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Good Choice . . .

how about some music while reading?

“The Phantom of the Opera really did exist.”

- G. L.


Gaston Leroux began his story "Le Fantôme de l'Opéra" with this sentence in 1909. Although the work is not recognised in France as the pinnacle of his artistic oeuvre, later adaptations of this novel have brought him worldwide fame to this day. This is due in no small part to the mysterious events that were splashed across the front pages of newspapers throughout Europe at the beginning of the last century & which the author used to make the story of the "opera ghost" as authentic as possible.

The premise of the story is simple: a misshapen man named Erik hides out in the cellars of the Paris Opera to escape the public eye and falls in love with a ballet girl named Christine. At the same time, a childhood friend, the Viscount de Chagny, makes advances to her. A classic love triangle — if only Erik wasn't a skillful trapper and illusionist who keeps the entire opera staff on their toes with his ingenious tricks.

The Opéra Garnier, also known as the Palais Garnier, named after its architect Charles Garnier (in the novel, the architects first name is Philipe), is the main setting in this story. The reader spends almost all the time with the three main characters on the ten floors of the world's largest theatre building. The physical separation of the protagonists from the outside world makes the Opéra Garnier seem like a self-contained world with its own rules. As a result, Leroux makes it difficult for the reader to compare the characters' actions with conventional social norms and the reference to reality fades – the story presented appears more credible.

Moreover, a theatre play, like many forms of art, usually involves the willing suspension of disbelief, which the setting is intended to extend to the existence of the “opera ghost”. In addition, Erik employs tricks that are also used in a similar form in a theatre performance, except that the “performance” of the “opera spirit” extends not only to the stage, but to the entire building. As a result, every member of the theatre staff, from the box-closer to the opera director, becomes a showman in the gruesome play of the “trapdoor specialist”.

Leroux also works with a Sherlock Holmes-like approach by the narrator. The reader follows a journalist with the initials G.L. (see above), who claims to have been studying the secret of the opera ghost for years and has now found proof of its veracity. To underpin the journalist's rock-solid conviction, Leroux introduces characters in the very first chapter who doubt the existence of the opera ghost. Both the reader, who can identify with the unbelieving characters and finds his doubts expressed by them, and the character himself are disbelieved by Leroux in the following chapters, whereby he presents the events retrospectively. In doing so, the journalist G.L. draws on alleged reports from those involved, such as the Persian or the fictitious examining magistrate at the time, Monsieur Faure. Erik's magic tricks in particular seem magical, but as the narrator investigates further, the façade crumbles. Two whole chapters (The Strange Role of a Safety Pin & Continuation) explain how Erik manages to steal a stack of money from the pockets of the two opera directors. A pipe here, a pin there and the miracle has already become a sleight of hand — logical, comprehensible, realistic. This is also how Erik's existence is justified on a larger scale.

Even today, some people still question whether the Phantom of the Opera really existed or not. This is due to the fact that Leroux used real events and people and wove rumours of the times into the plot. The very fact that there is still some uncertainty about this today, even though we now have a more distanced and therefore more objective view of the historical events of the time, is testament to Leroux's literary skill.

I would like to go into the "historical events" in more detail below in order to illustrate how Leroux fuses contemporary events and fiction.

Although there are numerous adaptations of the story with different interpretations, they all have one thing in common — Erik lives in the cellar of the opera, which can only be reached via an underground lake. This lake actually exists, even if it should really be called a water basin. During the construction of the opera house, a tributary of the Seine was inadvertently encountered, making it impossible to lay a foundation in the ground. So they first created a reservoir for the water, on which the opera house was then built. This water basin is still regularly pumped out by the fire brigade and also serves as a fire-fighting basin. You can view the “Lake of the Phantom” on Google Maps. A rather unromantic idea, if you compare these impressions with the image of the mystical, candle-lit lake that was popularised by the musical by A.L. Webber. But this kind of romanticisation was Leroux's speciality.

Not only the dwelling of the opera ghost, but also the person Erik himself has a true core. The inspiration for Erik's deformation is said to have come from Joseph Merrick. Joseph is better known by the name Elephant Man, which I will not use below out of respect for Merrick. Merrick suffered from deformities in his face and left side of his body since early childhood, which worsened with age and had a negative impact on his linguistic abilities and mobility. For example, only a few people who spent a lot of time with him were able to understand him. Those people also reported that Merrick was an intelligent & friendly person, if a little naive.

Although Merrick died in 1890, 19 years before the publication of the first part of Leroux's novel, several sources claim that the author conducted research on Merrick for the story. However, it is never explained what this was supposed to have looked like. Looking at pictures of both men, however, it is conceivable that Leroux could have modelled himself on Merrick. Especially as people with such deformities had few opportunities on the labour market at the time and were often forced to perform in “freak shows” or travelling circuses, which inevitably made them famous. Such a striking appearance in particular aroused the public interest of society at the time.

According to Isabelle Casta, an expert who has long studied Leroux and his works, the writer had heard rumours during a visit to the opera in 1908 about a construction worker named Eric who, after the opera house was completed, asked if he could live in the vaulted cellar. It is therefore no coincidence that Erik was also involved in the construction of the opera house in the book. Leroux certainly did not choose the same name at random — the Phantom of the Opera was born.

The story of the main female character, Christine Daée, is also strongly based on a real singer in Europe in her day. The novel explains that the blonde, blue-eyed beauty comes from Sweden and is the daughter of an impoverished violinist. After his death, she went to Paris to dance in the opera ballet, where her singing talent was soon discovered and encouraged by Erik. She made her debut as Margarete in Faust and enchanted the audience that evening.

A well-known opera singer at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century was Christine Nilson — a blonde, blue-eyed Swede whose impoverished father earned his living as a violinist. After his death, she also went to Paris, where she began her vocal training. She was particularly well known for her performances in Faust and Hamlet. Although Nelson never performed at the Opéra Garnier as she cancelled her appearance at short notice and without any explanation, both Christines found accommodation in the home of a woman called Valerius. She also married a Spanish count. It should be remembered that the fictional Christine Daée was also courted by a (vis)count.

The most sensational incident, which was never fully explained and therefore had a major influence on the myth-making of the Phantom of the Opera, is the fall of the chandelier that is the subject of the Webber musical. On the morning of 21 May 1896, the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro ran a headline about a “terrible accident at the opera” in which a counterweight weighing around 10 kilograms from the 8-tonne chandelier fell into the auditorium during a performance, killing a 57-year-old concierge, Madame Chomette. At first, the audience assumed it was an attack due to the loud bang, whereupon a mass panic broke out in which several opera visitors were injured. Today, it is speculated that an unnoticed fire caused the steel girders of the counterweight to melt.

The rooms of the opera house, especially the lower floors, are labyrinthine, similar to the Parisian catacombs. Appearing and disappearing unnoticed in these labyrinths would therefore have been easy, especially if you imagine how many servants the opera entertained; Even if you exclude the evening audience of 1900 guests, because that is how many seats the pompous theatre hall has. There are said to have been a similar number of keys for the entire building at the time. It is quite conceivable that one or two door openers have disappeared.

In Kombination mit den unerklärlichen Geräuschen, die vor allem kurz nach der Eröffnung der Oper aus den unteren Stockwerken nach oben drangen, entstand so das Gerücht, ein Geist sei für die mysteriösen Vorfälle verantwortlich.

The “Persian”, to whom Erik is relatively close in the novel, also existed in reality. While in Leroux's work he fled Persia after saving the life of Erik, who had fallen out of favour there, in reality he was sent to Paris for political purposes in 1842, where he lived until his death on 29 August 1886. The “Persian” is never mentioned by name in the book. The real-life version was called Mohamed Ismaël-Khan, but was also known in Paris only as the "Persian". With a respectable payment of 1000 livre per month, he became a familiar face at the opera and regularly attended performances.

At the end of the novel, G.L. explains that a skeleton with a gold ring on its finger was found during an investigation of the opera's cellar vault, enabling the journalist to identify the dead man as Erik. In addition, phonographic recordings were allegedly found under the opera house — and they did indeed exist. In 1989, workers repairing the ventilation system on the lower floors of the opera house came across a time capsule containing 28 phonographic recordings of famous opera singers. However, the origin is not very exciting: in 1907, a group of music-loving men decided to store a selection of the most beautiful opera pieces in the basement of the opera house for exactly 100 years so that we could still listen to the soothing sounds of the early 20th century today. The time capsule was opened in 2007. Due to the long storage period, however, the sounds in question were not very pleasant.

While Leroux was working on his novel, corpses kept turning up in Paris — including in the cellar of the opera house. This can be explained by the Prussian siege that threatened Paris for four months at the end of 1870. An estimated 25,000 people lost their lives. The opera house, still under construction, was used as a storage area and shelter, which explains the corpses in the cellar of the opera house. Leroux certainly added the fact that one of these skeletons was wearing Erik's golden signet ring.

It is difficult to pinpoint the genre of the work. Leroux presents a refreshing mixture of comedy, black romance, horror and detective story, but in most (film) adaptations the story is marketed under the horror genre. The best-known adaptations are the 1925 silent film with Lon Chaney in the role of the Phantom and the 2004 Joel Schuhmacher film with Gerard Butler in the role of the Phantom. However, the latter is based less on Leroux's book and more on the musical of the same name by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe, which premiered in 1986.

In conclusion, it can be said that the Phantom of the Opera never really lived, but Leroux was a master at combining fiction with reality in such a way that the boundaries became blurred. This is supported by the fact that he published his story in several parts in the newspaper “Le Gaulois” in the “Fiction” section, as was customary at the time. He sold the film rights some time before his death in 1927, but even on his deathbed Gaston Leroux conjured up the idea:

"The Phantom of the Opera really did exist".

- Gaston Leroux



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