The musical Phantom of the Opera is one of those things that the Darkness utilized to Call me early on, much like Interview With the Vampire, and still earlier, Count Duckula and Beetlejuice cartoons. I am not as much into any musicals now as I used to be (I think my generation, at least those of us always young at heart, being raised on Disney films, we are naturally drawn to forms of entertainment that combine story and music, finding we can watch things like Chicago or Cabaret and not bat an eyelash at musical interludes.) It is also one of those things that makes me have to question myself. Here is a pretty straightforward scenario: music-obsessed man kills people until the naive singer he possessively trained gets the lead role, and later threatens and manipulates until his own opera is staged. Not an admirable person, yes? Why then am I unmistakably drawn to him. Perhaps it is because I see myself as a mad genius?
I certainly don’t find anything to relate to in the pretty rich boy, Raoul. At best he has interest in the arts, but no talent or skill except paying the bills (which I realize now, as a professional artist, is nothing to be sneezed at). But I’m more inclined to see him as interested only in the girl, a nostalgic childhood sweetheart turned popular dreamgirl. He goes to the opera because it’s something rich people do, something his parents did. His one saving grace is he is not such a nob that he thinks he can’t marry a chorus girl. In fact such a problem is never mentioned. But my biggest problem is he sees her as needing to be rescued, not just from the Phantom, but he’ll ride her away in his carriage and four…away from the opera. Away from her career, her fame, her glory, into the life of a rich man’s wife, mother of his children, and by the way, into society where she will be considered trash no matter her talent and successes.
I realize now, as I’ve grown up a bit, the Phantom is one of the classic bad boyfriends: the Man Who Loves You For Your Talent. At the worst such an archetype is the producer who sleeps with his young protege, promising her movie roles. But the Phantom is a much more alluring, and emotionally dangerous, example: the fellow Artist. The problem being he cares more about Art than life itself, his or yours, and certainly not that of anyone who stands between you and your artistic goals. His love is serious, passionate and romantic, but it’s not You he loves, not all of you, just the part of you that shares his passion for the Art.
But all this is analytical breakdown of a masterpiece. The fact remains, all those who love The Phantom of the Opera keep coming back for more. Although I don’t sit and listen to it for hours, don’t sing along with every note, I still pause and close my eyes and daydream each time Music of the Night pops up on my iPod.
The Phantom musical is one of those things that channels Darkness. It takes a classic gothic novel, a chilling look at a gruesome genius not only of music but of all trades, and makes it into something far more romantic and beautiful. Something that calls out to the Soul of the Dark Seeker.
Those of us who root for the Phantom to win the girl aren’t really fans of murder and manipulation. What we want is for the Dark Prince to exercise his power.
And too, I realize now that in a way he does win. He doesn’t get the girl, but in reality those who share a passion for Art don’t always make compatible partners. That is so unromantic, I can’t believe I just said that! Of course people can always work things out if they are determined enough to stay in love. Love doesn’t require compatibility, nor does compatibility automatically result in love, but if you are going to live with the one you love for the rest of your life, you gotta work out whatever comes to clash between you. But the Phantom, at the end, has the girl and the rich kid in his clutches. But Christine isn’t as dim as she once was. She kisses him, expressing maybe not love but understanding, far more valuable to someone in his situation. He releases his need for vengeance and acts from love, not hate. And then he disappears before the mob can find him, presumably to make a new life somewhere else. In fiction, the villain only gets away when the story is part of a series. Therefore, the Phantom is not a villain. He is our anti-hero, the one we are hoping to see become better than what he is, to become his True Self, a worthy representative of the Darkness.
I’ve always defended the Phantom somewhat, not that the things he does are good, but his motivations are powerful and valuable traits. Passion about anything, but especially about music or any other art, is much needed in the world. Caring for nothing outside of music is crazy, but having no music to express your emotions, that leads to real Madness. The pain of the broken heart is relieved by playing the blues, the soul is lifted by the classics (both “Classical” and “Classic Rock” if you ask me “Soulshine is better than sunshine, it’s better than moonshine, damn sure better than rain”), the mind is kept on the cutting edge by edgy new styles and revolutionary lyrics. I also loved the somewhat fantastic element: he uses magic, although it turns out to be stage magic and hypnotism (something I missed in the movie, although it’s nice to see Christine following him of her own free will, and the swordfight was cool). But even after his methods are revealed, after the curtain call, our minds hold on to that vision, that rumor and myth, that the Phantom has power and excels ordinary human ways. He’s like any real life performer, an expert at stagecraft, and a master of his Art. We know magicians use slight of hand and misdirection to do their tricks, but it’s still magic. We know actors are not their characters, but the stage has that fourth wall, the camera becomes our own eyes, and it doesn’t matter, it feels real.
And the Darkness is real, and it comes through the characters and, far more strongly, through the music. We cling to stories like this because we want to feel that Darkness and be connected to it over and over. But over time any one source becomes harder to connect to. Events in our lives or simple observation of aspects of the show we can’t condone (murder, manipulation, etc.), eat away at our linkage through that story. But that doesn’t mean the Darkness is any less True, or that we can’t connect to it. We can appreciate the Phantom and his music for the way they brought us closer to the Dark. But eventually we may have to abandon that source, release our attachment to the death and destruction and ditzy chorus girls, despite their lovely vocals that we can be proud of singing along with. But we take our Darkness, and our music, with us as we carry on our Journey.