The musical The Phantom Of The Opera, back in Singapore till June 8, has enthralled millions since it opened on West End about three decades ago.
When I saw it last week for the third time, I was impressed by the improved set and the lead actor’s pitch-perfect vocals. This is Phantom at its finest, I thought.
Still, something gnawed at me.
Does the musical – a love triangle between a young soprano, her passionate lover and a violent and manipulative opera “ghost” – put a mask on voyeurism and sexual harassment and call it romance?
Based on the 1910 Gothic novel of the same name by Gaston Leroux, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom Of The Opera is about a disfigured musical genius who haunts the Paris Opera House. He is obsessed with Christine, a doe-eyed ingenue whom he secretly coaches.
The Phantom, to put it mildly, is a stalker. He follows the teenage singer and spies on her – whether on the rooftop, in the cemetery or from behind the mirror of her dressing room – and pursues her despite her resistance.
Finally, he kidnaps Christine and threatens to kill her lover, Raoul, unless she agrees to be with him.
Many fans of The Phantom Of The Opera, I realise, like it precisely because it is problematic – a high-octane, melodramatic fantasy that touches on the complexity of desire with all its terrors and illicit longings.
If this isn’t harassment, I don’t know what is. Yet the story is very much in keeping with the 19th-century Gothic setting of Leroux’s novel.
The actors who play Christine and the Phantom have, quite sensibly, suggested there is little point in altering their characters to suit present-day sensibilities.
“As a teenage girl in the 1800s, Christine is young and vulnerable and does not have the same tools and rights as women do now,” US actress Meghan Picerno told The New Paper recently. “I try to play her as strong as I can, but I cannot make Christine me because it will not work for the story.”
South African actor Jonathan Roxmouth, who delivered a stellar performance at the musical’s gala night at Marina Bay Sands last week, says that “getting too philosophical or modernising the story too much ruins the experience. It is not real life”.
Still, there is little harm in trying to understand why parts of The Phantom Of The Opera might be seen as problematic in the time of #MeToo – and recognise, perhaps, the way popular culture can normalise certain behaviours.
A 2015 study by Julia Lippman, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan, showed that some women who watched romantic comedies where a man’s pursuit of a woman was portrayed in a positive light were more likely to agree with “stalking myths”, such as the idea that those who were stalked had played hard to get and “changed their minds” afterwards.
The Phantom Of The Opera – like countless other shows in theatre and on television – seems to romanticise abusive relationships.
Here, as in Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling but critically panned Twilight novels, the roles of possessive stalker and dark, brooding (anti)hero are confusingly blurred.
When a character as morally dubious as the Phantom is played by actors as outstanding (and dashing) as Roxmouth or Canadian stage actor Ramin Karimloo, it becomes all the more difficult to call him out for being creepy.
The Phantom is a pitiful man. We learn that he, too, was a victim of abuse, spurned by his own mother and imprisoned in a cage in a travelling fair.
But does this excuse his actions?
Well, he has his moment of redemption when he finally lets Christine go – so surely we can forgive him for abducting her, threatening to kill her lover and murdering several people along the way?
This isn’t the only thing about Phantom that is – to use that most guarded form of criticism – “problematic”.
Just listen to the lyrics.
“I am the mask you wear,” Christine tells the Phantom during the musical’s sensual title song.
“It’s me they hear,” he continues in an oblique half-rhyme.
Is it just me, or does it not seem troubling that Christine should merely be an instrument for the Phantom’s genius? Or is it just a passionate romance, the sort shared by the lovers in English poet Ted Hughes’ Lovesong: “In their entwined sleep they exchanged arms and legs/In their dreams their brains took each other hostage/In the morning they wore each other’s face.”
(Feminists have accused Hughes of domestic abuse – so on second thought, this might not have been the best example.)
Dig deeper, and the lyrics may yield more surprises.
When Christine visits her father’s grave, the Phantom calls her his “wandering child”. Confused, she wonders if he is an “Angel or father?/Friend or phantom?”.
He continues: “Too long you’ve wandered in winter/Far from my fathering gaze…”
Could the Phantom be an ersatz father figure? Freud would no doubt have a field day here.
So who is this masked man? An erotic daddy figure? A brooding Renaissance man? A whiny basement dweller? A lonely man who just wants to be loved?
All of the above, perhaps.
Many fans of Phantom, I realise, like it precisely because it is problematic – a high-octane, melodramatic fantasy that touches on the complexity of desire with all its terrors and illicit longings.
Phantom holds up a mirror to its audiences while giving them a way to escape from themselves.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with spending 21/2 hours losing yourself in the music of the night.
But it’s worth remembering that there are silent forces – social norms we have internalised – that shape our intuitions and deepest desires. That which we call romance could be a mask for something more sinister – perhaps we ought to think of this every so often.