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In 1907, recordings were interred in metal urns at the Palais Garnier, to be reopened in 100 years (Opéra National de Paris)

A Record Find

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

With 20 years' hindsight, it's easy to see that it was right there on the page, hiding in plain sight: "It will be remembered that, later, when digging in the substructure of the Opéra, before burying the phonographic records of the artist's voice, the workmen laid bare a corpse." Thus wrote Gaston Leroux in his horror classic, The Phantom of the Opera, first published in 1910.

As readers, we are naturally drawn to the last words of that sentence: "a corpse." Dead bodies—fact or fiction—get our attention. Based on the author's clues, the mind races to the crime scene: "the substructure of the Opéra." And so, in our haste to discover this poor unfortunate's identity, we overlook the most important words of the sentence: "before burying the phonographic records."

Few readers pick up a novel, especially a thriller, expecting a guidebook. They want to be swept away by plot and character; the story's setting is usually an afterthought. Novelists, however, know better. The best fiction is grounded, made real, by its sense of place.

So the question is not, what corpse?

It is, rather, what records?

Music lovers around the world were stunned this past December when the Opéra National de Paris and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France announced a major discovery: a time capsule, dredged up from a subbasement of the Palais Garnier, which is also known as the Opéra. Carefully packed away inside two large metal urns was not just one phantom of the opera but many—24 gramophone discs featuring such long-dead artists as Nellie Melba, Adelina Patti, Emma Calvé and Enrico Caruso. In 1907, the discs had been entombed, like Aida's lovers, beneath a great architectural monument.

Though I am a music lover, I was not among the stunned, for, in 1987, I had rediscovered the room where the records had been cached. Several stories underground, far beneath the rush of traffic on the Place de l'Opéra, I spied a metal door bearing a dusty plaque that had to be wiped and illuminated before it could be read. "Gift of M. Alfred Clark, 28 June, 1907," it said in French. "The room in which are contained the gramophone records." I had bumped into it serendipitously, but I recognized it immediately—not for musical reasons, but for literary ones.

At the time, I was involved in two related projects: a biography of Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose sensational setting of The Phantom of the Opera had been the talk of London for a year, and, for Vanity Fair magazine, an article that featured Sarah Brightman, the Phantom's original Christine (and the then-Mrs. Andrew Lloyd Webber), posing in character around the Palais Garnier, where the novel is set and where the opera company staged its productions from 1875 to the opening of the Opéra de la Bastille in 1989.

The Garnier, now used largely for ballet, is one of the world's great buildings. Yes, the composer Debussy famously likened it to a cross between a railway station and a Turkish bath, but it remains one of the most daring, elegant representations of a now-lost Western European confidence in the power of its art. As a secular temple, it might be likened to the cathedral of Notre Dame, not far away; if the great Gothic cathedrals are "symphonies in stone," then the Garnier is nothing less than Faust by Gounod.

More to the point, it is as described by Leroux in his novel, from the rooftop graffiti of the frolicsome "rats" (apprentice ballet dancers) right down to the subterranean body of water, five stories below the street, that figures so prominently in Phantom. Which is why, when I spied that metal door, I knew at once what it was. Having just reread the novel, I instantly linked Leroux's buried phonographic records to the plaque's inscription.

Later, in the opera company's library in the Rotonde de l'Empereur, I asked Martine Kahane, then head librarian, if she knew about the room. She did not. She could tell me only that Clark (1873-1950) was an American pioneer in the transition from wax cylinders to discs who ran the Gramophone Company's offices in Paris. And so I reported my find in several places, including the Vanity Fair article, which appeared in February 1988, and in my biography of Lloyd Webber, published in 1989. "No one is exactly sure what is in this room," I wrote in Andrew Lloyd Webber: His Life and Works, "but it seems that the spot where [the Phantom] died...is a time capsule, not to be opened until 2007" that likely "contains a representative sample of [Clark's] company's wares of the period."

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