Inspiration can come in many forms. From a snippet of an overheard conversation to the latest ancient alien news, inspiration is found in many things. One simple idea sparks and ignites a story. And, like the snaking trail of gunpowder to TNT, this single idea grows longer and longer until it explodes. And the resulting explosion creates something beautiful–a piece of literature so revered that the mere title brings a sense of awe to those who dare to speak it.
Unfortunately for Gaston Leroux, the explosion was not impressive enough to be embedded deeply in our minds. But the name of his work, Le Fantôme de l’Opéra or The Phantom of the Opera, brings many thoughts to our minds. A man living under an opera house with a deformed face he hides behind a mask; he is insane but searches for redemption. It is a story of obsession, love, music, and mystery.
My question about the original work is where Gaston Leroux got the idea from. Before he became a writer full-time, Leroux worked with various newspapers such as L’Echo de Paris and Le Matin. He traveled for his reporting and visited various places in Russia and Africa. He also reported for the Opera Garnier and witnessed many incidents at the Opera, some which cost lives.
Now, this is where fiction and reality begin to blend. From the first page of the prologue, Leroux insists that the Phantom was indeed a real man. He declares that the skeleton found in the bowels of the Opera belonged to a masked madman that had masqueraded as a ghost. In reality, there was a skeleton found in the underground tunnels of the Garnier, most likely a casualty of the Franco-Prussian War. The records of the finding, preserved on gramophone tapes and recorded in 1907, had been sealed away behind an iron door. It wasn’t a century later in 2007 that they resurfaced and indeed held information of remains found in the Opera.
Another connection between the book and the Garnier is the underground tunnels. They served as a reservoir to mop up the extra water. A lake, now barred by a thick iron gate, did indeed form. No doubt Leroux peered into the dark cavern and imagined a tiny house on the other side, faint organ music filtering towards him.
But the most striking similarity between the two is the incident of the chandelier. In Phantom of the Opera, Erik (yes, that’s his name) drops the chandelier as he steals away his Christine during a performance. Ironically, the only casualty in the incident is the concierge that was to buy his Box 5. This incident is eerily similar, if not exactly the same, to an accident that happened in 1896. As reported in Le Figaro on May 21, a counterweight of the chandelier snapped and brought said counterweight through the ceiling and fell into the audience. There were multiple injuries, but the only casualty was a concierge, just like the book. Leroux brought down the entire chandelier but the similarities are just too uncanny. (English translation found here.)
So where does fiction begin and reality stop? The histories of the oft-forgotten Leroux book and the Opera are deeply entwined so that one cannot escape the influence of the other. Take it as you will, but keep your eye out the next time you visit the Opera Garnier. Phantoms remember everything and have no qualms with ruining your entire experience.