“Phantom of the Opera” or “Phantom of the Musical?”

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!

Works Cited:

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.

12 thoughts on ““Phantom of the Opera” or “Phantom of the Musical?”

  1. I like your analysis and research. Of course, the general consensus is still that Phantom is a musical, because of vocal technique and style, along with dialogue, staging, make-up and whatnot that clearly shows it is a musical (and not an opera).

    I’d just like to share a bit of my knowledge of the show here (I write frequently about Phantom and other musicals on my blog). The singing style of the Phantom is clearly not classical, and it is, in fact, a rather modern take on musical theatre singing. Of course, this comment is subject to which performer you have seen as the Phantom, but I have heard a good range of performers to make such a conclusion. After all, most of the performers are not classically trained opera singers. I guess this is one big hint of Phantom not being an opera. Perhaps I could share more on my blog soon as a response to this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your compliment regarding my analysis, and I really appreciate your insightful commentary as well! I would love to be able to gain another perspective on the vocal side specifically of this topic (especially from someone who is an expert on the show), seeing as though I am a singer myself, and it may contribute to further research on my part! As mentioned above, I recently saw a live production of “Phantom,” and you are absolutely right in that the singers’ lower registers demonstrated more of a belty theatrical style than that of a blended/subtle mix of chest and head voice, which is heard more frequently in opera singers when reaching the bottom of their ranges. I also discussed this topic with a theatre student recently, and she said that if the performer playing Christine struggles hitting a high A, theatre companies will often record the note being sung by someone else and play it during the performance. The blend of technology with live performance techniques (including the use of pop instruments as well) would not be seen in an opera, which relies solely on the orchestra and the singers’ voices (even though the acting may not be as strong as it is in musicals). Looking forward to reading your response and investigating more of your blog!

      P.S. It looks like you enjoy Disney too, so here is another topic you may be interested in:
      https://musicsoiree.com/2015/07/09/why-cant-fans-seem-to-let-go-of-let-it-go-analyzing-the-success-of-disneys-frozen/

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for your well-thought out response! Nope, not a high A. A soprano A is like a bare minimum for a soprano. You mean the high E at the end of the title song? That is always pre-recorded in professional productions, but the recording must be sung by the performer herself. In fact, the whole of the title song is lip-synced due to other technical difficulties as well.

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  2. I am NOT a singer, but my first thought when watching the opera was, WOW, it must be really hard to sing lying down. That being said, as I watched both videos, the opera is more about singing technically correct. It is about the richness of the voices. The burden of the drama lays solely on the singers and not on the instrumentation and grandiose sets.
    Conversely, productions like “Phantom” are more about the theatrics of the show and in my opinion, the singers do not seem to have the same expertise with their voices. One might be able to argue that it would be kind of like going to the movie theater and watching a movie. Really fun to watch, but the quality of the voices just is not the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is really funny that you mention the fact that the singers perform their duet lying down! In some ways, it may actually be easier than people think because the singers are forcing themselves to breathe all the way around (which is healthy vocal technique), rather than restricting themselves to one area, which is a struggle some singers face (especially me) while standing up, since they may not be able to easily sense how their backs are moving.
      Anyway, to address your analysis, I think that you raise a very valid point regarding the differences in performance intent, or the fact that opera is more concerned with vocal technique, whereas musical theatre emphasizes the spectacle. This may be justified by looking to the history of both art forms. Opera has evolved from century to century through its musical form, or structure. For example, opera during the Romantic era turned to chromaticism (or notes not part of the key of the music being performed) to express the emotions of the characters, and required a bel canto (or lyrical) style of singing as opposed to earlier opera, which, simply put, was mostly concerned with how predictable the music sounded, and how it was set up mathematically. Conversely, musical theatre in the 1980s (when “Phantom” premiered) sought to keep up with the trends of the time, demonstrating an increase in the use of technology to tell the story (as musicals such as “Les Miserables” dealt with revolving sets), which was not seen in previous eras, which generally relied on the voices and the dancing to tell the story. So, yes, the two genres have both looked to music to tell the story, though opera has evolved more theoretically and musical theatre has evolved more technologically, contributing to the differences in style you may hear.

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  3. Thank you:

    I found this really helpful call but your girl your discussion of the typical elements of an opera

    But I’m still would be interested in would be a more technical discussion of the musical structure of opera, akin to WILLIAM Kaplan‘s structure of classical form, if you know it

    Could you recommend a more technical discussion of musical structure itself?

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    • Could not find a way to edit this, sorry

      What I meant to say is:

      AM
      Thank you:

      I found this really helpful, particularly your discussion of the typical elements of an opera

      But I still would be interested in would be a more technical discussion of the musical structure of opera, akin to WILLIAM Caplin’s structure of classical form, if you know it

      Could you recommend a more technical discussion of the musical structure itself of opera and/or musical theater?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you very much for your kind words and for your inquiry!

        Because this forum is intended to simulate a salon and engage people of all backgrounds (musical and non-musical alike), research is conducted on a topic-by-topic basis, mainly at the request of participants. Therefore, I unfortunately cannot say that I have one specific source that I can point you to regarding these topics.

        However, I would like to help out a fellow music scholar and advocate in any way possible, and because I do have a background in opera, I have a few suggestions for you. I would begin by trying to narrow your research a bit. It is wonderful that you would like to tackle as complex a topic as the formal elements of opera. Yet, this may prove to be a bit difficult in your initial phases of research because opera, like many instrumental forms, has changed over time. Consequently, it might be best to start with opera in a particular era (i.e. opera seria and opera buffa in the Baroque era) and identify specific musical elements from there. Once you have a firm handle on this, I would trace the evolution of opera over time through the Classical, Romantic, and Modern/Post-Modern eras. You will likely find that the musical structures will parallel those of instrumental forms and art song forms with a few variations, such as the inclusion of choral parts and recitatives.

        As far as sources go, I would start with a general music history or theory text. For this blog, I found “A History of Western Music” by Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca to be useful for a general background on a variety of topics. When you feel that the historical context is locked into place (i.e. the fact that emphasis on emotionalism during the Romantic era contributed to lyrical orchestral and vocal lines and increased chromaticism), it might be helpful to hone in on specific search terms from this material and conduct research using those search terms. For example, you might find that a particular opera(s) makes use of a certain formal structure (I did a basic search in my university’s library databases and found a periodical on sonata form in Mozart’s “Idomeneo”). So, I would consult a performing arts/humanities librarian or theory or history professor, or use library databases for periodicals on the specific search terms/topics that you have decided to focus on. Lastly, if you find that you are having trouble gaining a thorough explanation of the operatic form(s) prevalent in any era, I would take a look at a couple of scores (also available from a music library or opera director/voice teacher) to clearly decipher the general elements that you researched and see if you can develop your own analyses from these scores.

        Musical theatre research is still fairly young (considering that the art form developed in the twentieth century), so I personally am not too familiar with any sources that heavily discuss form. Again, depending upon the era and the composer you are looking at, you may find contrasting musical structures. As a generalization, you’ll find many borrowed structures from pop, jazz, rock, opera, and other musical genres. I would narrow your era and composer (i.e. the Burlesque, the Golden Era, etc.); however, a strong source that my faculty mentor for this project, Jessica Sternfeld, wrote titled, “The Megamusical” might aid you with a social, historical, and formal discussion of the first modern musicals that were more pop-esque in form (highlighting spoken dialogue over music, in opposition to the musicals of the Golden Era) and underscored the “spectacle” (or the visual/technological aspects of the performance).

        I hope that this information helps, and I wish you the best of luck with your research!

        Please feel free to write back with any additional questions or recommendations for topics you would like to see discussed.

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      • Thank you for your thoughtful, carefully considered response.

        Good advice to narrow my search down to the genre and historical context of the opera

        In the last analysis I’ll have to study the scores.

        Interesting that Mozart’s “Idomeneo” has a sonata structure; that is what I’m studying now

        And enjoying this. Please add me to your email list!

        Thanks,

        David M White, PhD

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  4. Germany: “Das Phantom der Oper” opened at the Stage Neue Flora Theatre, Hamburg from 1990 to 2001, the Palladium Theatre in Stuttgart from 2002 to 2004, and at the Colosseum Theatre in Essen from 2005 to 2007. A second Hamburg production ran from December 2013 until September 2015 at the Stage Theatre Neue Flora. A production in Oberhausen is currently running at the Metronom Theater from 17 November 2015.

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