The Phantom of the Opera is one of the most successful musicals ever staged. It is a long standing Broadway show produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and based on the French novel ‘Le Fantôme de l’Opéra’ by Gaston Leroux. The Phantom of the Opera is a gothic thriller and a twisted love story, but it also has a sweeping, romantic score and epic songs such as “The Music of the Night,” “All I Ask of You”, which highlight the grandeur and mystery at the heart of the narrative – but what is the truth behind this epic tale?
Gaston Leroux was a French journalist living in Paris at the end of the 19th century writing detective and mystery novels in his spare time. As he was publishing small stories such as ‘The Mystery of the Yellow Room’ in 1907 and The Lady in Black’s Perfume’ in 1908, there was a well-known growing disconcerting rumor in Paris about a ghost walking the halls of an opera house called the Palais Garnier. Some dismissed it as superstition, but many believed that confirmation came on May 20, 1896, during a performance at another Opera in Paris, where just as Act One had finished and Madame Rose Caron had finished her aria, a loud noise was heard through the auditorium, followed by a crash and a cloud of dust. A fire in the roof of the opera house had melted through a wire holding a counterweight for the main chandelier and the weight had crashed through the ceiling injuring several people and killing Madame Chomette, the concierge of a boarding house, who was watching her first opera. It was quite a story in Paris – and it inspired Gaston Leroux, a journalist working for the newspaper Le Matin – to entangle the incident at the Opera house with the rumors of a ghost at the Palais Garnier. His inspiration that day would in time become the now world famous story “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra’ – which later would also be published in English as ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ – and over the years it would even manage to raise a Box Office revenue higher than any other film or stage show, including blockbuster films such as the Titanic.
Many details about the Palais Garnier, and rumors surrounding it, are closely linked into Leroux’s writing, but much of it really originated from Leroux’s curiosity with the Phantom actually being real. In the prologue he even tells the readers about the Phantom and the research that he did to prove the truth of the ghost. How the underground water tank and tunnels under the Opera are accurate to this opera house, and still used for training firefighters today – YES, that is why everybody has to go see it for themselves. However, even if many of the mysteries that Leroux used in his novel about the Phantom are still mysteries, Leroux held onto his claims from his prologue up until his death in 1927.
So where does the underground lake, the deadly chandelier, the buried corpse at the Garnier Opera really overlap between reality and myth? Nobody really knows, but since Gaston Leroux took most of these details to his grave, he kept the mystery alive somehow – and slowly, but surely, this is likely to have become the reason for this astounding success.
People still flock to understand the mysticism surrounding this magic time in Paris, where – as Leroux tells it – a phantom, deep from his hideout beneath a 19th century Paris opera house, schemed in order to get close to a local female vocalist. This ghost, wearing a mask to hide a congenital disfigurement, would strong-arm the management into giving this budding starlet key roles, and make sure that her success would keep her at the opera. Instead she falls for a benefactor and terrified at the notion of her leaving, the phantom starts enacting a plan to keep her by his side.
But that is not the whole story…