Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Happy Anniversary, Phantom!

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Happy Anniversary, Phantom!

Article excerpt

Exactly thirty years ago this month of May, a piece titled "Phantom Pedagogy" appeared in "The Bach to Rock Connection" column of The NATS Journal. A Broadway musical, The Phantom of the Opera, had opened in January of 1988 and my aforementioned piece analyzed the musical and explored its pedagogic possibilities. The musical went on to win seven Tony Awards, including the coveted Best Musical. It became the longest-running show in Broadway history on January 6, 2006, overtaking the record set by yet another Andrew Lloyd Webber show, Cats. In honor of its thirtieth anniversary on Broadway, its creators, casts, and crews, the millions of people who have seen it, its economic impact now measured in billions, and its still relevant artistic value, we reprise the "Phantom Pedagogy" column (lightly edited) and celebrate the fact that sopranos continue to be employed in music theater!


By now, most of the dust should have settled from the meteor-like impact of Andrew Lloyd Webber's smash musical, The Phantom of the Opera, which opened on Broadway January 26,1988. The numbers were staggering: one and one-half million dollars to adapt the Majestic Theater for the production, an eight million dollar budget, over seventeen million dollars in advance ticket sales, and a first-day Broadway box office record of $689,579.

Staggering, too, were the reams of copy written about this latest treatment of the 1910 Gaston Leroux book, Le Fantóme de ľOpera. Criticism ran from the acerbic John Simon ("The only areas in which The Phantom of the Opera is deficient are book, music, and lyrics") to that of the more generous New York Times critic, Frank Rich ("Only a terminal prig would let the avalanche of the pre-opening publicity poison his enjoyment of this show, which usually wants nothing more than to shower the audience with fantasy and fun and which often succeeds at any price").

In truth, there seems to be something for everyone in this essentially critic-proof and incredibly popular musical. Set in the Paris Opera House of the 1880s, the show explores many of the excesses that characterized late nineteenth century theater and music. The dizzying array of sights and sounds-three grand opera scenes created by Lloyd Webber, great balls of fire and lightning, a crashing chandelier, masked balls reminiscent of La Belle Époque-all swirl around the core of a larger-than-life romantic love story.

The music is also larger than life and broadly stroked. It is immediately hummable through the use of strong motifs ("hooks" in popular terminology) that, for the benefit of the ruling majority of nonclassical [Associate Editor's note: the term "contemporary commercial music" or CCM had yet to make an appearance in 1988] theater goers, are repeated and modulated endlessly. Some of it is opera-like in sound and performance, but much of it is pop-based and powerfully simplistic. The lyrics follow suit but are often less successful than the music.

How then might all of this involve NATS? Since The Phantom ... is set in an opera environment and because some of the score is opera-like, it puts operatic demands on what are essentially pop and music theater singers. For the teacher of singing, this pop-to-classical bridge presents some rich pedagogic possibilities. Take, for example, the contrast in voice and character between the female leads, Cariotta and Christine. Side by side, especially in the song, "Think of Me," these two voices show the wide chasm between classical and pop singing.

Carlotta's persona is in the tradition of the Italian opera diva. Played broadly by Judy Kaye, her singing would be acceptable at any NATS Student Audition. Her exaggerated prima donna attitude might ruffle some feathers, but at least she would find empathy among our membership.

On the other hand, Christine, as played by the composer's wife, Sarah Brightman, reflects a waifish nature consistent with a voice that, although rangy enough, is certainly not of the size and weight associated with traditional operatic sopranos. …

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