The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
The first show I ever saw on Broadway was The Phantom of the Opera; I must have been in middle school, and it was my first time visiting New York. I’ve drifted away from contemporary musical theater since, although I still wait impatiently for The Hunchback of Notre Dame to be produced Stateside. In any case, what I most remember about seeing it (besides utter horror when my mother began talking to me in the middle of the performance; it was the first time I felt brave/indignant enough to shush her), is the fact I was utterly convinced by the big, glossy program that Gaston Leroux’s novel was out-of-print and super-difficult to find. Luckily, I was wrong… (And yeah, this started as a Halloween read. My semester was very busy.)
The Phantom of the Opera is set in fin-de-siècle Paris, at the Paris Opera House, where lavish productions have gorgeous chorus girls and wealthy aristocrats rubbing shoulders. And none more gorgeous than Christine Daaé, an up and coming ingenue, beloved by the Viscount of Chagny, Raoul (to the distaste of his elder brother, the Count of Chagny). But Raoul’s attempts to woo Christine are halted by her devotion to the mysterious (and male) “Angel of Music” who visits her in her room, as well as the mysterious accidents and deaths around the Opera House, all blamed on the Opera Ghost. But the Angel of Music and the murderous Opera Ghost are not only real, but the same person—Erik.
The Phantom of the Opera is all about the melodrama. While in the early stages of reading the novel, someone asked me what it was like. I proceeded to tell her Raoul’s strategy for getting Christine’s attention: walk awkwardly in front of her dressing room. On the one hand, oh, honey, that—no, honey, just don’t. On the other hand, that’s hilarious. I’ve never seen an episode of the classic Twilight Zone, but I think there’s a relationship in terms of tone—exploring a complex issue (here, the character of Erik) in a respectful but camp way. (If the actual Twilight Zone is not like this, please let me know, because then I’m talking about the Twilight Zone of my dreams.) This is a novel that solemnly ponders over the ultimate fate of Erik, à la Jack Black at the end of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, even as, earlier, Raoul pitches a snit fit over how scared Christine is of Erik because it means she thinks of him more. Cry more, Raoul, cry more. (And yes, I realize that my cinematic and televisual education has tremendous gaps. There is only so much time in a day!)
All of this is why the novel lends itself to musicalization; there are twenty-seven different stage versions of The Phantom of the Opera. I’m quite eager to have the Universal film version be my entry into the Universal Monster movies—it’s the only one that won any Oscars, for cinematography and for art direction. (In 1943, Oscar categories were separated into color and black and white. The more you know.) If you’ve only seen the musical—or the film version of the musical which, I promise, I will get around to, perhaps in the company of my Film Depreciation crew—though, you are missing out. Things are darker and a touch more Gothic here; while the general outline of the connection between Christine and Erik remains much the same, there’s more casualties and other crimes. (Horse theft is difficult to portray on stage.) Leroux’s curious, flippant, and occasionally grim sense of humor shines through; the novel is framed as Leroux investigating the events of 1905. And, perhaps more importantly, there’s a character who is missing entirely: the Persian.
The Persian is never named in the novel, beyond being given his title, daroga—meaning chief of police. He is a presence throughout the entire novel, but he comes to Raoul’s aid towards the end and the bulk of the third act is written from his perspective, the character narrator of Leroux quoting chapters from his memoirs. In contrast to the narrator Leroux, the Persian is calm, swift, and ready for action. The third act follows the Persian and Raoul into Erik’s lair and into one of his torture chamber, and it’s there that the novel takes on a creepy, oppressive, and ambiguous tone that is its greatest accomplishment. The torture chamber relies on its victims forgetting that they are even in a torture chamber, and watching the Persian try to remember is honestly one of the scarier moments in the whole novel. Obviously, there’s plenty of Orientalization and other bad mojo in a novel from this time period—Erik’s time in India and the Middle East was of course devoted to serving bloodthirsty leaders who delight in torturing their enemies (and even their friends, in the case of the weirdly charming bloodthirsty sultana). But the Persian manages to escape a lot of that business, and now I’m quite curious about his adventures pursuing Erik westward. Well, I suppose there’s always Susan Kay’s Phantom for that…
Bottom line: The Phantom of the Opera is delightfully melodramatic, even as it tackles the complex issue of Erik—is he really a monster? (Answer: I would say yes, based on the whole torture chamber situation.) And it boasts one thing its famous stage adaptation has cut; the wonderful character (and voice) of the Persian. Worth investigating.