In October 1873, a serious fire broke out in the conservatoire on Rue Le Peletier in Paris, reportedly burning the face of a young pianist and killing his fiancée, a young ballerina. This was the sombre genesis that gave rise to both Gaston Leroux’s famous novel ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and its many subsequent adaptations, including that of the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

It is said that following this dramatic fire, the inconsolable pianist, in his disfigured state, sought shelter in the catacombs beneath the Palais Garnier Opera House, where he remained until his death. He lived near the underground ‘lake’ beneath the Opera House, dedicating the end of his life to his art and the completion of his work, a hymn to love and death. Since his body was never found, it is believed that it was mixed up with those of the communards. 

Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1817) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1910) quickly took root in the collective imagination of its audience as a result of its mythological basis. The author recounts a number of strange happenings – a chandelier that comes crashing down from the ceiling during a performance, a stage hand found strung up, and the directors of the Opera being asked for 20,000 francs a month from a certain ‘Phantom of the Opera’; the very same who demands that Box 5 be reserved for him. 

In the stage adaptation, the plot is centred around the romance between the beautiful soprano, Christine Daaé, and the mysterious ghost living in the underground labyrinth of the Paris Opera House.  This so-called ‘phantom’ would mentor Christine, using her to bring his avant-garde work, Don Juan Triumphant, to the stage. The 1986 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera was the work of the famous British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and the producer Cameron Mackintosh, who is no less well-known to theatre fans. The lyrics were written by Charles Hart, with the opera libretto penned by Richard Stilgoe.

The Phantom of the Opera and its nonsensical lyrical flights were formulated by Andrew Lloyd Webber specifically for his wife Sarah Brightman, who he cast in the main role of the innocent Christine Daaé. The fanciful baroque decorations, based on the paintings of Degas, give the show a timeless poetic feel, while the 230 costumes, each comprising about ten pieces – from shoes and hats to stockings and wigs – are the work of the famous Maria Björnson, who showcases her distinctive sense of romantic expressionism.

The work is unique, lying somewhere between an opera and a musical. The presence of various operatic elements can be partly explained by the subject matter and the demonstration of a certain fidelity to Gaston Leroux’s novel. Lloyd Webber, however, may also be trying to encourage us to think about the notion of genre, demonstrating that musicals and operas ultimately have a lot in common. 

As all-consuming as it is cursed, the passion between the young and innocent soprano, a muse of sparkling talent, and the Phantom, a disfigured and vengeful composer confined to his lair, is reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast or Esmeralda and Quasimodo. The success of this work is undoubtedly a result of the literary discourse that surrounds it: The Phantom of the Opera has broken countless records – representing the second longest-running musical in London and the longest-running in New York. It has won four Laurence Olivier Awards and seven Tony Awards, including those for Best Musical. However, despite this infallible success, Andrew Lloyd Webber has continued to find new ways of renewing public interest, with constantly revived and ever more spectacular productions, even going so far as to compose a sequel (Love Never Dies).

Amidst numerous international tours and reinterpretations, the legend of the Phantom of the Opera is far from running out of steam. The unexpected lowering of the chandeliers – ever present – and the fire at the Théâtre Mogador in the run-up to the opening of the performance have fuelled the most romantic of curiosities. 

Text : Amélie Cabon