“The Phantom of the Opera is my favorite opera,” is a phrase that many of my friends in the music department at my school throw around when jokingly imitating people who aren’t too familiar with either opera or musical theater. Fans tend to think of Phantom as an opera primarily because of the more classical technique used by singers, emphasizing high notes and long runs requiring a lot of flexibility (or the ability of the voice to move easily), which are elements not traditionally seen in popular musicals, such as Wicked and Rent. Although it may seem obvious to opera connoisseurs that Phantom is a musical (as it opened on Broadway, uses pop instruments, has spoken dialogue, and allows for a contemporary musical theater vocal technique), the structure of the musical itself is, indeed, very similar to that of an opera, though in a satiric way. I actually happened to see Phantom a couple of weeks ago at the Pantages in L.A. (which I highly recommend, if you have the chance to see it), so this entry will combine my observations with the insights of music scholars who have completed research on the work.
Operatic humor is exhibited throughout The Phantom of the Opera. The most noticeable example is at the beginning of the musical when the character, La Carlotta begins to sing. She is supposed to represent the stereotypical narcissistic operatic diva through her vocal slides (instead of moving from one note to the next, she adds notes in between to make her sound more fluid and exaggerated), through rolling her “r’s” when she speaks and sings, and through giving orders to everyone in the opera house. In the Pantages production, the opera chorus members began stumbling around aimlessly once La Carlotta started barking orders, since the directors hadn’t yet given instructions on how the chorus members should act. This was a minor detail, but, it may be exercised to argue that Phantom not only makes fun of operatic personalities and characters, but, also mocks the operatic rehearsal process, as, admittedly, I have seen (and been part of) the stumbling around chorus during the rehearsals for my school’s opera productions.
Often times in classical music, form (or the structure of a work, which may be as small as a song or as large as a symphony) is analyzed. The form of a musical would probably be as simple as spoken dialogue and songs. Songs could then be broken down into solos, duets, chorus numbers, etc. Yet, in operas, there are arias (solos in which a character reflects on his or her innermost thoughts/emotions), scenes (involving a couple of characters), chorus numbers (including the whole cast), and recitatives (speech-like music comprised of a couple of characters where the action of the plot takes place), all sung without any spoken dialogue. The Phantom of the Opera arguably takes on an operatic form. There are “arias,” such as “Think of Me” (sung by Christine, the leading lady) and sung scenes, such as “The Phantom of the Opera” theme (performed by Phantom and Christine). Furthermore, Phantom consists of chorus numbers, such as “Masquerade” (sung by the whole cast), and “recitatives,” such as the first part to “Notes/Prima Donna,” which takes place in the manager’s office, and encompasses quick, frantic back-and-forth chatter between the owners and directors of the opera house about who to cast in their production and who the “opera ghost” is. Motives, or repeated musical ideas used to represent certain characters or notify the audience that they are coming, are also common in operas. Not only is the “Phantom of the Opera” theme played during dramatic points involving the Phantom and Christine in the musical, but, the music becomes atonal (or lacks a key, making the notes sound a lot more disjunct than euphonious and predictable) as well (Chandler, 165-66).
Lastly, the dramatic themes which run throughout this musical are very similar to those found in the opera seria genre, or serious opera genre, which was prevalent in Italy in the 1700s, and eventually spread to Germany and France (where Phantom takes place). Operas, such as Tosca, La Traviata, and Romeo et Juliette entail the brutal sacrifice of oneself for his or her lover, whether this sacrifice be performed through death or loss of pride or reputation. Taking it a step further, several operas encompass romances that not only end, but, were also doomed from the beginning. Sternfeld (the brilliant musicologist/professor who is helping me keep this project going) points out that The Phantom of the Opera involves both a loving sacrifice (since the Phantom lets Christine be with Raoul) and a pivotal kiss that is exchanged between the Phantom and Christine, heightening the drama which fills this musical and making it similar to opera in that most love stories only allow for the kiss and the happy ending or the sacrifice (227). Additionally, the idea of doomed operatic lovers applies to Christine and the Phantom, as Christine is part of the opera company which controls the opera house through the funds it brings in, yet, the Phantom thinks he holds power over the opera house through his name and his trickery, though not monetarily. Something I thought contributed to the dramatic operatic overtones of this work while watching it was the “Angel of Music” concept. The Phantom rules over “Box No. 5” physically above the stage (pointing to Heaven, perhaps?), while attempting to help Christine with her vocal technique, putting him in his place as an angel. However, his underground lair below the stage and his selfish and angry actions are almost demonic in nature. Operas such as Don Giovanni revolve around gods, angels, demons, and other creatures that are beyond the scope of this earth. This focus on the supernatural contributes to seriousness in both the musical, Phantom and in operas, as it hints that the character’s fates are beyond their own control.
Do you see any parallels between the musical, The Phantom of the Opera and actual operas, or do you think that the genres are completely different from one another? Feel free to talk about the parallels mentioned above, or come up with your own (i.e. Do you see any similarities between the lyrics? Are the audiences they appeal to completely different?). Below, you will find a clip of the “Phantom of the Opera” theme from the 2004 movie and a scene from the opera, Romeo et Juliette (to which you all know the story), to help you.
Scroll to the VERY, VERY bottom of the page (past the Works Cited, until you can’t scroll anymore) or go to the “Thoughts on Phantom of the Opera…” section to leave your comments. Check out the “Help! What Do I Write About?” tab if you have questions about what to discuss musically, or even if you have writer’s block!
Alisson Kn. “The Phantom of the Opera (2004)-720p HD.” YouTube. YouTube, 23 October 2011. Web. 14 July 2015.
Chandler, David. “‘What Do We Mean By Opera, Anyway?”‘: Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera and “‘High-Pop”‘ Theatre.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 21.2 (2009): 152-169. Web. 14 July 2015.
Coloraturafan. “Anna Netrebko-Roberto Alagna “‘Love Duet”‘ Romeo et Juliette.” YouTube. YouTube, 7 April 2008. Web. 14 July 2015.
Sternfeld, Jessica. The Megamusical. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006. Web.
The Phantom of the Opera. Laurence Connor. Pantages Theater, Los Angeles. 23 June 2015. Performance.