Masquerade! Paper faces on parade . . . Masquerade! Hide your face, so the world will never find you!“Masquerade” from The Phantom of the Opera
The Phantom of the Opera (1909) by Gaston Leroux (1868–1927) is, sadly, quite a neglected novel. Yet the whispers of the Opera Populaire’s deformed, unwanted tenant have solidified into a celebrated story. This fame is largely due to the theatrical adaption brought to Broadway by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, a record-breaking production. The myriad versions of this story (the original novel, different plays, and movie adaptions) bring this haunting story of misunderstanding, love, suffering, and genius to life.
Whilst the name Phantom conjures up an almost tangible image for many people, it is often not of the original, soul-stirring Erik presented in Leroux’s novel. This fascinating character possesses a depth of pure brilliance that the visual adaptions can only begin exposing in Erik’s musical virtuosity.
That is not to say that the more commonly known tale of Webber’s adaption of The Phantom of the Opera completely strays from Leroux’s original vision. It simply stifles some of the more Gothic aspects from the novel in favor of stressing its Romantic tendencies, which are seemingly more appropriate for the theatrics of the stage.
Webber’s adaption is equally compelling, an authentic depiction preserving the novel’s overarching sociological critiques. For this reason, and due to its wider familiarity, this piece will focus on his version of Leroux’s harrowing tale—such as the 2004 movie directed by Joel Schumacher or Broadway’s award-winning play.
The three central characters in The Phantom of the Opera are the key to understanding the work’s social critiques. They stand as representations for three basic types of people or societal groups:
- Raoul the Vicomte de Chagny — the controlling, overindulged, self-entitled, supercilious aristocracy
- Christine Daaé — the well-intending, kindhearted person; but, also, the easily influenced bourgeoisie intent on both imitating and emanating the perceived sophistication of the higher-classes
- Erik, the Opera Ghost — the physically disfigured or handicapped; outcast and pariah; a genuine person even when wholly detached from society’s trivial politics and proprieties, instead absorbed by his pursuit for art/beauty, guided by an internal, intact morality and human decency
Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny
Raoul is essentially a paper-thin personality drifting through life. His character is not distinct enough to act as the model for an individual entity; he is instead a stand-in for all privileged, opulent aristocracy. His title, hereditary class, and privilege define him. A fact that superficially paints the affluent Vicomte as a charming beau idéal, subtly unfolding an exposition of calamitous virility.
Raoul represents a rather common Gothic motif: the hero–villain. Charismatic, noble, ever-the-celebutante, the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny seems to possess dominant heroic qualifications; yet, there is no greater threat to Christine Daaé than he.
Their history is utterly tainted by Raoul’s feelings of superiority. The 2004 movie immediately evinces this on introducing Raoul into the story, the Vicomte de Chagny who condescends to offer his patronage to the new managers of the Opera Populaire. Here his two definitive roles are revealed: his connection to Christine (when she recognizes him and alludes to their childhood friendship) and his social standing.
The role as patron entitles Raoul to indulge in the arts without exertion, as an always honored-guest at the Opera house, particularly on its opening-night under new management. It is while watching Christine—whom he failed to recognize earlier that day within a normal setting—sing through her debut performance, her stature and position enshrouded by the glow of glamour, that he has an epiphany. This is Christine Daaé, his Little Lotte.
He is intoxicated by her seraphic voice, seemingly enamored with Christine. Yet each encounter between these two is marred with Raoul’s egocentric attentions.
The first instance: Raoul infringes upon Christine’s privacy, unsolicitedly entering her dressing room, overeager to dote on the young prima donna. In this scene, as Christine modestly averts his praise telling him that she has been visited by the Angel of Music, Raoul curtly dismisses her: “No doubt of it. And now, we go to supper.” Even upon her immediate refusal, he simply laughs, orders her to change, and leaves, promising to order the carriage to be ready in two minutes.
No consideration; even worse, zero respect for Christine’s worries, feelings, thoughts, or even conversation. With an expectancy indicative of his social class, Raoul disregards other’s wishes. Everything he desired in life, he obtained, never because of merit, but rather from a deemed entitlement or inherited allowance.
Christine presents no greater feat to Raoul than his next prize. Without consent or encouragement, Raoul assumes control over Christine. Winning her trust and love with bouts of insubstantial affection, streaked with patronization.
The scene epitomizing the strenuous nature of their relationship is the New Year masquerade ball, the very occasion at which their secret engagement is unmasked. The telling line comes from Christine in the musical number “Masquerade” as she speaks to her fiancé: “Please pretend you will understand in time.” In this the moment they should be thriving in shared love, the moment Raoul should be upholding the promise still fresh on his lips “to guard you and to guide you,” Christine instead resigns herself to Raoul’s pretense of acceptance, symptomatic of shallow love.
Christine is more a trophy wife who captures Raoul’s infatuation/affection than his equal, revered life partner. This is the mark of his character: valuing external poise and appearance without a thought to substance, character, or internal merit.
The truest description of Raoul is, as Erik dubs him, “a slave of fashion, basking in [Christine’s] glory!” As such, Raoul immediately dismisses Erik as a virulent monster incapable of intellect or good, thus undeserving of human interaction, love, appreciation. To Raoul—just as the aristocracy he represents—it is only beauty, stature, nobility, money, and success that denote caliber.
Christine is Rauol’s antipode. Her compassion and benignity juxtapose his unconditional materialism. Quite importantly, she represents the middle-class—an orphan whose life borders the edge of the world of the nobility. A life in the arts, living on the stage, in the eye of an adoring public, Christine enjoys a social admiration atypical for someone of her social status.
Her spirit is yet untainted by the aristocracy’s avaricious. Without the titles and riches so treasured by the upper-class nobility, Christine exists on the cusp of their lifestyle. She thus retains her amiable nature, evading their gratuitous superficiality or materialistic ideals.
This constant trust in the goodness of others and unyielding faith in the value of humanity, while being admirable, unwittingly inculcate Christine with undeniable naivety. Upon hearing Erik’s voice wafting through Opera Populaire’s empty corridors and rooms, without hesitation Christine takes him to be the Angel of Music sent by her father’s spirit: “Father once spoke of an angel // I used to dream he’d appear // Now as I sing I can sense him // And I know he’s here.”
Such an unassuming heart predisposes Christine to accepting both Erik and Raoul, regardless of either’s flaws. Contrary to the popular belief that Christine only fears Erik, she perceives his innocent desire for connection and love. Rather than demarcating him from humanity, Christine treats him as a human deserving of love.
It is true that after Christine willingly follows Erik down to his house in the Opera Populaire’s labyrinthine depths and there unmasks him—revealing his deformities, the explanation for his position as a societal outcast—she is horrified at the sight of the Opera Ghost. Conveniently, right after she begins losing sight of Erik’s humanity is the moment her relationship with Raoul takes wing.
Raoul’s own denial of Erik’s existence, his refusal to trust Christine’s assertions, his inability to acknowledge or try to alleviate her anxieties, his order for her to forget “these wide-eyed fears”—these only further aggravate her horror. Influenced by her suitor, Christine’s perception of Erik loses its humanity; in her mind, he fades into the shadow of a phantom being, solidifying into a threat.
But it does not end so sadly. Amidst the verbal throes of hysteria (the entire scene containing “Down Once More… / Track Down This Murderer”), Christine regains a sense of her innate empathy, breaking away from Raoul’s sway, realizing the true tragedy permeating Erik’s life: “Pitiful creature of darkness // What kind of life have you known? // God give me courage to show you // You are not alone.”
Her focus of pity on the victim of the world, on the outcast, the deformed, the judged contrasts Raoul’s own self-focused pity, as his concurrent ridicule of and plea to Erik is “Have you no pity? // … I love her! // Does that mean nothing? // I love her!”
Christine sees the loved-starved Erik grasping for human interaction, some form of acceptance. Raoul sees a disfigured person and assumes a marred soul; an aberration deserving of little other than his pain and isolation.
Erik, the Opera Ghost
Opera Ghost. Phantom. Madman. The Angel of Music. Erik. A man of many names, and a man of many dreams. Talented, skillful, brilliant, resourceful, a musical connoisseur. A genius lost in the shallow ideals of society. Ignored because of a mere physical disfigurement.
Worse still, a human life destroyed because of misplaced values. A beautiful soul drowned beneath undulating prejudices.
Erik is a maestro of incredible skill, threading together euphonious melodies and complex symphonies which are worthy to resound from the world’s grandest stages. He has an authentic passion for music, as he burns his very heart, his deepest desires, his highest hopes, his abysmal anguish into his pieces. Music is his love, life, purpose, identity.
Christine becomes Erik’s muse and, more importantly, his tether to human society. Her voice carries his story to the world, a vessel lifting his spirit out of his internment underneath the Opera Populaire. He lives in the heart of aristocratic social life within the breath of Paris’s thriving art society without ever stepping into this domain.
Some may consider Erik’s attachment to Christine as betraying psychotic behavior—perhaps even deeming him a stalker. Yet Erik ultimately is far less of a danger to Christine than Raoul. Remember, he has starved from all human contact. The extent of his knowledge on interaction with another human is learned from observing the stage—operas hinging on extreme drama.
Christine is the only person in his life. She is his link to the world, the only voice capable of bringing his legacy and life out of the depths; this is clear as he sings to Christine “You alone can make my song take flight // Help me make the music of the night.”
Erik is the true hero of The Phantom of the Opera, the most genuine and humane charter regardless of externally not fitting the ideal heroic image. A socially inept and isolated soul—not be choice—wholly ignorant of forming healthy, proper human relationships due to the complete absence of human interaction throughout his life. A gentle yet lost soul in need of guidance and love.
Still, without these social skills Erik somehow shapes a more beneficial, real relationship with Christine than her own fiancé. He dedicates time to cultivating her talent, not only providing training but also encouraging her as she builds a promising future and career. Raoul, instead, is her attentive, dominating suitor with a myopic approach to their relationship. He provides a patronizing tone of disbelief, insufficient care in listening to her, and a halfhearted reassurance that she’ll be safe (considering he never thought her worries were well-founded) before removing her from the only life she’s known, that is her career on the stage.
In the end, Erik loses this relationship, his one shred of comfort and love. All for Christine’s sake. The most altruistic act—to give away one’s entire life without gain or retribution, suffering the loss of everything for another. Erik’s only dream was to create the “music of the night” with Christine’s aid. A fate lost the moment he let her go. Christine leaves to join the life of the aristocracy while Erik fades in his socially designed role as an outcast and phantom, leaving the world behind with his final cry of anguish: “It’s over now, the music of the night!”
The Phantom of the Opera. Directed by Joel Schumacher, Warner Brothers, 2004.