It’s a well-known fact that I’m training to be an opera singer. So it really shouldn’t be a surprise that one of my favorite books is the Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. Before I launch into the post, however, I’d like to clear up a few things:
a) The musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber is not an opera. I don’t know how many times I have had to tell people this, and I cower in terror at the thought of how many more times I’ll have to repeat it throughout the course of my life. The Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber is not an opera. Period. Fantastic musical. I love it. Not an opera.
b) The Phantom has a name and it’s Erik. And he has a full-facial deformity and so does not wear a half-mask.
c) Sarah Brightman is not an opera singer. She is labeled as a classical singer, but the woman can’t sing to save her life. I was eons better than her at fourteen. (Then again, my mom is an amazing voice teacher. I give her the credit). The main reason my mom — who was good enough to be on Broadway — never played the Phantom musical for us was because when I was young, we didn’t have any other recording and Mom hates — I mean hates — listening to Brightman.
d) The book was written in the early 1900s. The musical was done 70-80 years later. The rights, content, etc. belong to Gaston Leroux. And Erik. Because I think he would be pretty upset if he were not given his due share in the masterpiece that was the Phantom of the Opera. And I have no desire to be strangled to death by the Punjab lasso.
e) My best friend disagrees with my opinions on the book and adores the musical. I love her anyway, so I won’t think too badly of you if you have differing ideas and thoughts.
On to the post!
The book begins as the author addresses the reader. He informs you that he is certain, through much investigation, that the Opera Ghost was, in fact, real. Leroux has a magnificent way of drawing you into the story by merely addressing you as he would in person — the beginning is said in such a way as to intrigue you while still making you smile a little at the lightness, almost casualness, of his phrasing.
The story is told through several different points of view, as Leroux has written it as if it were the results of a true investigation. As a journalist by profession, he writes the novel as such in some instances. He will sometimes break the fourth wall, but usually only to explain some minor detail that couldn’t be included otherwise. It’s as if he wrote the entire novel to convince the world that the happenings surrounding the Palais Garnier were real. For instance, the first chapter is given almost as if you were watching a film — you’re not really in a character’s head, just a spectator as the hours play out. It’s here that you are first introduced to the mysterious apparition that has the entire Opera in the palm of his hand: the Opera Ghost.
Really, one is probably in the mind of Raoul for the majority of the book. I love Raoul in the musical, but it wasn’t until I read the book that I truly appreciated the version in the musical. Because Raoul is a simpering, spoiled child with a little blond mustache that I dearly want to rip — quite painfully — from his face. But he’s a good enough narrator. Gets the story told. I think Leroux liked him too much, but really, there was no other character that could have told the story in the way that he did. As you read, you are Raoul. You have about as much of an idea of what’s going on as he does. He is head-over-heels in love with a young Swedish singer called Christine Daae, and when strange happenings leap up around her, he is the first to take action and try to discover what the heck is going on. He’s deeply involved because he cares so much about Christine. His reasons are personal, rendering him, really, the only narrator available in the mystery. As he worms his way around, demanding of my poor Christine what’s going on, chasing people like an infuriated ten-year-old, he begins to put the pieces together, and as you are in his mind, you’re doing the same thing.
One of my favorite narrators is Christine. She’s introduced as a sweet, innocent girl suddenly catapulted into fame, and frankly, she has no idea what to do with it. She’s described as having blonde hair and big blue eyes, as well as being quite petite. One is not often in her head, as the only time you read her point of view is when she’s explaining her story to Raoul, but I love her to death. She speaks intelligently, but still with her signature kindness. And man, that girl has spunk! (I love how after Erik goes shopping for her, as he leaves her room she slams the door in his face). She presents her side of the story with confusion, pity, and horror, and I would imagine, at times, with some anger. Her point of view is clear and poignant, and despite her strong emotion through the whole ordeal, she is still able to present what happened so evenly that the reader is left in no doubt of the actuality of the events she describes in all her guileless honesty.
I have to admit that my favorite character whose head the reader occupies is the Persian. He has no other name to any character except Erik, who calls him daroga, which was what he was called as head of the government police back in his native country. Erik and the Persian have had a long history, including a notable time when the Persian saved Erik’s life (which the Persian has no qualms about reminding Erik whenever our boy is a pill). But because of everything they’ve been through and the ages they’ve known each other, the Persian understands Erik better than anyone else in the novel. His point of view comes when Leroux includes a set of papers supposedly penned by the Persian himself at the conclusion of the events described throughout the entire novel. He’s matter-of-fact, compassionate, but has also had the, ah, opportunity to see Erik at his worst, therefore knows what he’s capable of. And frankly, that scares him. My sister deems him “the only normal person in the book.” The man has guts, and he’s not afraid to say things like they are, and as you journey through the horrors he is forced to endure, your respect and love for the man skyrockets. He is, to put it simply, awesome.
The managers are also included, and they’re hilarious (which they are not aware of) and skeptical and Richard literally boots Madame Giry out of the office once, which elicits gleeful laughter from the reader.
So there are my principal narrators. Now I just have to rave about the storytelling.
In my opinion, Leroux is a genius. Oftentimes, an author will have a specific ‘voice’ that they write in, but Leroux’s changes with each character he writes, including himself. Raoul’s is whiny and the kid annoys me. Christine’s is sweet and clear, but there’s a touch of spice that’s irresistible. The Persian’s is mature, intelligent, and personable, almost like a father-figure. While Erik never gets to have the reader in his head (that’s a scary place, anyway, that boy has such a major case of something that I think anyone else would explode), his way of speaking — which is constant, as whenever he’s in the scene he never shuts up — is beautifully unique. His phrasing is very simple, and the boy is obsessed with adjectives. (He also speaks in third person when he gets really ticked off. I think he thinks it makes him sound threatening or something). His speech patterns remind me of a child, and even in merely his way of talking, I think so much is expressed. He speaks like someone that had been silenced for so many years he’s not as adept at expressing himself through words.
(Image credit to muirin007 on deviantart. Stalk her. Now.)
Then there are the operatic aspects. I read the book in three days, hardly exiting my room as I devoured each page with insatiable hunger. But unfortunately, I didn’t know much about the music world save for musical theater. It wasn’t until I discovered the glorious beauty of opera and began exploring that world that pieces of the book began to fit into place. Two of my favorite instances of this are when Christine has been kidnapped by Erik. He first begins to sing to her to calm her down, and his song of choice is none other than Mia madre aveva una povera ancella (also known as the Willow Song) from Verdi’s Otello. In the aria, Desdemona tells the story of her mother’s “poor maid” who was left by her lover. In the story, the girl sings of how the willow will be her funeral garland, and Desdemona relates the crushing sadness the young maid went through. This is happening at a moment when Desdemona is frightened and all but abandoned by her husband, and when Christine mentioned Erik singing “Desdemona’s love song” to her, one that is familiar with the song is suddenly privy to all Erik’s feelings of abandonment and yearning for love. Later, in the crucial scene in which Christine pulls off Erik’s mask, he invites her to sing “music from the Opera,” and they begin the duet from Act Three, again, from Verdi’s Otello. The duet is at times soft and loving, and the next instant explosive with accusation. It’s especially fitting after Erik has been suspecting Christine of being in love with Raoul, as the context of the duet is when Otello is — very unjustly — berating Desdemona and furiously insisting she’s been unfaithful (which she hasn’t). But what I really think makes this the perfect piece to include in this scene is the music itself. Every sound is so intense and moving that the singers were caught up in the moment, rendering every sense heightened. Both the soft, loving melodies they share and the powerful strands that come later kind of make up their relationship. And one never knows how it’s going to turn out — until Christine pulls off the mask and everything shatters to pieces. What I love about Leroux’s use of the music in the book is that, if you know what he’s referring to, it adds so much more to the scene than meticulously explaining, “And he sang a song about yearning and love and the melody was so haunting I felt my soul attach to his like a parasite and later we sang about infidelity even if I’ve never been unfaithful yah-di-yah-di-yah.” Music is so powerful. There is something in even the simplest melody that can alter your mood, thoughts, and even your life. So it means so much more in the story to reference a piece of music that encompasses more than words could ever express.
Leroux has everything in this book: suspense, horror, love, agitation, joy, sorrow, despair, solemnity, and an irresistible quirky humor. The scenes with the managers and the “magic envelope” are like an operatic comedy. Christine’s despair over the loss of her beloved father hurts everyone that has ever suffered pain. Every moment of the book is so masterfully woven with threads of emotion, whatever those feelings might be, that when you step back you view a masterpiece. Then you reach the end, and something in you intensifies and changes, rendering you forever altered by the painful beauty of the entire tale.