It Ain’t Over Till The Fat Lady Sings: An Opera Singer’s Take on Phantom of the Opera

by Olivia H.

It seems like almost every trained singer or performer has heard, at one time or another, “Oh my gosh you sound amazing, you should be in Phantom of the Opera, it’s my favorite!” As a classically trained singer who has heard this statement numerous times, I feel the need to point out that Phantom is not an opera, it’s a musical. However, Phantom keeps public interest in the classical world alive, and for that, classically trained musicians should acknowledge the relevance and importance of this particular work. Phantom has undoubtedly shaped both the classical and musical theatre worlds, so much so that it is the most performed musical in the history of Broadway. Why is this musical, set in 1800s Paris and styled in a manner that could potentially alienate a modern musical theatre aficionado, be so popular, and how has it survived the ruthless chopping block of Broadway critics and fickle audiences? 

This musical is a happy medium, combining both the history of French Grand Opera and the theatricality of Broadway – the best of both worlds. Written by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Charles Hart, it premiered in 1986 in London at Her Majesty’s Theatre to great acclaim, winning Olivier Awards for Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical (for Michael Crawford’s portrayal of the Phantom). Two years later, it premiered on Broadway, promptly winning the Tony for Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical (same performer). Notably, Blair alumnus Chris Mann performed in the US touring production of Phantom of the Opera as the titular Phantom in 2015. 

Originally based on the French novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux, this novel was serialized and then subsequently turned into a silent film starring Lon Cheney, the “Man of a Thousand Faces.” The 1925 movie translated the novel and turned it into something easily digestible for American audiences. Another musical based on this tale was produced in 1976 but was nowhere near as popular as Webber’s version. In addition to the numerous staged performances, the 2004 movie adaptation  of Phantom of the Opera starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum pushed  the musical into the realm of Hollywood. 

For this particular essay, I watched the Royal Albert Hall’s 2011 anniversary production starring Ramin Karimloo as the Phantom and Sierra Boggess as Christine Daaé.It is important to note thatthis Royal Albert production is overwhelmingly white and/or white-passing. In 2015, Norm Lewis became the first African American to play the Phantom. To my knowledge, there isn’t isn’t one instance when the role of Christine has been played by a BIPOC. Much like opera, musical theatre is whitewashed, and has only recently begun to attempt to cast BIPOC in leading roles that don’t tokenize or stereotype based on racist preconceptions. 

The first number  – the Hannibal rehearsal – begins with Carlotta’s elaborate entrance, which sets the tone for the entire opera. Clearly, Webber drew inspiration from the rich history of French Grand Opera (or FGO), even going so far as to reference an opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer, a composer who loved to compose operas in the FGO style. When FGO was popular, audiences would see large, grandiose productions with both opera singers and ballet dancers, much like Phantom. The sweet ingenue, Christine Daaé, is a dancer and cannot be distinguished from the horde of other dancers who look just like her. Carlotta and Hannibal are stereotypical opera singers- fat divas who “park and bark,” or who simply stand there and sing. Eventually, Christine is plucked from the crowd and takes Carlotta’s place. Before our eyes, Christine transforms, changing from a shy chorus girl into a fully grown diva, ready for her debut performance. With triumph and relative ease, Christine finishes her metamorphosis and sings “Think of Me,” a syrupy sweet aria designed to showcase just how lyrical and youthful the performer’s voice is. Christine then finishes her cadenza and flings herself to the ground, folding over in supplication. 

Phantom keeps all of the traditional aspects of opera whilst adding modern elements, such as a fancy exploding chandelier and fog machines, but simultaneously adds visibility and accessibility through the use of English rather than a lesser known language. Phantom requires diligently trained singers and expert orchestral members; without the expertise of classically trained musicians, Phantom would not be sustainable. For example, the 2019 World Tour Carlotta, Beverly Chiat, is classically trained, and she has performed famed operatic roles like Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto, Olympia in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffman, and Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. All three of those roles require classical training and a certain “fach,” or type of voice, and no ordinary singer can perform these roles, just like no ordinary soprano can sing Carlotta or Christine. 

Unflattering stereotypes permeate both classic and contemporary musicals. The most common and well-known stereotypes are: the fat lady with horns on a helmet; the tenor that wears the scarf and steams his voice right before performing; vocalists walking around whilst humming and buzzing to warm up when there aren’t any available spaces. All singers, regardless of their musical background, have been one or more of these stereotypes. Phantom just happens to reinforce and introduce stereotypes like these to the common public. In Phantom, there are multiple stereotypes shown in several of the main characters- Christine, our slim, virginal soprano; Carlotta, the fat diva who throws a snit at anyone and anything when something doesn’t go her way; Raoul, the tenor who wants to love and be loved, but can’t possibly offer the excitement and sexual spontaneity that any baritone exudes; and the Phantom, our deformed baritone who is somehow inexplicably virile and intoxicating. In a way, Christine only exists to validate the Phantom. He wants to possess her because she is shiny and new, and in turn, she believes that she can help him. It’s very tempting to compare Christine to a manic pixie dream girl, simply because her character functions as a foil for the Phantom and a partner for Raoul. 

Is the Phantom’s “don’t look at me, I’m hideous, but please heal me” vibe what attracts all sopranos, or is it because lower male voices are just inherently sexier? Webber could have easily cast Christine as a mezzo-soprano, a female singer with a lower voice, but he chose to cast Christine with a higher tessitura, or vocal range- audiences love to revel in and even fetishize the beauty of impossibly high phrases, and Christine, our sexy soprano, gets to sing the high notes. This dichotomy of the soprano-tenor doomed love is a trope that is found in both operas and musicals (see: Violetta and Alfredo in La traviata, Mimi and Rodolfo in La bohème, Kim and Chris in Miss Saigon). There’s always a lusty baritone that manages to weasel his way into this relationship, and the soprano is always tempted by this interloper (Mozart’s Don Giovanni is the first example to come to mind). These musical tropes fuel Phantom and other vocal works and help the audience find common ground and make the productions relatable; no matter what educational background you come from, whether or not you have any musical training, you can almost always find a character that you relate to. 

Stereotypical (read: white) sex appeal and internalized fatphobia are important to mention when discussing musicals, and  Phantom is no exception. Broadway has a history of hiring very thin singers, both male and female. This purposeful avoidance of casting heavier and older performers in highly visible roles reinforces the underhanded message that fat people are not desirable. Simply put, we don’t want to find Carlotta attractive because she’s fat and old; for example, the new owners of the opera house, Firmin and André, make an effort to point out that Carlotta has been a resident of the Paris Opera House for the last nineteen seasons. We can reasonably assume that the audience, Raoul, the Phantom, and the managers of the opera house find Christine attractive because she’s thin and young and brings life to a stilted role. This thin-fat dynamic is further reinforced through the Royal Albert casting of slim Sierra Boggess in the role of Christine and the heavier Wendy Ferguson as Carlotta. The Phantom is bored with chubby, aged Carlotta, and wants to possess the freshly processed, slimmed-down product that is the ingénue. “Fat” is just an adjective, yet Broadway has managed to turn that word into a disgusting negative, reinforced by the near-constant casting of thin, white singers. Similarly, the opera world is going through the same reckoning, dealing with the obvious stereotypes thrust upon the singers that are so desperate to make a living in a divisive environment. Companies are attempting to hire more BIPOC performers, feature more works written by female-identifying and queer composers, and cast singers that aren’t short and petite, but there is still a long way to go. 

Carlotta’s opening line, filled with rolled r’s and gratuitous high C’s, shows far more finesse than any of Miss Daaé’s musical lines. While watching Phantom, one can’t help but think that Carlotta got the short end of the stick- the experienced and trained singer, furious about the “ghost” that’s trying to kill her, is shafted and tossed aside for a shinier, newer model. Most young singers can perform the role of Christine if you can sing a high C on command; in contrast, the famed high E at the end of the oft-performed “Phantom of the Opera” number is prerecorded and is never sung live. I acknowledge that this is my own bias, as my voice is too large to sing Christine, my body is not shaped like an ingenue’s, and admittedly I can be dramatic about the health of my voice. Through and through, I and so many others are Carlotta, and that’s okay. 

As a classically trained singer, and as someone who admittedly doesn’t like very many musicals, I have a deep respect for this musical. Webber has managed to create a work that combines both old and new musical techniques, proving that there is certainly room for opera in the everyday lives of normal people. On a personal note, I teach a studio of approximately fifty students, around twenty-seven of whom are singers; over half of those singers are women. Every single female singer that has come through my studio has, without fail, requested to sing a song from Phantom of the Opera, mostly “Think of Me.” Most of these students who have learned “Think of Me” have decided to pursue classical music for their careers. Christine, Carlotta, and the Phantom inspire generation after generation of young performers, and when you are a part of educating the next generation, it’s something that is truly inspiring and breathtaking. 

Phantom is the story of two misfits finding their way but somehow manage to find each other instead, and there’s nothing more American than finding your place in the world. Christine wishes to be a famous performer, and the Phantom wants to be loved. Phantom has spawned scores of budding young Christines and Phantoms as well as a sequel musical, Love Never Dies. From the original novel to the first movie remake to the 2004 movie to recent performances, it is clear that interest in Phantom has not waned. Singers dream of performing one of these roles, hoping that they too will have a chance to share the stage with that famous chandelier.

Phantom of the Opera makes us want to be Christine. We want to be on that stage, dressed in glittering costumes and caked with red lipstick, desired and adored, on a beautiful stage in Paris. We see characters that we can easily relate to, accompanied by a score that echoes the emotions showcased by the performers. Most importantly, we want to find our place in the world, and we want to find that place accompanied by the person we love. As Phantom is continued to be performed, I can only hope that the future casting directors choose to include a more diverse profile of performers, creating a cast that will find common ground in all types of people.

Ensembles

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