by Terry Pratchett
Parody is so tempting and yet always so terrifying in Phantom adaptations. When it's good, it's so good, but when it's bad, you can smell it from orbit and the suffering doesn't end until the last page. Luckily, this particular parody is by Terry Pratchett, author of the thunderingly popular Discworld novels, and it's smart, funny, a quick read and well-paced, making it a good time all around. It helps to have some prior knowledge of the Discworld, since it's the main setting, but it's not strictly necessary to enjoy the book or understand the parallels to the Phantom story (although Discworld fans probably will get more out of it than those who have no familiarity with the setting!).
The basic premise of the plot remains the same: opera is sung, a Phantom terrorizes the cast, various people traipse about looking for clues and attempting to solve the mystery. There are various extraneous Discworld goings-on as well, such as roving witches and salacious recipes and orangutans on the organ, but it's all mostly integrated.
Moments of obvious parody abound; during Agnes' audition, for example, her ridiculously hyperbolic range and vocal ability are gleefully exaggerated until total incredulity is achieved in order to mock the superlative descriptions of the voices in Leroux's novel. Likewise, Christine is portrayed as a totally vapid blonde bimbo, a parody of her somewhat empty-headed incarnation in the Webber musical.
In fact, most of the parody appears to reference the Webber musical, but other touches, such as the inclusion of the rat-catcher, the box-keeper, the full-face mask, and various other small clues here and there, say that Pratchett was definitely familiar with Leroux's original book as well (there's also a wee little Chaney-related joke, when a character insists on referring to the Phantom as the "man of a thousand faces", which is of course one of Chaney's nom de plumes; later, there's even a carriage chase). By modern standards, the over-romanticized drama and somewhat dubious atmosphere and exoticisms scattered throughout Leroux's novel are just as entertaining and worthy of being poked fun at as the hyper-sensitive melodrama of Webber's version is. To this end, the chorus and stagehands are utterly silly and histrionic, the singers are larger-than-life parodies of vapidly pretty faces or enormously fat artistes, and the intrigue and mystery of the entire plot could be solved by sitting everyone down and letting them calmly explain themselves for five minutes. More prevalent and to the point than this gleeful satire of the original story is the absolutely shameless lampooning of the very fans of the story themselves; the idea, frequently put forth in this book, that the "ghost" is a sort of fond mascot or harmless, charming eccentricity of the opera house, is a direct mockery of the later interpretations (notably Webber's but several movie and book versions as well) and their softening of the character. Pratchett has a grand old time making fun of the fainting-couch-type silliness that fans of this story often indulge in, often by using a serious, no-nonsense foil (Granny Weatherwax or Agnes, usually) as a bleak contrast to all the ridiculousness going on around them. One of the more level-headed characters mentions of the ghost, who most of the cast seems to find inherently terrifying or desperately romantic, "What sort of person sits down and writes a maniacal laugh? ...A sure sign of someone who wears his underpants on his head." In hilarity there is an accuracy, eh?
Most of the parody is less than subtle; for example, the names of famous operas are tinkered with slightly to give them a humorous bent (for example, Mozart's Cosi fan tutte becomes Cosi fan hita, Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and Ring of the Nibelungbecome Die Meistersinger von Scrote and Ring of the Nibelungingung, Puccini's La Traviata becomes La Triviata, etc.), and most characters have ridiculous names that exaggerate the flamboyant stage names of many opera singers. The extremely theatrical questions and exclamations that abound so much in the original stories are treated with straight-faced seriousness, which only makes the characters more ridiculous when they promptly ignore their own advice.
"Is this man mad?"
"A man who wears evening dress all the time, lurks in the shadows and occasionally kills people. Then he sends little notes... We have to ask ourselves: is this the career of a sane man?"
Despite the unsubtlety of the parody, much of it is very funny. A particularly brilliant moment comes when Agnes sings the "Departure Aria" with such beauty and emotion that the entire cast is in tears and praises the artistic nature of the opera and its composer; she is somewhat discomfited to discover that the lyrics translate roughly to "This damned door won't open, how the devil do I get out?" As an opera listener, I couldn't help but chuckle--many operas, particularly classical ones, sound lovely but have laughably ridiculous lyrics when translated. Much to my entertainment, the opera director even admits this to Agnes; he tells her quite seriously, "It doesn't matter what the words mean," which is true not only because of the fact that most audiences see opera for the spectacle and not really for the story, but also makes the serious point that it's lampooning--specifically, that opera is at its core an emotional and transcendent experience, and it often really doesn't matter what is being said so long as the music is amazing.
Then, of course, lest things get too serious, there is more making fun of opera in general. Nanny Ogg's little monologue explaining opera to Granny Weatherwax is sheer brilliance:
"Well, basically there are two sorts of opera... There's your heavy opera, where basically people sing foreign and it goes like, 'Oh, oh, oh, I am dyin, oh, oh, oh, that's what I'm doin,' and there's your light opera, where they sing in foreign and it basically goes, 'Beer! Beer! Beer! Beer! I like to drink lots of beer!', although sometimes they drink champagne instead. That's basically all of opera, really."
Genius. What more can I really say?
Beneath all the layers of silliness there are, strangely enough, poignant points; one of the most obvious is that the opera world is itself nothing but layers and masks, smoke and mirrors, a world of artificial illusion intended to transport its audiences for a little while. It is therefore rather ironic that the opera world is all in an uproar over a man who hides behind a mask in order to make beautiful music. The Phantom is, of course, an extreme example of the romantic, slightly occult mystery that the opera world usually attempts to project.
This particular Phantom is a split one; that is, there are two Phantoms, one harmless that has haunted the theatre for a while and one murderous, who is using the other's reputation in order to get away with his killings. This idea is not unprecedented in Phantom stories; the 1979 Savage/Joboulian film and the 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film both featured a pair of Phantom characters (brothers), while several previous versions have included Phantoms that, while one in body, were possibly split-personality. This is an externalization of the inner conflict/dichotomy of Leroux's original Phantom--that is, that he is a man capable of creating incredible beauty and of sustaining an extreme devotion, but is also a crazed murderer and a master manipulator who often displays no discernible conscience when it comes to terrorizing the people in the opera house.
A very cool device that we've seen glimpses of in a few other formats (the 1976 Bischoff novel and the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film come to mind) is the idea of a truly multiple-personality Phantom, one who is only a "real man" when he's wearing his mask; where previous Phantoms have devolved into beasts when deprived of their masks, this one simply turns into a simpleton, a dull, obedient child with no conception of any kind of violence or any complicated idea. The metaphorical comment is one that has been used before, but it's no less poignant: we have a need for masks, physical or more often psychological, in order to pretend to be more civilized and genteel than we we are. All of us hide our worse selves from public view, and that is one of the reasons we find the idea of a masked man with hidden potential for redemption to be so compelling. In addition, the splitting of the sweet-natured, harmless original Phantom from the bloodthirsty impersonator allows both the pleasant suspense and fear of the character as a villain and the sympathetic enjoyment of his final exoneration to be guilt-free for the reader. I personally prefer a more complicated, no black-and-white version of the Phantom, but many a reader may find this sort of thing more palatable.
Then, a segue to some outright mockery of Andrew Lloyd Webber; the Phantom himself writes shows, most of which are quite obviously meant to be Webber's musicals (Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and Evita to name just a few that are blatantly referenced). When he declares that these are his operas, the musical director disagrees heartily, and I howled with laughter at the following discussion:
"There's music and... yes... dancing and singing all right, but it's not opera. Not opera at all. A long way from opera."
"You don't mean... you don't mean that it's just possible that you put music in and you get money out?"
As someone who has seen frequent confusion over the difference between operas and musicals, it was amusing enough; but the money comment shoves it into even more entertaining territory. Say what you will about Webber's musical talent or artistic integrity; he makes more money than God.
What makes Pratchett's humor, slapstick as it may be at times, most entertaining is the fact that at its core is a real fondness for stagecraft, and a genuine understanding of its "magic". The transformation of a silly, nigh-plotless spectacle, run by obnoxious people who dislike one another and buttressed by threadbare costumes, shabby props and sets into something that can provoke a deep and profound emotional response in its audience is obviously something that he not only enjoys but has a certain respect for--and that sense of fondness makes all the mockery that much more comfortable for the audience. Pratchett is "one of us" when it comes to the world of the theatre.
I'll leave us with another pithy and entertaining quote from Nanny Ogg, who really pegs opera every time she mentions it.
"Ain't this excitin'? The buzz of the audience, the air of expectation, the blokes in the orchestra findin' somewhere to hide the bottles and tryin' to remember how to play..."
As a former violist... amen.