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Opera Chats: The Phantom of the Opera (Royal Albert Hall, 2011)

Premiering in London’s West End in 1986, The Phantom of the Opera is a musical based on a 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux. The music was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Charles Hart and a libretto by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe.

This concert film version, directed by Nick Morris and conducted by Anthony Inglis, was recorded at the Royal Albert Hall in London in October 2011 and celebrates the ever popular musical’s 25th anniversary.

The Paris Opera has recently been taken over by Messieurs Firmin (Barry James) and André (Gareth Snook). They are unconcerned with rumors about a mysterious “Opera Ghost” wreaking havoc, and dismiss staff concerns as superstition. The Phantom (Ramin Karimloo) very much exists, and is willing to go to any lengths to get his obsession and young soprano protégé Christine Daaé (Sierra Boggess) the roles he thinks she deserves.

Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny: Hadley Fraser
Carlotta Giudicelli: Wendy Ferguson
Madame Giry: Liz Robertson
Meg Giry: Daisy Maywood
Ubaldo Piangi: Wynne Evans
Joseph Buquet: Nick Holder
Auctioneer: Earl Carpenter

This discussion contains spoilers for both plot and ending.

Stage Direction: Laurence Connor
Musical Staging and Choreography: Gillian Lynne
Set design: Matt Kinley, after Maria Björnson’s original design
Lighting: Patrick Woodroffe and Andrew Bridge
Sound: Mick Potter

■ ■ ■

Francis: I feel like this introduction should come with dramatic organ music.

Traxy: Anyone who’s ever seen or heard this show will know the one you mean, oh Francis of the Opera.

F: I would class this as musical theater that happens to have opera in it, but it ain’t an opera.

T: I think that’s a fair assessment.

F: This is from 2011, when The Phantom of the Opera celebrated it’s 25th anniversary, which means by now it’s been going for 36 years. That’s impressive.

T: I don’t know if it’s been going non-stop, or if it’s been coming and going, but yes. It’s very popular. So popular in fact that I’m surprised you haven’t seen it before.

F: I don’t do musical theater much.

T: Yeah, but still. It’s Phantom, y’know? It’s iconic.

F: If it wasn’t Verdi, my parents wouldn’t take me as a kid. When I was old enough to go on my own I didn’t have as much time. I’m more surprised you’ve seen it. Because you did see it on stage, yeah?

T: Yeah, maybe in like 1993 or something like that? It was a very long time ago. My mum would go to Stockholm for trade fairs once or twice a year, and it was either free or didn’t cost a lot to add an under-16 to the trip, meaning she also had a bit of company on the train and at the hotel. I also have a sister who was really into Phantom, so the two of them have seen it at least three times.

F: And one of those times you tagged along?

T: Yes. That’s how I came to see it live on stage in Stockholm. I think it was my first time in Stockholm as well, actually. I must have been about eleven at the time.

F: Did you enjoy it?

T: Stockholm or the musical?

F: Both?

T: Yes. I still feel bad about not standing up with everyone else to give a standing ovation at the end, but I had bought a poster from the gift shop, which was threatening to escape. I didn’t want to lose it, so I felt obliged to sit down so I could keep a hold of it properly.

F: Somehow I doubt they’d remember a kid in the audience not getting up during one performance among … however long the run was.

T: That’s the rational way of looking at it, yes.

F: What’s the irrational way?

T: That I offended them and/or hurt their feelings because I didn’t join in with the adulation.

F: Where were you seated?

T: Row three in the stalls.

F: Regardless. It was over twenty years ago now.

T: I know, I know.

F: Look at it this way, say you wrote a letter to the theater or to the two main performers, explaining your situation and that you’re very sorry you didn’t give them a standing ovation. How do you think they’d react?

T: They would not respond, first of all, because they’d be too busy thinking “wow, okay, whatever”. Probably?

F: Probably, yeah. That’s what I’m getting at. If they even noticed, they wouldn’t have lost sleep over it. They really wouldn’t be losing sleep over it twenty years later, so it’s safe to say you can allow yourself to let that one go. No one came to any harm, and it’s cute that you’re so worked up about it but it really ain’t that big of a deal, I promise you. You’re forgiven.

T: This has suddenly turned into a therapy session.

F: I seem to have that effect on people. It’s a gift. So, anyway, was the musical performed in Swedish or English?

T: It was a local production, so translated into Swedish. Mikael Samuelsson as the Phantom, and Elizabeth Berg as Christine. I also have the soundtrack in Swedish, so I tend to know the lyrics in Swedish rather than English.

F: How do they compare?

T: No complaints, actually. Now that I’ve seen it in English there were times I thought the Swedish translation used words better than the original.

F: Ouch! Really?

T: Yeah, there was something where I expected them to sing the word “afraid”, and they didn’t, and I think it would have sounded better than whichever word they used instead. Frightened? I’ve already forgotten.

F: So the translation wasn’t clunky and had too many syllables?

T: Not at all. Whoever translated it did a good job. Then again I don’t know exactly what was changed for the 25th anniversary performance. I was surprised, for instance, when they said to start with two bars before Carlotta sings. I know that exchange as Firmin or André muttering in response “that’s four bars too many”, but here the reply was simply “two bars” or something like that. That’s not half as funny.

F: What did you think of the 25th anniversary cast?

T: It’s funny how we went to see Love Never Dies, the sequel that isn’t a sequel, in London in the spring of 2010. It starred the exact same people as the Phantom and Christine!

F: Ah, so you’ve seen these people live!

T: Yeah, apparently!

F: And were they good?

T: They were very good here, and I can’t remember much about Love Never Dies, but I presume I liked them very much there as well, even though the show itself was poorly received – and reviewed.

F: Can’t win ‘em all, I guess. Any other people you recognize in this cast?

T: Only Signore Piangi. It’s the GoCompare Man!

F: “GoCompare Man”? A translation, if you please?

T: There’s a British insurance broker called GoCompare. They have had a Welsh tenor singing the jingle and appearing in their TV ads for years now.

F: The guy who played Piangi here?

T: Yes! It’s actually nice to see him in something that isn’t an ad for a change.

F: He was good.

T: Yes, he was.

F: Except when pretending to be out of tune, of course.

T: Of course.

F: We should perhaps describe the staging here. It’s at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The orchestra was on stage, on some kind of raised platform. There were big video screens both above and below. How does that compare with your memory of it?

T: Uh. Different? There were no screens back in the 1990s. Christine’s mirror was on stage, it wasn’t a screen that could move aside, and so on. And there was a boat and a sea of candles. I don’t remember them running across an above-stage walkway kind of thing either.

F: Were the performers in the stalls, running toward the stage?

T: Not that I recall, no. And the chandelier actually moved! It didn’t move at all here. At the very beginning, I remember it sitting under a cover on stage. They remove the cover, it lights up and during the overture it slowly makes its way to sit just below the ceiling. When it crashes, it does actually come “crashing” down to the stage. It didn’t just sit up there blinking and have sparks flying from it.

F: It sounds like the original staging was more dramatic?

T: Oh, yeah. I guess the Royal Albert Hall couldn’t accommodate the staging for a few anniversary performances, so they had to make do. It’s a shame, but I guess I could always go back to watching the film adaptation, which I’m pretty sure I have on DVD.

F: Is it as melodramatic?

T: Been a while since I’ve seen it, so probably yes? I’m surprised you think of it as melodramatic, considering what is opera if not melodramatic?

F: No, no, there’s a difference.

T: People singing powerful arias despite dying of consumption in their next breath? Or getting entombed with their beloved? It’s exceedingly melodramatic, no?

F: Okay, yes, classical opera can be melodramatic too, but it ain’t as heavy-handed. This bordered on cheesy.

T: Shots fired! … But at the same time I do kind of see where you’re coming from.

F: Hah!

T: But it doesn’t stop me from being amused by your reaction.

F: So sue me. Some parts were pure fontina. You can quote me on that.

T: Any parts in particular you felt were cheesy?

F: In general more than anything specific. The vibe. There was a covering of cheese dust for sure.

T: There was spoken dialogue in this as well.

F: And the Opera Ghost turned his hand at composing. You’d expect him to be better at it.

T: Don Juan Triumphant or whatever it’s called not to your liking?

F: God no.

T: You have to admit The Point of No Return is pretty good, though.

F: Sure, but let’s face it, the guy composed a whole opera for the sole purpose of being able to abduct a woman he decided is his, even though she’s traumatized thanks to him. Fuck that guy!

T: That’s the crux of the entire matter, isn’t it? For some reason a whole lot of people think it’s a romance, and it isn’t. Not between the Phantom and Christine, at least. He’s controlling and abusive, she’s his victim.

F: That ain’t love.

T: I agree. The book really shows the Phantom to be an unrelenting psychopath who very nearly kills both Christine and Raoul, and they’re lucky to be alive at the end.

F: Does he do his disappearing act in the book as well, or does he die?

T: I can’t remember, I haven’t read it since I was a teenager, if not before, but it really isn’t a romantic story by any means.

F: Book any good?

T: Like I said, it’s been a long time since I read it, but I remember liking it at the time. Might be nice to re-read, but there’s that ever-increasing pile to get through. So many books, so little time.

F: I know the feeling.

T: When it comes to men hiding disfigurements with a mask, I have to say I much prefer Richard Harrow from Boardwalk Empire.

F: No kidding. Harrow was an honorable man, and he’s likeable. I can’t say the same for the “Opera Ghost”. You even root for Harrow to find someone who will love him for who he is. Can’t say that I do that for the O.G.

T: Granted, Richard wasn’t touted as a circus freak from childhood. He was injured in the war, as an adult.

F: That disfigurement. It’s a strange thing to have been born with. Looks like his brain is partially hanging out. Is that even possible?

T: I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem likely, does it? Not in those days. Get an infection or a blow to the head and you’re gone. If that really is meant to be his brain on show, that is.

F: We’ll never know, and I don’t really care either, to be honest.

T: Neither do I. What did you make of the melodies and the singing?

F: Singing was great, and they’re the kind of melodies that get stuck in your brain. The main theme seemed musically out of place with the modern instruments.

T: What about the organ music?

F: Can stay in a church with Bach, if it’s all the same to you.

T: You don’t like that creepy Gothic vibe?

F: Not my style. Or the synthesizer. Classic strings and woodwinds are more to my liking when it comes to opera. I’m old school in many, many ways.

T: But the singing was good?

F: Sure was.

T: I enjoy singing The Music of the Night from time to time.

F: Imma hold you to that some time.

T: No pressure. Did you like the ballet?

F: I’ve always preferred singing over tutus.

T: Would you want to see more Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals?

F: Do any more of them contain opera?

T: Not to my knowledge. Well, except Love Never Dies, I guess.

F: Do you want to see more?

T: I’ve seen a few already.

F: Live on stage?

T: Yup. Evita at the Gothenburg Opera House, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat at the local community centre back home, and at least part of Jesus Christ Superstar on TV. Think those are the ones we haven’t mentioned today. Catchy music in all three.

F: You a fan of this guy?

T: That’s not the word I would use. It’s like … I enjoy the stuff he’s made, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it live. You give me free tickets and sure, I’ll go, but if Starlight Express or Cats or whatever rocked up in town I’m not queuing up for tickets.

F: Alright, that’s a fair point. Now, there was a kind of tribute happening at the end of the show.

T: Yes, that was unexpected, but I was wondering how come there was still like half an hour to go even though the show itself was ending. Andrew Lloyd Webber was there, and the original Christine, Sarah Brightman.

F: And some old Phantoms?

T: Yeah, and the one most famous for it hardly sang at all.

F: Didn’t they say he had just come off stage in the West End? Probably saving his voice.

T: True. The most surprising thing is that when I saw the end credits, I thought “wait, WHAT?!” when I saw one of the names. One of the Phantoms was Peter Jöback!

F: Who?

T: The younger guy of the group. He’s Swedish and I totally didn’t recognise him. Didn’t realise he had been the Phantom, but apparently so.

F: They all seemed to bring something different to the part when they sang, which I really liked. But I don’t know anything about them and very little of the production, so while it was obviously meant to be a big deal, it didn’t feel momentous to me, which I think it was meant to be.

T: Over 35 years and still going strong.

F: Give it another hundred and then we’ll see, ah? Things nowadays, nothing’s made to last. Not even music.

T: Guess we’ll have to wait and see.

F: A hundred years? I don’t believe science will have caught up by then to make us live that long.

T: Good point. But at the same time, in a hundred years our little opera chats will be lost in the ether as well.

F: And on that cheerful note, folks!

T: Woah woah woah, we’re not done yet, are we? We’ve hardly talked about the characters, or the story!

F: Could we be less depressing going forward, please? We’re here to entertain, not get all existential. Although in this case, mea culpa. I started it.

T: And continued.

F: Yeah. Okay, so, Christine Daaé is meant to have a Swedish dad?

T: Yup. Daaé, that typical Swedish surname.

F: That’s what I was wondering. How legit are we talking?

T: It’s not Swedish, but Daae exists as a surname in Denmark and Norway, apparently. But without the accent. I guess Gaston Leroux saw it all as Scandinavialand and didn’t care. Admittedly, we might appear a bit homogenous to outsiders, but we’re not all the same. But I think that’s the kind of thing that would only make us mildly perturbed, thinking we’re Danish or Norwegian instead of Swedish, because at least it’s in the same general area – as opposed to being confused with being from Switzerland, which is somewhere else entirely.

F: Nooo, say it ain’t so!

T: Even had someone ask for my opinion on a Linzertorte they’d been given by someone. Supposedly authentic. She was looking to me for verification. Like, how the heck should I know? Nottingham and my home town are basically the same distance from Austria.

F: She thought you were Swiss?

T: I guess so? At least Switzerland shares an actual border with Austria. But yeah, that was puzzling.

F: Was the cake good?

T: Oh yeah. Ironically my grandma used to bake a jam tart that tasted very similar, which probably was a Linzertorte, but to her it was simply another cake of many to choose from in her recipe book. I have the same recipe book, it’s definitely in there. She just didn’t make it because it was specifically an Austrian cake, she made it because it was a nice cake and she enjoyed baking.

F: Baking grandmas are the best kind of grandma. It is known. So, the surname ain’t Swedish, and there’s nothing in there to highlight any other connection to your home country, so one can’t help but wonder what the point is in saying her dad’s Swedish.

T: One certainly could. What do you think of Raoul?

F: He’s one of the few characters with his head screwed on straight, and he definitely cares a lot about Christine.

T: I always thought he was a bit lame before, but oh gods yeah. Would you like a deranged murderer to pledge you his love, who would rather you be dead if he can’t possess you and control every aspect of your existence? Or would you like your childhood sweetheart who actually wants you safe and sound and happy?

F: Hmmmmm. That’s a tough one.

T: Right? At least that’s the one she ends up with, because of course she should. If she has to end up coupled with one of them, Raoul would be my preferred choice too. He never tried to gaslight her into believing he was some kind of angel of music sent by her dead father.

F: I remember when we first started these chats, you said you tried to watch Phantom a while back but had to stop watching because it got too emotionally overwhelming.

T: Yes.

F: How did you find it this time? We’re discussing it, so you obviously managed to watch it all, but I hope it wasn’t a struggle.

T: No, it wasn’t. I got a little emotional at times, but sometimes I do regardless. The song I was worried about is in act two, and yes, I did cry my way through it, but I soldiered on.

F: Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again?

T: That’s the one.

F: Yeah. That one got to me too.

T: It did?

F: If you’ve never lost someone you love, then you might have an easier time with it, but when loss has ripped your heart out the lyrics become deeply personal.

T: If only you could see them, hug them close, hear their voice once again …

F: It ripped open some old wounds, which I honestly didn’t expect. I knew it was coming, we’d talked about it, but it was a straight up punch to the gut.

T: The lyric-writer did a great job with those lyrics for them to resonate so deeply.

F: So that’s a point in its favor. I like operas to pack an emotional punch of some kind. This delivered.

T: What about the ending?

F: The Phantom disappearing? I’d call that cop-out sequel bait, but I don’t know how the book ends.

T: And I can’t remember. Actually, according to the Wikipedia plot summary, he dies in the end, but under different circumstances. He lets them go, then she later returns to bury his body. It’s a very different story from the musical.

F: I guess so. Anyway. I found the opera’s new owners arrogant. They want a return on their investment, of course they do, but they seem to have little care or regard for the art of opera, which I, of course, cannot forgive.

T: Even though it’s obvious Carlotta and Piangi are both past their prime, so the Phantom’s probably right in that they’re not actually as bankable as they once were. Taking a chance on a ballet girl with what seems like delusions of grandeur is a big risk.

F: Money getting in the way, as always.

T: Yup.

F: I’m looking at the time here, or word count to be exact, and I think it’s time we came to some kind of conclusion. Did you enjoy getting reacquainted with The Phantom of the Opera?

T: Yes, I did. Did you enjoy getting acquainted with it?

F: I didn’t hate it.

T: That’s … always something.

F: I still prefer opera over musical theater.

T: Even contemporary opera?

F: Okay, let’s not get carried away here. There are limits.

T: Do you prefer it over German opera?

F: For length, yes. For actual opera, no.

T: So you’d choose musical theatre over contemporary opera, but classic German opera over musical theatre?

F: I have painted myself into this corner, and here I’ll stay until the paint dries. It is what it is.

T: We’re doing Rigoletto next month!

F: From one spectacle to the next. Giant mechanical clown head and all, but we’re back into familiar territory again. Verdi.

T: Looking forward to it.

F: And until then: a presto!

Francis

An old school gentleman in a modern world, longing for the simplicity of days gone by. Definitely not a saint. Enjoys The Sopranos, baseball, and going to the opera. A meticulous dresser with Strong Opinions™ about Italian food. Wonders why "Fedora-wearing" is an insult, as he doesn't feel dressed without one.

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