Saturday, June 20, 2015

Locus Focus

The Lake Beneath the Paris Opera House
The Phantom of the Opera

by Gaston Leroux

At last, César raised his nostrils, sniffed the air and quickened his pace a little. I felt a moistness in the air and César stopped. The darkness had lifted. A sort of bluey light surrounded us. We were on the edge of a lake, whose leaden waters stretched into the distance, into the darkenss; but the blue light lit up the bank and I saw a little boat fastened to an iron ring on the wharf!

The Palais Garnier or Paris Opera House is almost the most striking character of The Phantom of the Opera, and I almost picked this city-unto-itself as the place to focus on. But, if you really think about it, the place that really dominates the story is the lake five stories below.

Apparently the idea of a lake or river beneath it was a common rumor the day; they had had considerable difficulty drying the foundations, so the architect built big cisterns and a small waterway to help reduce the amount of groundwater linking into the cellars. But the notion of a lake beneath the extraordinarily elaborate and expensive building is just too striking an idea to miss. I mean, seriously, what would your reaction be if you learned that there was a passageway somewhere in the building you're now in that leads to an underground lake? That can take an already interesting building and make it amazing.

And the Opera House in the story has to be the Opera House with the lake, even if it is more legend than history, because this story is about secrets, and nothing so perfectly captures this as the lake itself.

But perhaps 'secret' is not quite the right word. Given the size of the Opera House, it would not be surprising if even an entire lake were secret, in much the same way that even the managers did not know that the Opera House had its own stables, despite knowing that their productions regularly used horses. But Christine already knew that the lake and its boat existed, although she had never seen them before. In this way it is like the Opera Ghost: it's perhaps not correct to call him a secret, because everyone talks about him. But that's different from really coming across him, just as knowing that a lake is under the building is different from actually finding it. Things may be known about without being known. So what would be a word for something that's not really secret and yet is somehow elusive? I don't know if there is a word in English for it, but perhaps 'mystery' is close.

And that fits in another way, because Gaston Leroux is very much a mystery writer, and his narrator is piecing together a historical mystery out of newspaper evidence and written and oral anecdotes.

The events do not date more than thirty years back; and it would not be difficult to find at the present day, in the foyer of the ballet, old men of the highest respectability, men upon whose word one could absolutely rely, who would remember as though they happened yesterday the mysterious and dramatic conditions that attended the kidnapping of Christine Daaé, the disappearance of the Vicomte de Chagny and the death of his elder brother, Count Philippe, whose body was found on the bank of the lake that exists in the lower cellars of the Opera on the Rue-Scribe side.

The mysterious character of the lake lies not in its being unknown but in its being known and yet suggestive of much more than one knows. Perhaps we could say that while the lake is not a secret, it is a lake that seems to hold secrets, and in this case certainly does. In a real sense, the story of The Phantom of the Opera is not that of the Opera Ghost but of the Opera House, which holds many mysteries: the Opera Ghost is just the mystery whose secrets hold the key to uncovering so many other secrets. And all of those secrets come together on the lake far below the surface.


  1. Enbrethiliel12:02 AM


    Very playful formatting! Whatever gave you the idea? ;-)

    I wonder if the "secret" underground lake was inspired by Paris's catacombs! Both are different kinds of subterranean mysteries.

    This week, my Locus Focus is from Japan (again!), so I can't help dropping a Japanese connection here . . . Apparently, water is very, very scary to the Japanese! In Ringu, for instance, when the two main characters go in search of the ghost and find an underground well, the effect on a Japanese audience is the same as what you'd have if you revealed to a Western audience a long-forgotten burial ground. I haven't actually asked someone from Japan about this, but I wonder whether a Japanese reader who is totally new to The Phantom of the Opera would get to that bit and believe he was reading not a Mystery novel, but a Supernatural Horror story.

    As for me, I'm feeling an urge to revisit Poltergeist III . . . =P

  2. branemrys6:57 AM

    There's a lot in the story that would lend itself to that reading -- in a sense, the entire book works by putting putting everything forward as if it were a Supernatural Horror story on the surface while in reality digging down into those elements as a Mystery to show that they aren't actually supernatural and, while maybe sometimes horrific, aren't horror. And the lake is certainly presented with Supernatural Horror elements; it even has a monster, the 'siren', that destroys people who try to cross it.


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