbolism of the opera which the Opera Ghost is writing: it is titled Don Juan Triumphant, and is clearly intended to be a subverted version of all the operas about seducers who entertain their audiences with their wicked deeds before being unexpectedly dragged to Hell at the end of the third act—the “have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too” morality tale. Operas like Don Giovanni and Rigoletto featured stories or characters like this, all based loosely on the Don Juan legend.

Clearly, the Opera Ghost's magnumopus is intended to be a subversion of this, probably one in which the Don Juan character gets away with his deeds. This is, of course, the Opera Ghost's intention as well: his misdeeds are more along the lines of torture, killing, and kidnapping, but he certainly intends to have his own way. His choice of Don Juan as a self-insert character for his own opera does not so much drip as pour down irony: his ghastly looks have ensured that no woman could ever bear to look at him. His hubristic declaration of triumph is similarly subverted, at the end.

Although extremely melodramatic and sensational, full of a very specific kind of nineteenth-century silliness, The Phantom of the Opera is an enjoyable Gothic tale of suspense, mystery, and murder with some very interesting themes.

The Phantom of the Opera has been filmed multiple times and adapted into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The early films, including the well-known Lon Chaney version, seem to preserve the feel of the book much better than does the does the musical.

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