The Phantom of the Opera
|Friday, October 31, 2014 - 8:00 PM||Done|
|Saturday, November 1, 2014 - 8:00 PM||Done|
Presentation of the concert
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Screening of the 1925 silent movie and live organ improvisation.
The character of the Phantom of the Opera has fascinated audiences for more than a hundred years. Gaston Leroux was the first to tell this story in a novel published in 1910. However, the story has been retold countless times in musicals, ballet productions, and movies. We have as a matter of fact chosen to show the 1925 silent movie by New Zealand director Rupert Julien (1879-1943). Well known to those who frequent the Cinémathèque québecoise, William O’Meara is a master in the nearly forgotten art of providing musical accompaniment to silent films. He will improvise a live musical score for these two evenings of impressive Hallowe’en celebration.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)
DIRECTED BY RUPERT JULIAN BASED ON THE NOVEL BY GASTON LEROUX
2014 is an important year for connoisseurs of early cinema, and particularly for fans of Rupert Julian’s 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera. Not quite one hundred years since it first screened in movie palaces all over the world, June 2014 marked the death of the last surviving cast member, Carla Laemmle, and in September 2014 the famous Sound Stage 28 where it was filmed – an enormous reproduction of the Opéra de Paris and the oldest intact set from movie history – was finally demolished. Nonetheless, the film remains iconic, to say nothing of the story itself. Since the 1909 novel was originally published in French by Gaston Leroux, it has spawned countless revivals, including musicals and at least 28 films in every language.
Much has changed since 1925! In 2014 we watch our favourite films over and over again. We memorise dialogue and sing along to soundtracks knowing that the next time we see the film nothing will have changed. These elements are integral to the character of the films we love: where would Jurassic Park or Star Wars be without John Williams’ iconic orchestral scores? However this was not always the case. Hollywood producers of the 1920s were negotiating a new medium which allowed a single dramatic performance to be reproduced simultaneously in theatres around the world – the silent movie – but the musical scoring would be anything but fixed. Lacking the technology to synchronise amplified music to the film on screen, early movie theatres relied on live performing orchestras to capture the dramatic spirit of the film in music. But in smaller towns and when orchestras were not available, it was an improvising organist who took on that role – many theatres had organs installed expressly for this purpose.
Organists had previously found employment primarily in churches, where their skills as improvisors were very much in demand. A long tradition dating back to J. S. Bach and Buxtehude had organists extemporising elaborate compositions based on simple chorale harmonisations. An organist might have needed to improvise an extension to a lagging processional or create an impromptu cadence for a shorter-than-expected offertory. The very same skills that recommended an organist for a career in the church would serve him well in the movie house (though the correlation must have seemed rather heretical at the time…). In fact as a place of congregation (and one could argue worship) movie houses challenged the supremacy of the church, providing as they did a communal escape into a world of fantasy and imagination.
Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera demanded just such a treatment. Though it was reportedly accompanied by a full orchestra playing a pastiche score including excerpts from Faust for the New York and Los Angeles premieres, it certainly would have been enjoyed to the tune of an organ in many other cities across the United States. In fact, because of the prominent role of the organ in the movie’s plot, Universal Studios installed a full pipe organ in New York’s Astor Theatre to play along with the orchestra especially for the premiere.
Lacking dialogue, this film would rely on striking visual elements along with the music to convey its grandiose and terrifying story. The enormous “Opéra de Paris” set, built to accommodate thousands of extras was part of what made it so striking – and went on to feature in countless movies and television shows including Dracula (1931), The Sting (1973) and The Muppets (2011). But perhaps the most shocking visual was the Phantom himself, played by Lon Chaney, who insisted on creating his own makeup. The result was a ghastly face with sunken eyes, wispy black hair and gnarled teeth. The famous “unmasking scene” in which Christine (Mary Philbin) removes his face-covering reportedly caused women in theatres to shriek with horror, and some even fainted.
A film with improvised music retains something of the excitement of a live performance. Never the same twice, much of the dramatic pacing and even characterisation are decided on the spot according to the interpretation of the organist. Thus, going to see the same movie twice might yield two very different experiences, much like seeing a play or an opera for the second time. The organist must know the film, but remain open to a moment’s inspiration, relying on the quickness of his or her reactions to realise a musical interpretation of the drama on screen. While the soaring iconic soundtracks of modern films leave their indelible mark on our memories, improvised scoring brings something new to our movie-going experience through the revival of an antiquated practice. A once in a lifetime performance that could never be reproduced at home, tonight we are treated to a special mixture of genres emblematic of those heady years when Hollywood was young and the organ was king of the cinema.
© Marc Wieser
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