Deborah is a research enthusiast! She takes special interest in the world's ancient mysteries.
Most of us know the story of the masked genius that lurked beneath the opera house who fell in love with the beautiful soprano. Gaston Leroux first published The Phantom of the Opera as a serializationin Le Gaulois in the year 1909, then as a novel in the year 1911. The story has inspired film adaptations, novels, and the popular musical by Andrew Loyd Webber.
The setting of the story takes place in France in the Paris opera house, known as The Opera Garnier. The Opera Garnier first opened January 5, 1875. The construction of the house started in August of 1861. Until this day it has produced some of the best operas in history. The mysterious events that have occurred in the opera Garneir have sparked curiosity over the novel phantom of the opera. The story of the phantom is believed to be a timeless legend. Whether the novel was indeed based on legend, fact or just a figment of the author’s imagination has been a theme of controversy.
The Phantom of The Opera
What some people might not know is that the events in the story were inspired by real incidents. The story of the phantom begins in the late 1800s, France. An elusive phantom with a musical voice, who lives inside of the opera house, uses secret trapdoors to travel through the opera and play pranks.
The French novel has since been translated into many different languages. It tells of a haunting in the opera house. The phantom in fact is a man named Erik, a musical genius living in the cellars of the opera house. He wears a mask to conceal his deformed face. The members of the Opera Garneir believe the house to be haunted because of Erik's practical jokes and threats to the managers. He has the talent of ventriloquism and uses secret passages to travel through the opera house unseen. He is described at one point as the “lover of trapdoors.” The phantom reins threats and terror in the opera and sends letters to those he wishes to do his bidding. Eventually he causes the chandelier to fall when the managers refuse to abide by his orders. He falls in love with the beautiful soprano ChristineDaaé, and becomes an “angel of music” to her. They meet in secret, and he tutors her. Erik becomes enraged when Christine chooses to leave with the Count Raoul de Chagny. Eric kidnaps her and nearly murders his Persian friend and Raoul. At the end of the novel Christine grants the phantom a kiss, and he mercifully relinquishes his hold on her stating that he had never had a kiss, even from his own mother. Erik dies of heartbreak.
Gaston Leroux (1868-1927) was a French investigative journalist who also published novels as fiction. The novel The Phantom of the opera (Le Fantome de l’Opera) is under the category of gothic horror. He claimed that it was actually a true account. The Prologue claims it is a recounting of previously unaccepted facts.However, there are actual facts about the phantom and the Paris opera house mentioned in the novel that are true.
The opera house bears a truly magnificent ornament known as the chandelier. The infamous chandelier incident in the novel really did happen. In the real incident, it was the counterweight from the chandelier that gave way and unfortunately fell on the spectators; a woman was killed. The tragedy was deemed an accident. In the novel, it is the phantom who makes the chandelier fall on the unsuspecting, to make the managers follow his instructions. Was this incident an accident?
In Gaston Leroux's novel Box five is the preferred box of the phantom. He insists that the mangers not relinquish his box to anyone else. A hollow column next to it makes it possible for him to “haunt” the box. He uses ventriloquism to speak to those invading the box. People who hear his voice believe the box to be haunted.
Box Five does exist in the opera house. The opera house beholds box five, one of the best locations to be seated. It still receives tickets and patrons can view the opera from the box. There are those that think of the phantom when they spot the box from the audience.
The Legend of The Phantom
In the novel Erik uses a subterranean lake underneath the opera house to his purposes. He rows across the lake in a small boat to reach his hidden home. The real lake was discovered during the construction of the opera house. It was impossible to pump all the water out so an underground water tank was constructed to counterbalance the pressure. Currently the opera house gives tours to those who wish to see more of the opera. Unfortunately the lake is currently off limits to tourist’s eyes.
People really did believe the Opera Garneir was haunted at the time Leroux wrote his book. The meaning for phantom in French is ghost. Like the novel, performers did place a horseshoe above the entrance to the right stage wing for good luck but also to protect them from the ghost. Some performers believed at the time that someone, or people, could be secretly living in the opera house. The most compelling similarity to the novel was from witnesses who said they saw this “phantom,” running through different parts of the opera house. He was said to be wearing a black cape and mask.
The most controversial fact surrounding the phantom is the one given by Renata de Waele. In 1993 she wrote a narrative. Waele worked in public relations at the Opera Garneir for many years. She claimed that the story was based on a legend that could be supported by facts. The legend goes something like this. There was a man named Erik born with a deformed face in the village of Normandy, near Rouen. He was abandoned by his parents and worked for seven years in a circus as an attraction. He escaped to Persia and worked as an entertainer and then architect for the Shah. He returned to France and was hired as one of the contractors by Charles Garnier, to build the new Opera Garnier. He was a gentleman that wore a mask and had his own personal box in the opera house, box 5. There was a hollow column built specifically for him next to it, where he could come and go without being seen. Erik fell in love with a singer who performed at the opera Garnier. He apparently kidnapped the singer an evening after a performance. He was rejected by her and she was found three weeks later. Shortly afterwards she left Paris. The article claims that, according to “legend,” Erik was so heartbroken, in an act of grief, he walled up the door to his apartment beneath the opera house and died of starvation. Is this legend true? There has been some speculation that Renata made up this false anecdote to promote the popularity of the opera house. Was Gaston Leroux basing his story off this legend? Gaston Leroux claimed that the names he used in the novel were pseudonyms. If this legend did exist, did it have any basis in truth? It remains unknown if there is factual evidence in France to support it.
Fiction Laced with Truth
Some of the people in the novel seem to have existed. There was a man named Erik Vachon that suffered from advanced Porpheria culanea tarda. There was a Chagny family that lived in France. A woman named Christina Nilsson’s second husband was a count. Many believe Leroux used Kristina Jonasdotter as inspiration for the character ChristineDaaé. To add more mystery to the event, when the novel was published the employees were quiet about the comments and events. In fact members of the opera house were uncomfortable with the association to The Phantom of the opera. That is no longer the case in recent times. The appeal of the novel is encouraged by the proprietors of the Opera Garnier. It is an inside joke in modern times to the employees at the opera house that the ghost is to blame for any accident or bizarre happening.
Was the phantom of the opera real? Gaston Leroux was an investigative journalist. He claimed at the time he published the story that it was true and that he investigated the events and had conducted interviews with witnesses. Did he base the novel on actual events? Did he mix myth with reality? Did Perhaps Gaston Leroux use artistic license when he wrote the account. There have been declarations that Gaston Leroux claimed Erik was real on his death bed. His grandchildren to this very day insist that the story was true.
Was there a masked genius who lived below the opera house? Was there a beautiful soprano that experienced music with a phantom? Were there witnesses to the doomed romance? If Erik and Christine Daaé existed, we will most likely never know.
Palais Garnier/ Opera Nation al de Paris [Documentary]
The hidden lake under the Garnier Opera INA archive
Renata de Waele-Journal Illustre of café de la Paix [“La veritable histoire du Fantome de L’Opera] 1993
The Phantom of the Opera- Gaston Leroux. Translation originally published 1911. ISBN0-06-080924-8 (pbk)
The phantom of the Opera- Myth or Reality (Ficward: fresh- picked- ficward.com>story)
Renata de Waele- forever77.live journal.com
Seeks Ghosts: The Phantom of the Opera: Fact or Fiction? https://seeksghosts.blogspot.com/2014/01/
Robin Dark on August 12, 2020:
Well yes, these are interesting comments. Concerning how things could be done on stage, yes some things are still a mystery. The problem is that even in ancient Rome where some fantastical stage apparatus was used, we don't really know how it worked. The mechanics weren't usually wriiten down for posterity. Shame isn't it.
Rose McCoy from West Virginia on April 18, 2020:
I love this musical!
Deborah Minter (author) from U.S, California on January 09, 2019:
I am so glad, that you enjoyed it!
Ali-Key Swanmie from United States on January 09, 2019:
I LOVED this article!!!! I am a huge musical theatre fan, and always wondered if there was any truth behind the story of the Phantom. Will definitely recommend to my other theatre/Phantom loving friends! :)
Robert Sacchi on July 26, 2018:
This is a very interesting article. It seems the story behind the story of The Phantom of the Opera would make for a good movie as well. Thank you for posting.
RedElf from Canada on March 31, 2018:
Interesting story and a very nice article. It looks like you're off to a greats start here.
Deborah Minter (author) from U.S, California on January 21, 2018:
I was wondering about the cape myself, when I saw the musical..... Not all the performances of Phantom of the Opera has that bit. I will attempt to find out the secret of that magic....
Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on January 21, 2018:
I love that play! I only got to see it once, but I would love to see it again.
To my inquiring mind, the biggest mystery of all is how in blazes the stage is rigged to make the phantom disappear beneath a cape while seated in the grand chair..."POOF!" and the cape falls limp on the chair, and he's gone!
I have the album, and "Music of the Night" is one of my most favorite selections.
Very interesting article, indeed!
Dale Anderson from The High Seas on December 16, 2017:
Good article. I am always intrigued by this story when it comes up. I have heard several versions of the 'true events' that inspired the book and each one of them is riveting.
Penelope Bucket from Seattle area on June 25, 2017:
Wonderful article. I learned much about the Opera House that I might have never known.
Nadine May from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa on June 25, 2017:
What a great article. I have seen the Phantom of The Opera at least three times over the years and loved the music.