The Phantom of The Opera is a book written by French journalist and opera critic Gaston Leroux, which was published in 1910. The stage adaption by Andrew Lloyd Webber made the story become immensely popular. The show has been running on London's West End for almost 30 and on Broadway for 27 subsequent years, which makes it the longest running show on Broadway and the second-longest on West End.
Interestingly, for some reason, many people tend to believe that ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ is a true story. How come that this work of art is subject to so many rumors, and why are people so keen to find proof for the reality of this piece of fiction?
One reason for this would be the setting. The Opéra Garnier is a real, operating theatre in the heart of Paris, and belongs to the city's main attractions. Over 800,000 visitors and spectators come to the Opéra every year. Little of them know, however, that there really is water underneath the building. When Charles Garnier, the architect of the opera house, was digging the foundation for the building, he was surprised by an underground stream. Pumping nor blocking the water did help: the water kept on coming. Garnier had two choices: either he would build his Opera someplace else, or he would continue building in spite of the water. He chose the latter. It isn’t the beautiful lake as depicted in the book, the stage version and the movies. It is not lighted by candles, and one cannot ride a gondola. Instead, the water is being held in a rather unromantic, enormous cistern, in which the Parisian fire department practices diving exercises from time to time. Though it is no ghost, there is a living creature down there: a white catfish that is fed by the opera staff. So far we have found, as it seems, a ‘Pet of the Opera’.
Besides the water, at least one of the events in the novel is real, too. In 1896, the great chandelier indeed fell from the roof into the audience and this accident indeed killed a certain Madame Chomette, a concierge – just like in Leroux’ novel. Since Leroux was a journalist, he must have been aware of this accident, and wove the event into his story. One has to admit that the sudden fall of a chandelier during a performance is spooky and can easily lead to rumors.
It is not uncommon that authors base their characters on real-life people, and so did Leroux. The opera singer Christine Daaé, the girl that the Phantom falls in love with in the book, bares many similarities with the 19th century soprano Kristina Jonasdotter, who performed under the stage name Christina Nilsson. Just like Christine Daaé, Kristina was born in Sweden, but has studied and performed in Paris. Kristina was a violin player before her singing talent was discovered; Christine’s father was a famous violinist. Taking these parallels into consideration, it lies at hand that Gaston Leroux used Kristina as a model for his female main character.
Remains the phantom himself: did he exist, or not? In the book, his appearance is demystified: the ghost is not a ghost at all, but a misshapen man who has been living underneath the opera house, wearing a mask in order to hide his deformed face. The man behind the mask is called Erik and was born in Rouen, Normandy. Gaston Leroux went to school in Normandy, which probably made him choose Rouen as Erik’s place of birth. When Erik was seven years old, he joined a tribe of gypsies, who displayed him as a ‘freak’. Freak shows, sadly enough, were a popular attraction in 19th century and Leroux may have visited one of them. It is conceivable that one of the 'freaks' inspired the author for his story and built the foundations for Erik's character.
I myself am convinced the story is completely fiction, but based on true events and people, just as other books. Leroux has said himself that he originally planned another setting for his story, Christine Daaé was originally planned to be called Paulina Bellini and Erik wasn’t supposed to come from Normandy, but from Sweden instead. These many clues make me confident that Leroux made up the story. But the story as it is published still intrigues the readers – and still many want to believe its verity.