Monday, January 27, 2014

The Phantom of the Opera: Fact or Fiction?

The story of the Phantom of the Opera was initially 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 specialty was investigative journalism based his story on true-life events. 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.

Chandelier 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 light in his story as a distraction so his Phantom could kidnap Christine.

The “romance” between the Phantom and Christine in the story is just a 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 hour 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 distorted 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 kidnapped this singer after an evening performance. She was found 3 weeks later, and shortly afterward 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 a 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 impoverished, which made it necessary for her to play 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 a 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 a ghost 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.

Other witnesses stated that they saw this phantom running through various parts of the opera house. Even eerier these witnesses reported 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.


Unknown 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.

Anonymous said...

I love it thank u so much

Virginia Lamkin said...

It is an interesting story.

Celeste B 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.

Unknown 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

Unknown said...

I found this article fascinating and I love all things to do with history and ghosts. I can identify with the phantom as I fell in love with the story of a 16 year old girl Justina Davis, in Brunswick Town, North Carolina who in 1762 married 73 year old Royal Governor Arthur Dobbs. In a letter I have a copy of lampooning the event, it does truthfully speak of Justina tearfully asking her 18 year old betrothed, Richard Quince permission or blessing to marry the governor, and with tears in his own eyes he granted Justina's request. Three years later Justina was a widow and after waiting three years she married North Carolina's first state governor, Abner Nash, a lawyer and statesman from Halifax, North Carolina. Justina died after giving birth to a daughter that reached maturity, and an older son who died as a child. To this day one can still read Justina's tombstone where I am relatively certain that instead of being alone in death she resides with her son in her arms. On the day when first I saw Justina's grave, I placed wild flowers on her tombstone.

Years later I was in the cemetery surrounding St Phillips Episcopal Church in Brunswick Town. I was reading the headstone of Rebecca Dry who was born in 1749 and after marrying Thomas McQwire in 1763, Rebecca passed in 1766 at the tender age of 17. She and Justina would have been friends as they were around the same age, and even though I have no historical evidence, I would well imagine that Rebecca was a part of Justina's wedding as was Justina a part of Rebecca's. Something got my attention, like the whisp of fabric catching on the brick of the old church. Turning to look towards the corner of the church over my right shoulder, Justina Davis apparition floating towards her old home. I say floating because where he feet should have been was only mist.

This lovely young woman wore a red satin dress, with an A-line bodice, and corset fittings at the back. Her skin was milk white, her lips cherry red, and her eyes a beautiful shade of chocolate brown. Then there was her beautiful mane of chestnut hair, piled up high at the back, and cascading down over the back of her shoulders in what can only be described as banana curls. I know it was Justina as years before in a lucid dream, I had projected myself back to Brunswick Town in 1759 where I saw the church being constructed and a 14 year old Justina wearing the same red satin dress and sitting astride a massive pile of bricks.

Unknown said...

Wow I love it

Johnathan maygarden said...

History is more cruel than story

Unknown said...

To truly one of my favorite novels I even bought Susan Kay's version too and enjoyed that one as well cause it went more in depth of the phantom aka Erik and Christine's story of love and fear thank you for posting this I have been fascinated with the opera house after seeing the play

Unknown said...

This really helped clear up some questions I had about my favorite musical! So thank you

Leona Joan said...

The book by Leroux is one of my all-time favorite books and it's right up there with Dracula and Frankenstein. My favorite movie is the 1925 version with the fabulous actor, Lon Chaney. The story fascinates and frightens me, that's why I love it! Thanks for your excellent research, Virginia. 😎

SiegWay said...

Thank you...greatly appreciate the revealing connection drawn between fact and fiction. It reopened numerous curiosities that my 10 year old daughter began to ask about. Of course, now I want to go visit the Opera house Garnier!

Unknown said...

that was helpfull and very interesting to read thank you.