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  • Musical Sources and "Thereness":The Location of Inspiration in Cinematic Adaptations of Le Fantôme de l'Opéra
  • Cormac Newark

Although never featured explicitly in adaptations of this much-adapted text, the opening gambit of Gaston Leroux's novel is fundamental not only to his enterprise but to that of many attempts to render it as cinema. In an atmospheric Avant-propos the narrator describes his discovery of the Phantom's remains in the depths of the Paris Opéra in 1907, about twenty-five years after the events he is about to relate.1 A natural, if macabre, development of a familiar trope of gothic style (the story pieced together from surviving physical sources), this is also the beginning of a meditation on the nature of musical inspiration that will be sustained in different forms throughout the narrative. The circumstance is the real historical interment of a time capsule containing recordings of contemporary stars of the lyric stage, due to be opened a century later,2 but what Leroux may be read as taking from this act of operatic reification is not so much the commemoration of a stable repertory and performance practice as the question of how to choose exactly what is worth commemorating: the difference, in other words, between what is merely representative and what is transcendent. During the course of the novel Leroux pursues this mainly in the area of vocal and dramatic artistry, but the narrative potential of the Phantom's compositional gifts—which the novel would have us believe are extraordinary and which are themselves reified in the shape of the score of his unfinished masterpiece Don Juan Triumphant, frustratingly still to be located as the novel ends—is never far from the surface. Don Juan Triumphant is the piece that the Phantom has been working on for twenty years; he is convinced he will finish it only in his last days on earth. It is a much darker score than Mozart's opera buffa—music that burns, as he tells the heroine Christine Daaé, "music that consumes all those who come near it." Later she describes the music in question, which she has overheard the Phantom playing to himself, and sure enough it is an overwhelming, painfully enlightening experience: "a long, terrible, and magnificent sob."3 [End Page 126]

It is surely the challenge of representing such an exalted work that has prompted so many artistic responses to Leroux, in so many other media—above all adaptations for the screen. Because the earliest of these date from only a few years after the publication of the novel, and because new ones have appeared regularly ever since, together they represent a coherent, if geographically rather wide-ranging, reception history of the ideas about opera for which Leroux's novel is itself already a kind of repository. More important, that reception history is one in which the visual and aural implications of his various textual stagings of operatic performance have in some way to be worked out. But as well as addressing the same critical questions Leroux did—to do with articulating the difference between good and exceptional performance, and between musical attention and musical transport—the adaptations must also negotiate the gap between the Phantom's own mysterious score and those that, like the weary warhorses of grand opéra featured in the novel, seemed to Leroux and many of his contemporaries emphatically to have lost their mystery. The logical conclusion is that the screen adaptations of Le Fantôme de l'Opéra must all, in one way or another, not only assert but show the difference between a performance of (say) Faust that is (say) full of elite singers but still embodies everything that is wrong with opera, and one that is both inspired and inspiring. They thus have something important to communicate about changing attitudes to "the" repertory—in terms of historicizing audience attention and its aesthetic and institutional politics, but also of which works might belong in it and indeed which of the other genres featured (operetta, musical theater, pop and rock) might be similarly structured. More intriguing still, screen adaptations must often also place the Phantom's Don...


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pp. 126-152
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