The Metamorphosis of a “fantôme”

The “Phantom of the Opera” (Iron Maiden, 1980) is not only a Maiden song, but most of all is it known as one of the most successful musicals world-wide (Andrew Lloyd Webber, 1986). Lesser known is the text the song and the musical are based on, Gaston Leroux’ novel Le fantôme de l’opéra (1909-1910). It is important to notice that the song precedes the famous musical and Harris obviously saw the worth of this narrative before Webber did, which means that these lyrics were written before the narrative was changed into the form which must be considered the best known version, the musical. But before it entered the canon of Maiden characters, the fantôme was not only hero and villain of a novel, he also had a real building for a home, a real opera house and a real lake.

Where It All Began: L’Opéra Garnier

To find the phantom we have to go to the Opéra Garnier in Paris, France. Unfortunately, I have not managed yet to see the opera house in person, but I advise every Maiden fan visiting Paris to do so. According to the photos and images I have seen, it must be a very splendid building, with more than one large chandelier (so you should probably watch your step if you do indeed visit it). But, what I find much more interesting, is the fact that the building was built on a swampy area and thus has an underground water basin underneath. So, there is indeed an underground “lake” underneath an opera. This part of the story is true. See it here.

Leroux’ novel: Érik

During the first part of the novel, the phantom is indeed believed to be a phantom, an evil spirit which can be cast off by various devices taken from superstition, like a horseshoe for example. It is only much later that the characters learn about the true and human nature of the phantom. They should probably have realised earlier as this novel, which is highly ironic at places, tells us that that the phantom has named itself the phantom of the opera. The story is often very light-hearted and humorous in tone. I only mention this because all of this will be gone in the Maiden song.

This human phantom has decided to have a proper name, too, which is Érik. This is not to say that he was in any way harmless. I will come to this later. Érik has a head that resembles a skull that looks so convincing that people take it for a very well-made mask. In an ironic twist to how we know and imagine him, during his first appearance in public, the masquerade at the opera house, he simply appears without any mask at all because people take his real face for the mask. I assume that this will become the fake mask in the song. How can a mask be fake? By simply not being a mask at all.

Érik is a complex and complicated creature. Given that no-one really accepted him and his own mother gave him his very first mask because she could not abide his sight, he grew up in various circusses. That is where he acquired his extraordinary talent for singing and composing. Yet, given that his experiences with humanity were not the best, characterised by rejection and abhorrence, Érik has decided to live off the rest of humanity by cunning in the form of blackmail and theft, but he also finds it difficult to tell good and evil apart. He entertains a young princess by creating torture devices for her (and they are more sophisticated and more cruel than an Iron Maiden). Érik is pleased to entertain the young princess but apparently fails to realise how wrong the kind of entertainment he devises is. He is also an efficient assassin who has his own method to kill with a rope. Érik prides himself in this efficiency by displaying his skills for the entertainment of the young princess and teaching her his methods. The fact that she consequently kills some of her maids and friends may have little or no effect on him.

His creativity is not limited to composing dark music, employing unique killing methods, and creating torture devices, he is also an expert in devising secret passages, secret doors, secret you name it, which makes him an admired master for of all sorts of secret chambers and corridors you could ever include within a building. As humanity did, indeed, not treat Érik well, it was decided that he must be killed to keep these passages a secret. A secret blueprint vanishes best with the one who devised it. Érik is a torturer and killer as well as victim and fugitive at the same time. The novel constantly questions not only Érik’s behaviour, but also that of the people who surround him. This is one of the very klischeé “Who is the real monster?” scenarios.

This scenario cumulates in the ending. We are only told what has happened, and we are told by someone who has, in turn, heard it from Érik himself. But Érik is a notorious liar which makes me seriously doubt his last account that he reuntied Christine Daaé and Raoul, the Victome of Chagny to live happily ever-after after and to kill himself. Kill himself he does, but the last we see of the couple is an unmoving, subdued, seemingly asleep Raoul and a Christine who does not speak anymore. Whether Érik indeed had a change of mind or simply realised that he will never make Christine speak anymore after having killed Raoul and thus killed her too, is open to the reader.

Leroux takes great pains to prove to the reader the existence of Érik and thus includes several written and recorded reports of eye-witnesses whom he has ostensibly interviewed (all of this is fiction, of course). But, as mentioned before, in this way we only learn from another source, someone whom Érik has supposedly talked to, of what happened to Christine, Raoul, and himself. During this very talk, the person will say again what he says ever so often: he accuses Érik of lying (I mean, how likely is it that someone fell out of the gondola and drowned all by himself in the lake?). Given Érik’s character and biography the book is open to both possible readings and it is indeed, for the reader to decide whether Érik has suddenly become as much merciful and forgiving as he is a trustworthy source of information.

The Song

We meet a very different phantom in the song and, I argue, the song is also much more clear-cut in its portrayal of him.

What I find remarking is the complete lack of context or explanation, and we are talking here about a time before Webber’s musical was around and in everyone’s ears. If you do not have any faint idea about the phantom, I assume that you cannot make head or tails of the song.

What is even more remarkable is that the lyrics seem to shift as sudden and unexpectedly from one character to another as does the rhythm of the music. The first line, for example, seems to be a threat uttered by the phantom, but the next line reveals that the narrator is talking to the phantom (the one wearing the mask). Whereas the first stanza implies that our narrator is threatening the phantom and wants to take him down, the more we listen on, we learn that is is no other than the abducted Christine who speaks these lines. What starts out as a seeming threat becomes an inner monologue and warning to the narrator herself to stay away.

The phantom has lost his name and has thus become only more monstrous. He is a threat, someone who will hurt his victim, but he is also alluring enough to lure her into his vault. The last stanze reveals his true power, the power to manipulate her mind. He has afflicted mental damage.

What is more, he does not love her anymore. Érik loves Christine; this phantom clearly doesn’t. This phantom is about to hurt and scare and is thus a forerunner for the follow up album title “Killers.” (1981)

The Maiden song changes the focus and emphasis of the phantom by removing the romantic element all together (thus forming a stark contrast to the later musical) and focusing only on the dangerous nature and deadly threat of the phantom.

The removal of Érik’s background story erases the question who might be the true monster and clears the floor for one monster only. And this monster is a very clear-cut monster. We do not need explanations for his behaviour and this Christine is not driven by pity, in contrast to the novelised version. Neither does the phantom teach Christine anymore, who becomes a very successful singer under his tutelage. He does not compose extraordinary music. This phantom does not bring about anything good. He is out to hurt, to sabotage, and to scare. He is compared to Satan. This phantom is a much more diabolic creature than his forerunner.

In the end, considering his viscous nature, the phantom may have returned to his original (pretended) form and may have become a real fantôme, and evil spirit haunting the opera house whose only raison d’être is to bring harm and inflict fear. The false ghost has become a real ghost.

Sources

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