The Phantom of the Opera is a seminal tale of gothic drama and intrigue that has captured the imagination of millions.
Gaston Leroux’s 1909 novel has inspired numerous retellings across stage and screen. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous music version has been going strong for 31 years and, to confuse us, there’s now also a movie based on that musical, in turn based on the original novel. The most well-known movie adaptation might still be the stylish 1925 silent adaptation or the more sensational Hammer Horror from the 1960s.
There is even a children’s book retelling the story entirely with cats: The Phantom Cat of the Opera by David Wood. Still, my personal favourite parody has to be Terry Pratchett’s 18th Discworld novel, Maskerade, luckily featuring the Witches, who don’t hold with that sort of theatrical silliness.
All these adaptations have added a particular slant to the tale. It is easy to completely lose track of the original subject matter. It is possible to not even realise that the gothic tale is loosely based on real events.
Gaston Leroux was actually a journalist. He specialised in investigative journalism and based his work on true-life incidents.
His opera house in Phantom was based on the real Opera Garnier in Paris. The opera house was built towards the end of the 19th century for the Paris Opera. The design really does feature quite extensive tunnels below and, bizarrely, an underground water course and reservoir.
The real story goes that during building work the site had an unexpectedly high level of groundwater. Despite multiple attempts to drain it, the water persisted and so the builders simply incorporated it into the design.
A legend grew up at the time that this was because the site had a mysterious underground lake that swelled unstoppably beneath the opera house.
Compounded with a few incidents at the opera – one of the counterweights from the chandeliers really does fall in 1896 and kills a man – and you have the beginnings of myth.
The sensational underground lake is where Leroux set a lot of his more dramatic scenes. The real thing is a little more pedestrian than the romantic candle-lit scenery of the legend.
But it still has a certain mystery. And plenty of space for someone to skulk.
Leroux opens his novel with the phrase “The opera ghost really existed” and he retells how a body was found when the cellar was being prepared to house a phonographic recording. The body, he says, was that of the Phantom.
The burying of the recording did happen but there’s no evidence to my knowledge of finding the body of a subterranean maestro who lures women into his lair with sumptuous music.
Fact and mystery have become so intertwined that it is difficult to say where the fabrication begins.
We know one thing for sure – it makes for a damn good story.