“The Opera Ghost really existed!” So claimed Gaston Leroux in this famous opening line from his most famous novel.
Court report, theater critic, journalist, international correspondent. These are some of the hats that Gaston Leroux wore before turning to detective fiction in 1907. He wrote Le Fantôme de l’Opéra as a serialized pulp adventure in 1909-1910, which would appear as a collected novel in 1911 as The Phantom of the Opera. The novel was inspired in part by actual events that transpired at the Paris Opera, and especially by the underground lake and passages that run some five stories beneath the Palais Garnier (some say as much as 17 stories down, but that seems a bit far-fetched).
Leroux’s tale unfolds with the confidence and realism that has made readers believe absolutely in the Phantom, in much the same way that they believe Sherlock Holmes was also a real person. But did he exist as the author claims?
In the October/November 1993 edition of Journal Illustre of Café de la Paix, Renata de Waele, who worked in Public Relations for the Opera Garnier for a long time, tells her story of a young prodigy named Erik who, due to a deformity at birth, resembled a living skeleton and was abandoned by his parents at a young age. From there he was captured by a circus and exposed as a “Phenomenon.” He eventually escaped and made his way to Persia, where he was in service to the Shah, first as an entertainer, then as an architect. He apparently also built torture devices. At some point he made his way back to France and offered his services to Charles Garnier after hearing rumors of the new opera house to be built. After 12-hour days and 15 years of construction, the Opera was completed, and Erik took refuge in the tunnels beneath. He frequented Box Five, and from there he first spied the young soprano who would become the object of his obsession. The story proceeds exactly where you think, complete with a dropped chandelier and a fire.
Years after the events, Waele recounts in her article, a team of workers knocked down a wall in the cellars under the opera house and found an apartment, fully furnished and bricked up, with a corpse inside. The corpse reportedly had “completely asymmetrical features” and “was wearing a huge gold ring on his left hand with the initials C.D.”
Many Phantom enthusiasts today take this account as gospel, and you can see parts of it recounted in the 2004 film adapted from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical.
Here’s the thing…
There’s a book out there that went out of print really quickly and is only back in print within the last couple of years. Good thing too, because for a time, a nearly destroyed paperback copy of this would run you in excess of $100, and there were plenty who would pay for it gladly, such is the quality. The novel is called Phantom, written by Susan Kay, best known for her historical novel about Elizabeth I, called Legacy. Phantom was published in or around 1990, a few years before this story, and to “Phans” who scoured all there is to know before the internet really began, this book is considered to be the absolute greatest treatment of the Phantom story. I will stand by that assessment. It’s astounding, and I’ll be covering it at some point for Project: Monster. The tale in that novel is the story that Renata de Waele recounted in her article, nearly verbatim. Can you say plagiarism? Sure, I knew you could.
But here’s where it gets interesting. It seems that both Christine and the Phantom really did have real life counterparts. Christine is thought to be based upon Swedish soprano Christina Nilsson, who was at the very top of her game in the 1870s when the Opera Garnier first opened. Sadly, no recordings of her voice were ever made. It would have been incredible to hear the voice that so inspired the Phantom.
Erik, our Phantom, is thought to be based upon little-known architect Erik Vachon, who suffered from advanced Porphyria cutanea tarda.
So, did the Opera Ghost exist? Yes and no. He existed the same way Sherlock Holmes existed, and that drives a whole new generation of believers on the internet who simply will not be told otherwise. But honestly, who better to mix fact and fiction than a journalist turned detective writer like Gaston Leroux?
Leroux’s original novel is a bit of a mixed bag, if I’m being honest. It’s one part detective thriller, one part sadistic romance, and one part horror story, and those parts switch themselves out rather than really coming together as a cohesive whole. Even so, it’s strong enough to capture the imagination. As I’ve said before, Dracula may be the most popular, and Frankenstein may be the best-written, but The Phantom of the Opera remains my favorite of the classic (pre-slasher era) monsters. After that, he’s got some competition with Darth Vader in my personal book of favorites.
Now for those who have read this story, I have a question to pose that few have ever considered. Have you ever noticed that Leroux states that the Phantom had a female companion with him in Box Five, and that her identity is unknown? Most readers don’t catch that, but after it’s pointed out, they never forget that fact either. Likewise, the Persian tells us that there is “the shade in the felt hat” in the cellars who is not the Phantom himself, but is far more dangerous. Interesting, no? According to author Rick Lai, who writes pulp novels in the tradition of the Wold Newton Universe, this character is called The Revenant. She was trained by Erik in the years before he met Christine. The Revenant in turn trained Kent Allard, an aviator and spy who would operate in World War I under the code name “Black Eagle,” later known as The Shadow. The success of this infamous pulp and radio character would go on to inspire the creation of Batman in the real world.
What’s the purpose of all that? To further convolute how fact and fiction can be woven together, and to show how it’s still being done in regards to The Phantom of the Opera. It can truly be said that the legend continues to grow all the time, and as we know, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
So where do you stand? Did the Opera Ghost exist?
Are you certain about that?