Monday, January 27, 2014

The Phantom of the Opera: Fact or Fiction?

The story of the Phantom of the Opera was originally published in a series of articles in La Galois and then in a book in 1911 entitled, Le Fantôme de l’Opéra written by a French journalist, Gastón Leroux. When the story was first published it was not popular and the book went out of print.

Leroux whose speciality was investigative journalism based his story on true-life incidents. In fact, many who have researched this subject believe with just a few exceptions the story has several elements that are true.

The opera house in the story was based on the real Opera Garnier in Paris. The Opera Garnier does have underground tunnels and it also has an underground lake. Leroux used this setting in several dramatic scenes in his story.

Chadelier at Opera Garnier
There was an incident where a chandelier did fall in the Opera Garnier setting the building on fire and killing a woman. Leroux used a falling chandelier in his story as a distraction so his Phantom could kidnap Christine.

The “romance” between the Phantom and Christine in the story is just fantasy but it is believed that Leroux based both characters on real people.

The Phantom is based upon a man named Erik who was born in a small village in Normandy, near Rouen. He was born with a horribly disfigured face so his parents abandoned him when he was eight. A circus basically took him and for 7 years he was used as an attraction.

He escaped in Persia and worked as an entertainer for the Shah. Later he worked as an architect’s assistant--he designed and built several harems, which gave him a greater understanding of architectural design.

Paris' Opera Granier 
Now confident, he returned to France. In Paris he so impressed Charles Garnier that he was signed on as one of the contractors that built the new opera house--the Opera Garnier. He worked 12 hours days until the project was completed.

He was no longer the deformed child that had suffered cruelly. He now was a gentleman who wore a mask to hide his deformed face. He also wore a dress suit, a cloak and a large felt hat. He was respected and earned enough money to live a comfortable life.

Just as in the story the real life Erik had his own personal "Box 5" at the opera house. He even had a hollow column built next to it where he could come and go without being seen. 

Erik did fall in love with a singer who performed at the Opera Garnier. But finding himself rejected he in a desperate act kidnapped this singer after an evening performance. She was found 3 weeks later and shortly afterwards she left Paris.

After this, a legend was spread that Erik was so heartbroken that he walled up the door to his apartment beneath the opera house and died of starvation.

Years later when the new Opera Bastille was built this small apartment was supposedly discovered by workman who found a skeleton wearing a gold ring that Erik was known to wear. It is said Leroux used this “legend” about the real Erik as inspiration for his story.

Under Opera Garnier
The character Christine was based upon a soprano by the name of Kristina Jonasdotter. It is believed she was Leroux's inspiration because of the overwhelming similarities between her and his character.

Jonasdotter was taught to play the violin by her older brother at a young age in Sweden. Her family was very poor and she later played this instrument on the street to earn money. She was sent to Stockholm and then to Paris to continue her lessons.

Jonasdotter’s beautiful singing voice like the character in the story was discovered by accident. She started to sing at concerts and took the stage name, Kristina Nilsson in the 1860s. According to historians Nilsson had an incredible vocal range and was very beautiful with “a lovely figure and clear blue eyes.”

The Haunting

Another interesting fact about this story is that the Opera Garnier was considered to be haunted by a phantom--the French term for ghost--at the time Leroux wrote his story.

Leroux used some of these tales to inspire his story. The performers at the opera house firmly believed there was a ghost that haunted the building and the tunnels that lay below.

These performers placed a horseshoe above the entrance to the right stage wing for good luck but also to protect them from the ghost that they considered to be malevolent in nature.

The Grand Staircase

It was believed that someone was secretly living in the opera house and many felt it was the ghost of the real Erik. In fact, many claimed that near Box 5 they heard “ghostly’ voices and whispers when the area was unoccupied.

There were other witnesses that stated that they saw this phantom running through various parts of the opera house. Even more eerie these witnesses stated this figure wore a black cape and a mask over its face.

Renata de Waele in 1993 wrote a narrative that compared the fictional to the real stories. She worked in public relations at the Opera Garnier for many years. Some of her speculations have been proven others have not. So reality is blurred with fiction which leaves the curious with an intriguing mystery.


Julia S. said...

Thank you very much for writing this! I've always wanted to learn more about the stories that helped to inspire the book The Phantom Of The Opera. It is one of my favorite books of all time, and I simply adore the musical adaptation!! (✿◠‿◠)

Virginia Lamkin said...

You are welcome. I enjoyed doing the research for this post.

Erika Rodriguez said...

I love it thank u so much

Virginia Lamkin said...

It is an interesting story.

Broken_Angel88 said...

I'm a big fan of the book and the 1925 Silent Film, and just recently came across information that Gaston Leroux's tale might have been based off of a real, true story. I've been looking into it for a few months now, and have found nothing conclusive that made sense. Thank you for this rather compelling answer that makes sense. I really appreciate your work!

Virginia Lamkin said...

Hope this information helps in your endeavor.

Martha Jones said...

Thank you I have always wanted to know the real infor on the Phantom of the Opera since there are so many versions out