A Record Find

How The Phantom of the Opera led me to a long-lost musical treasure in Paris

In 1907, recordings were interred in metal urns at the Palais Garnier, to be reopened in 100 years (Opéra National de Paris)
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With several other music critics, I petitioned the opera company to unseal the room, in case the gramophone records, or whatever was in it, were in urgent need of preservation. Kahane told us that Clark's gift had come with conditions—one of which was that the room not be opened until 2007—and that the conditions would be observed.

And so the Garnier ghosts were left undisturbed for two more years, when workmen installing air conditioning in the building's basement stumbled across the room once more. At that point, Jean-Jacques Beclier, the opera company's technical supervisor, had the room opened. What he found were four urns containing recordings, two buried in 1907 and two more in 1912. Sure enough, one of the newer urns had been damaged, so all four were removed and transferred without fanfare to the custody of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France until their 100-year interments were up.

Opening the 1907 urns, each of which contains 12 discs, is going to be tricky. According to Elizabeth Giuliani, assistant to the director of the audio-visual department at the Bibliothèque Nationale, the shellac discs were separated by glass plaques, which themselves were kept from touching the surface of the discs by small glass cubes. The whole assemblage was then wrapped in cloth treated with asbestos, then placed inside copper urns, which were then put in urns made of lead. At least one of the urns is to be opened this month in a laboratory under strictly controlled conditions. Eventually the recordings will be transferred digitally and made commercially available by EMI, the successor to the Gramophone Company. Music lovers will once again hear the voices of the long dead singing the music of their time.

But in the meantime, the episode stands as a testament to Gaston Leroux's literary achievement—and raises an issue that has concerned me ever since I left music criticism to write novels and movies a decade ago: To what extent must fact be blended with fancy to create the willing suspension of disbelief? For me, a novel that is not about place is not much of a novel. It is instead a memoir of thinly veiled or nonexistent people wandering through a desolate and unreal landscape.

For why, after all, does The Phantom of the Opera still resonate? Surely not for its creaky plot, its standard-issue heroine, its wooden swain, its Svengali-like villain. Not even for its romance, although that is surely part of its charm. The love story between the beautiful soprano and the disfigured composer has been exploited by everyone from Lon Chaney in 1925 to Joel Schumacher in his 2004 movie version of the Lloyd Webber interpretation.

No, the reason we still read and watch Phantom is its setting: the Opéra itself. Above all, Phantom is a story of place. Firmly grounded in the soaring, underworldly glory of Charles Garnier's architectural masterpiece, it invites readers to partake of a mystery that, if not entirely real, is close enough. From Apollo's rooftop lyre to the mysterious lake 17 stories below, the building is as much a player—and is more lovingly observed—than any of the humans who live and love in its dark embrace.

What is Dickens without London, Mann without Lübeck and Davos? Could John Kennedy Toole's comic masterpiece, A Confederacy of Dunces, be set anywhere but New Orleans? Though we may forget the characters, it is the places that haunt our dreams and give birth to the stories. So here's to Gaston Leroux—not to his Phantom, but to his Opéra.

"I have prayed over his mortal remains, that God might show him mercy notwithstanding his crimes," the author muses after the discovery of the phantom's body at the end of the novel. "Yes, I am sure, quite sure that I prayed beside his body, the other day, when they took it from the spot where they were burying the phonographic records."

And yet the Phantom rose to live again, incarnated by Chaney and Claude Rains and Herbert Lom and and Michael Crawford and Gerard Butler. And now the real Opéra ghosts, Melba and Patti and Caruso, may soon be heard again in glorious song. Thanks to Leroux's eerily accurate sense of place.

Michael Walsh profiled Andrew Lloyd Webber for the October 2007 issue.


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