Thursday, April 1, 2010

Beneath the Mask

Clés d'ivoire et tire l’arrêt de l’orgue du Fantôme de l’Opéra (inspired by Gaston Leroux’s 1911 novel, Le Fantôme de l'Opéra) – Antiqued custom-cut gilt frame; antiqued custom-cut mirror square; antique red plumes; dried white rose; vintage mannequin hand; antique Victorian velvet frame with viewing doors; genuine antique ivory organ keys; genuine antique gold and diamond ring; antique French black ribbon; rusted tacks; altered art pieces—organ pull stop (vintage black button, “Vox Humana” label) Erik’s calling card, Gounod’s Faust announcement, Le Figaro newspaper clipping, vintage postcard of Dr. Miracle from Offenbach’s Les contes d'Hoffmann, vintage postcard of the Paris Opera House, scrap of Don Juan Triumphant sheet music, Red Death card, OG note, chandelier print 


The City of Light.

The Eiffel Tower glows, a beacon against the night, thousands of stars sparkling intermittently at the flip of a switch. The classical outline of the Napoleonic Arc de Triomphe; the gothic, gargoyled spires of the Notre Dame Cathedral; the whirling red sails of the Moulin Rogue; the crowded Avenue des Champs-Élysées; all ablaze, halogen and neon, the galvanizing effects of electricity everywhere, dispelling the shadows, causing ghosts to flee. Even the previously murky pathways of the magnificent cemeteries of Père-Lachaise and Montmartre, where the celebrated likes of Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, Proust, Dumas, and Zola repose, shine beneath the drooping necks of streetlamps, not a specter to be seen.

The ingenuity and invention of the twenty-first century has banished the Parisian phantoms—all but one.

The Opera Ghost.

Built during the glorious end of days of the Empire, the Paris Opera House was a massive monument to music, its gilded halls, its mirrors and marble, its opulent ornaments, its grand staircase, all shimmering by gaslight. From the majestic salons where the bon ton nibbled bon-bons and sipped champagne during intermissions to the narrow iron walkways backstage, where Degas-esque ballerinas scuttled amongst the sawdust, the shifting sets and swinging sandbags, everything was saturated in a dim, golden flickering, shadows seeping everywhere like spilt ink. The glut of candles, the gilt ormolu gleaming, the brilliance of the main auditorium’s massive crystal chandelier were only masks, concealing the darkness underneath. For below the dazzling surface were unlit cellars, subcellars and even a vast lake, all this ruled over by the dreaded Erik, the Phantom of the Opera.

The Phantom’s tragic story is one of unrequited love, of seeking the beauty within. One of melodrama and mystery, murder and mayhem, a tale of a deformed musical genius and the fledging soprano who captures his heart, of a steadfast tin soldier of a hero, of a preening prima donna with a frog in her throat, of masquerades and plummeting chandeliers, all underscored by throbbing organ notes, that has become so famous, so well-recounted, so universally known that it seems a fairy tale, one that should begin with that clichéd line, “Once upon a time…”, but unfortunately for Erik, that pitiful opera ghost, there was no “happily ever after…”—at least not in life. But in death, the Phantom has become immortal, the subject of books and plays, a star on the silver screen, a spirit summoned nightly on New York’s Broadway and in London’s West End. There are even rumours of a missing chapter of his life, in, of all places, America’s Coney Island.

But what of the Phantom—the true flesh and blood man—remains? Was he mere myth, or was there proof to be found, to be excavated in the bowels of the Opera that was once his home?

Descending into the gloom, solving the labyrinth of cold, stone passageways, traversing the black waters of that manmade lagoon, there is nothing of the Phantom’s realm but rubble and rats. Perhaps he was nothing more than a fictitious character created by a hack journalist, who was paid by the word for his sensationalism…but, wait…here and there lie fragments, ephemerae found among the ruins, puzzle pieces that when fitted together provide evidence of this so-called phantom—a few broken ivory keys and a pull stop from what must have been a grand organ; molting feathers, red in hue, from a costume discarded; a strange wooden hand—slender, feminine—a prop only, or a carved facsimile of the touch of someone once loved and lost? A shard of mirror, its silver flaking. A collection of rotted paper—an antique image of the Opera itself; a scrap of original music entitled Don Juan Triumphant; a card warning of the presence of the Red Death; a newspaper clipping from Le Figaro recounting the mysterious fall of that chandelier; an advertisement for a production of Faust starring—can it be?—the Phantom’s adored in the lead role. A desiccated rose, its white petals gone brown and brittle as mummy skin. And if further confirmation was needed, here a torn section of a note signed “O.G.,” surely “Opera Ghost,” and then a calling card, bearing the single name—Erik. And lastly, heartbreakingly, a small gold ring, a token of undying devotion, given and returned, certainly worn on a finger now long turned to dust.

This is what I present—the observer draws his own conclusions.

Maybe the Phantom’s phantom still haunts his deep and dark and damp hell of a lair, and perhaps the music from the glittering, heavenly theatre above drifts down to bring him peace.

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