A Week to Remember: The Phantom of the Opera

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Interior of Palais Garnier Opera House with words The Phantom of the Opera on the curtain.
Palais Garnier Opera House in Paris, France. The opera house is the location of Gaston Leroux’s novel Le Fantôme de l'Opéra (The Phantom of the Opera).

On September 23, 1909, the first installment of Gaston Leroux’s novel Le Fantôme de l'Opéra (The Phantom of the Opera) was published in the Paris newspaper Le Gaulois. Installments continued to appear through January 1910, and the novel was first published in book form in March 1910.

Leroux had studied to be a lawyer, but after gambling away his inheritance, he needed a more steady and reliable income, so he turned to reporting. He worked for several years as a crime reporter and theater critic. By 1907, he was on solid enough financial footing that he left journalism to become a full-time novelist.

Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, Leroux began writing mysteries. He was reasonably successful by 1909, having already published six novels when Phantom made its debut.

Phantom is set at the Palais Garnier opera house, and tells the story of a mysterious masked man who haunts the building and his growing obsession with Christine, a young soprano. It’s inspired in part by legends and historical events surrounding the real Palais Garnier.

Some of the story elements that might seem like fictional embellishments are actually true. The Palais Garnier really does have an underground lake, which is still used today to train Parisian firefighters to swim in the dark. The chandelier that crashes dramatically to the stage in the novel is also based in reality; a chandelier crashed into the auditorium (not the stage) in 1896, killing one of the opera house’s employees.

Book cover for The Phantom Of The Opera 1925
The Phantom Of The Opera 1925

There have been many cinematic adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera, including cartoon versions featuring Woody Woodpecker and The Chipmunks. Rupert Julian’s 1925 adaptation is considered one of the great silent films. Lon Chaney created his own makeup to play the Phantom, and the look was so horrifying and grotesque for its era that the film actually goes out of focus briefly because the camera operator was so shocked by what he saw. Theaters were urged to have smelling salts on hand to revive all of the ladies who would surely faint at the horrific sight. A 2014 film, starring and directed by Anthony Mann, takes more of a contemporary slasher-movie approach to the story.

Surely the best-known adaptation of Leroux’s novel is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1974 musical, the longest running show in Broadway history. The Phantom of the Opera opened in New York in January 1988 and was still running when Broadway theaters were shut down in March by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Book cover for The Phantom Of The Opera 2004
The Phantom Of The Opera 2004

The original London cast recording and the 2004 Joel Schumacher movie version are both available for streaming at hoopla, as is a film of the special 25th anniversary production at Royal Albert Hall. Themes from the musical were arranged by Geoffrey Alexander into an orchestral suite called Phantasia, in which the role of the Phantom is performed by a cello (played in this recording by Andrew’s brother, Julian Lloyd Webber) and the role of Christine by a violin (Sarah Chang).

Lloyd Webber returned to Christine and the Phantom in 2010 with a musical sequel. Love Never Dies was loosely adapted from Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Phantom of Manhattan, and it was much less successful, running for only 18 months in London, and never playing on Broadway. The London cast recording is available for streaming, as is a 2012 film of the Australian production.

Book cover for The Canary Trainer
The Canary Trainer
Meyer, Nicholas

Forsyth’s novel is not the only sequel to relocate the Phantom to a new city; Vicki Hopkins takes him to the capital city of Malta in The Phantom of Valletta. Other authors have found their own variations on the story. Nicholas Meyer puts Sherlock Holmes on the case in The Canary Trainer, and Colette Gale adds an erotic edge to the story in her retelling Unmasqued.

Sarah Fine’s Of Metal and Wishes moves the story to an Asian setting with a hint of science fiction; Suzy McKee Charnas’s short story “Beauty and the Opera, or, the Phantom Beast” crosses Leroux with classic fairy tales. Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade is a parody of the story set in his Discworld fantasy universe.

Also This Week

September 24, 1870

Georges Claude was born. Claude was a French engineer and inventor who invented neon lighting. Large amounts of neon gas were produced as a by-product of the process he developed to extract other gases from the air, and Claude discovered that passing an electric current through the neon in a closed tube created a bright red light. Other colors are created by using other gases, but the term “neon lighting” is generally applied to all such lights. The documentary Neon looks at the first century of neon signs.

September 22, 1930

Joni James was born. James was one of the last big pop singers of the pre-rock era. She was a regular on early 1950s pop charts with such songs as “Have You Heard?,” “Why Don’t You Believe Me?,” and “You Are My Love.” She retired in the early 1960s because of family medical issues, but began touring again in the 1990s, and released a new album in 2010. The Very Best of Joni James offers a thorough overview of her work.

September 22, 1940

Anna Karina was born. Karina was an actress who appeared in several films by New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s, including Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live) and Alphaville. Born Hanne Beyer, she chose her professional name while working as a model for Coco Chanel; the name was meant to evoke images of Anna Karenina. Later in life, Karina worked in other aspects of the arts, directing films of her own, recording several albums, and writing novels.

September 21, 1945

Kay Ryan was born. Ryan served as the United States Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2010, and received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” Fellowship in 2011. Her poems are generally short and introspective, and she is praised for her sly wit and sense of humor. Ryan received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her career retrospective The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.