The Phantom of the Opera
The Silent Film Era
How many digital devices are in the room you are currently in? How many of these have capacity for video and sound? Probably quite a few: in the age of the internet, video and sound hold a large place in how people access information.
Film runs the gamut from the individual experience of creating, posting and viewing YouTube videos using a hand-held digital device to the collective experience of an Imax film that immerses several hundred viewers at once.
The film craze began with the Silent Film Era (1895-1936). Innovative filmmakers developed techniques still in use today such as close-up, long shot and panning, laying the foundation for film movements including Classic Hollywood, French Impressionism, German Expressionism and Soviet Montage. The popularity of silent films gave rise to the cult of the movie star. Some of the most beloved included Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Louise Brooks and Buster Keaton.
Did you know?
Music has been central to film since the Silent Film Era.
For improvised music with film, watch and listen Miles Davis improvising to Louis Malle’s film ‘Ascenseur pour l’échafaud’ (1958) (Lift to the Gallows, 1958).
A Faustian Dilemma
The Phantom of the Opera is a silent film directed by Rupert Julian based on the novel by Gaston Leroux. Set in the Paris Opera House during a production of Charles Gounod’s opera Faust.
The plot features a love triangle between the Phantom, Éric, a reclusive musician who haunts the underground of the Opera House, Christine, an ambitious young singer driven by fame and success, and Raoul, Christine’s sweetheart who wants her to give up the stage and marry him. Infatuation, ambition, desire, loneliness and fear come to play as Éric presents Christine with a terrible choice: marry Éric and live with him in the underground of the Paris Opera House in exchange for saving Raoul’s life, or choose not to marry the Phantom and risk igniting barrels of gunpowder stored in the underground, killing them and destroying the Paris Opera House.
Did you know?
There is an underground lake under the Paris Opera. In 1862, architect Charles Garnier designed and built an underground cistern to protect the foundation of the Opera House from excessive moisture and provide a reservoir of water in case of fire.
Fire fighters in Paris use this cistern today for underwater training.
This tragic film influences horror films to this day much due to Lon Chaney’s portrayal of the Phantom. Nicknamed ‘the Man of A Thousand Faces’, Chaney did his own makeup (The Hunchback of Notre Dame,1923). For the Phantom, Chaney gave a gaunt, skeletal look to his face by blackening his eye sockets and nostrils, pulling his nose towards his forehead using strips of fish skin and wire, and wearing jagged, broken false teeth. The 1930 re-issue of the Phantom of the Opera with sound proved such a success that it inspired horror films including Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and more.
Did you know?
Gounod’s Faust was based on alchemist and astrologer Johann Georg Faust c. 1480 or 1466 – c. 1541. The phrase ‘a Faustian dilemma’ has come to refer to a decision made for immediate gain without regard for future consequences.
Not so silent films
Silent films are films without recorded sound or dialogue. The technology for synchronizing sound with image was developed in the late 1920’s. At this time, the phrase ‘silent film’ distinguished films without synchronized sound from films with synchronized sound. Films with synchronized sound were called ‘talkies’, ‘sound films’ or talking pictures’.
The main distinction between silent films and talkies is the place of dialogue. In talkies dialogue is recording and synched with the image. In silent films dialogue is featured on inter-titles, cards with printed words. Inter-titles show key developments in plot (e.g. …later that day…) or short phrases spoken by characters (e.g. “Help!”).
Despite the name, silent films are anything but silent! From their debut to today, silent films are played with live musicians. Music is used to communicate the dramatic action and mood of a scene. Musicians draw on popular tunes, classical music and sound effects created using various objects and instruments, imitating everything from wind to train whistles and gunshots. Music can be both improvised and composed. Improvising musicians show great skill and virtuosity as they create a coherent atmosphere and narrative with the film, weaving together musical fragments and references in real time according to the action on the screen.
The Organ, Made for Silent Film
The most common instrument used for silent film was organ. The organ is a multi-purpose instrument with repertoire coming from Baroque, Classical, New Music, Jazz and Film music. Organs are found in venues including concert halls, churches, hockey stadiums and movie theatres.
The Grand Orgue Pierre-Béique built specially for the Maison symphonique is indeed grand: it features a total of 6489 pipes! These pipes are divided into groups called ranks, each of which features a distinct sound. The ranks are controlled by stops found in the console of the organ, allowing the organist to choose a variety of sounds to play (string, reed, flute etc.) using the keyboards and pedals. This diversity in sound palette makes the organ ideal for film. However, film needs more than music alone.
Throughout the 1920s, musicians adapted and modified their instruments to better respond to playing for silent film. Sleigh bells, wood blocks, drums, train whistles, sirens, car horns and more were installed inside the pipes of the organ so the organist could play them via the keyboards. The organist could then respond to the action on-screen with great virtuosity and perfect timing.
Did you know?
…the Phantom is an organist? In the 1930 remake of the film, the Phantom plays the dramatic opening to J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor, BWV 565 . Other artistic renditions of the Phantom also use organ: listen closely to find to the Phantom’s instrument in metal band Nightcore’s cover (2016) of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Overture to the Phantom of the Opera (1986).
The history of film is a history of scientific innovation. In the 19th century, major technological leaps occurred with the invention of the camera. Early inventors such as Paul Roget experimented with rapid projection of still images, creating the optical illusion of a picture in motion.
The invention of photographic film paved the way for further innovations such as Thomas Edison’s Kinetograph (patent filed in 1888), which allowed for one person to view a film at a time, and brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière’s cinematograph (1895), which featured a projector that allowed multiple people to view. The Lumière brothers held the first public screening of a film on December 28, 1895 at the Grand Cafe on Paris’ Boulevard de Capuchines. The following year, the Lumière brothers went on tour with the cinematographe to Brussels, Bombay, London, Buenos Aires, New York City… and Montreal!
Innovations in the late 1920’s focused on synchronizing sound with image. One hundred years later, image and sound are mostly digital, with major innovations being made in gaming, interactivity and 3D immersive technology. Science and art evolve hand in hand as the boundaries of technology are pushed for expressive purposes.
Did you know?
The fascination with image and sound has long roots. The magic lantern (lanterne magique) was a device invented in the 17th century that projected light through glass sides onto a wall. The glass slides featured hand-painted images. Various methods were devised to alternate between 2-3 images, giving the impression of movement. Travelling performers used this device to project images as they told stories.
A step further
– Superstitious artists say there is a curse associated with the opera Faust, the opera featured in the film. The curse originated from writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who cursed any composer other than Mozart who composed an opera based on his Faust. This was fairly impractical: Mozart died twenty years before Goethe finished Faust. The curse is said to have caused many accidents, including a chandelier falling in the Paris Opera House. Here are just a few composers who have defied the curse:
- Charles Gounod, Faust (1859)
- Louis Spohr, Faust (1813)
- Lili Boulanger, Faust et Hélène (1913)
- Alfred Schnittke, Faust Cantata (1983)
– The popularity of silent films gave rise to the cult of the movie star. Some of the most beloved included Greta Garbo (Flesh and the Devil, 1926), Charlie Chaplin (Easy Street, 1917), Louise Brooks (Pandora’s Box, 1929) and Buster Keaton (The General, 1926).
– Point of view (POV) is a strategy used in theatre and film to understand characters’ motivations. If you were Christine, how would you tell this story? Would you make different choices than she did? How? When? Why? How does this story change when understood from Raoul or Éric’s perspective? How does the story change when told by Christine’s mother, the prima donna Carlotta or the undercover policemen Ledoux?