Leroux Didn't Make it All Up
by Audrey Liebross © 2015 
Articles - Page 1 of 1

Gaston Leroux

The Opera ghost really existed. He was not, as was long believed, a creature of the imagination of the artists, the superstition of the managers, or a product of the absurd and impressionable brains of the young ladies of the ballet, their mothers, the box-keepers, the cloak-room attendants or the concierge. Yes, he existed in flesh and blood, although he assumed the complete appearance of a real phantom; that is to say, of a spectral shade [ghost].
So begins The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux, a French journalist and fiction writer who lived from 1868 to 1927, dying shortly before his 59th birthday. The Phantom of the Opera was first published as a serialization, and then in book form in 1910.
During his lifetime, Leroux experienced a great deal of political tumult, including living through two wars with Germany, the Franco-Prussian War and World War I.  Prussia defeated France in the Franco-Prussian war, which was fought between July 19, 1870 and May 10, 1871, and resulted in overthrow of the French emperor, establishment of the Third Republic, loss of Alsace-Lorraine, and, on the victorious side, Bismarck's unification of Germany. That war also caused a halt to construction of the new Paris Opera House, which figures so heavily inThe Phantom of the Opera.
Although there is no reason to believe that the Phantom himself had any basis in fact, Leroux did weave actual locations, events, and people into his story. Here are some of them.

The Paris Opera House, or Palais Garnier

The Paris Opera House, as shown in a modern photo

The Paris Opera House, where most of the novel takes place, is also known as the Palais Garnier, after its architect, Charles Garnier.  The Opera House really existed – in fact, it still exists.  Today, it is more commonly used for ballet performances than for operas, althought one point, it presented a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. The Paris Opera ballet and its school are world-renowned. The Opera House dormitories in which Meg and Christine lived, and in which Joseph Buquet told imprudent stories to the "ballet rats" in the Andrew Lloyd Webber 2004 motion picture and the current US touring production, did not exist.
Charles Garnier was 35 years old and relatively unknown when he was appointed the architect for the new Paris Opera House, after his design won a contest.  On August 27, 1861, site excavation began.   On November 6th, the excavators discovered that the site was full of groundwater.  Garnier solved the water problem through bringing in steam pumps, which operated day and night, and through building a large concrete tank to hold the water. The tank, which still exists, is Leroux's lake.
Construction on the Opera House stopped until after the Franco-Prussian War ended. According to Leroux, however, one person continued his work: "Erik was one of the chief contractors under Philippe [sic] Garnier, the architect of the Opera, and continued to work by himself when the works were officially suspended...."  This part of the story is apparently fictitious.
After the old opera house burned shortly after the war, the new government asked Garnier to resume construction. The new building was inaugurated on January 5, 1875.


Charles Garnier

The Communists' Road
In the novel, the Persian daroga describes a "Communists' Road" that led to Erik's house on the lake.  The road has its basis in fact.
After the overthrow of the Emperor, but before the conclusion of the war, probably emboldened by starvation in the capital during the German siege of Paris, a radical group called the Paris Commune seized control of the city.  The Commune ruled with an iron fist, killing thousands in the two months until it was overthrown. 
The Commune took over the partially completed Paris Opera House and locked unfortunates in dungeons in the fifth cellar.  The path they frequented inside the building became known as the "Communists' Road," which Leroux used in the novel.
The Corpse Rumored to Have Been Found in 1907
Leroux wrote, "It will be remembered that, later, when digging in the substructure of the Opera, before burying the phonographic records of the artist's voice, the workmen laid bare a corpse."
The incident about burying recordings actually took place; on December 24, 1907, a group of individuals buried phonographic records of iconic operas in a time capsule, to be opened 100 years later.  After the recordings were dug up in 2007, EMI announced that it would issue the operas on CDs for 21st century audiences to hear.
There is no indication that workers actually discovered a skeleton, although it is possible that the body of someone who died at the hands of the Commune was not discovered till after the Communists had been vanquished.  A hundred years from now, perhaps a rumor will circulate that the 2007 researchers discovered a skeleton when they dug up the time capsule ... or that the capsule included a recording of Don Juan Triumphant.

Placing Opera Recordings into a Time Capsule

The Chandelier Crash
People who know nothing else about The Phantom of the Opera have usually heard about the chandelier crash.  Leroux's version of the story is that the Phantom caused the chandelier to crash on the head of the innocent woman whom the managers had designated to replace Madame Giry as the concierge for Box Five.  Leroux did not explain how Erik managed to bring the heavy chandelier down on the head of a particular individual.
The chandelier crash has its basis in an actual tragedy at the Paris Opera House.  One of the ways to mount a chandelier is to attach counterweights by ropes or chains, to serve as ballasts. In May 1896, a counterweight crashed onto a woman's head, killing her.  The victim was a theater concierge, as in the novel.
The Sultan's Automatons
[After he escaped from Persia,] Erik ... went to Asia Minor and thence to Constantinople, where he entered the Sultan's employment. In explanation of the services which he was able to render a monarch haunted by perpetual terrors, I need only say that it was Erik who constructed all the famous trap-doors and secret chambers and mysterious strong-boxes which were found at Yildiz-Kiosk after the last Turkish revolution. He also invented those automata, dressed like the Sultan and resembling the Sultan in all respects, which made people believe that the Commander of the Faithful was awake at one place, when, in reality, he was asleep elsewhere.
The Ottoman Empire (or Turkish Empire), which spanned from 1299 to 1922, was a world power for many years.  Its final dissolution, after it backed Germany in World War I, led to the founding of modern Turkey and the modern Middle East.  However, for almost a century before that, the Empire was in decline, becoming embroiled in internal disputes and wars with Europeans.  In 1908, the so-called "Young Turks" instituted a Republic, but left the monarchy in place, hoping that the Sultan would cooperate with the new government.  A few months later, troops from Salonica liberated Constantinople, the capital, after fighting broke out when the Sultan attempted to reassert his authority. The reformers deposed the tyrannical, paranoid Sultan, occupied the palace at Yildiz, and sent the defanged Sultan into exile in Salonica.
A British author, Francis McCullagh, wrote a book in 1910, in which he described what representatives of the new government found when they examined the palace from the inside:
The Commission did, however, get several scares, especially in the beginning, before they had secured the assistance of Nadir Agha, when they were afraid of opening presses or of even walking about lest they should be shot by some spring-gun or swallowed up by some subterranean passage, adroitly concealed by a trap-door. As a matter of fact there are no subterranean passages in Yildiz, owing to the Sultan's fear that such passages might be used as a depot of bombs, a fear which, according to Nadir Agha, made [the Sultan] always object to excavations for the laying of water-pipes and the like being made deeper than fifteen centimetres or being made at all without his personal superintendence.
Although, as Leroux stated in a footnote, the Le Matin newspaper claimed that automata of the Sultan turned up in the palace, McCullagh said these were mannequins:
While the rummaging of Yildiz was going on, the Turkish paper Hakikat published a sensational story about a discovery that had been made of three manikins, all of them such good representations of the ex-Sultan that, coming on them late one evening, the Search Commission got quite a bad scare. If there is any truth in this story, the objects discovered were probably the man-shaped targets at which the Sultan used to practise with his revolver.
Nevertheless, the Turks had admired automata for centuries, and it is certainly reasonable for Leroux to have posited that Erik was able to combine mechanisms from earlier automata (such as the one that allowed a model of a bird to move its neck) with realistic mannequins.  Also, Leroux did not claim that Erik built tunnels for this Sultan's palace – he could have placed trapdoors in the walls to conceal secret rooms, without building subterranean tunnels in the particular structure.
The deposed Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, reigned from August 31, 1876 until April 27, 1909.  He built his palace in 1880, which, of course, does not mesh with Erik's having returned to Paris after leaving Persia and Turkey, becoming a contractor under Charles Garnier, and continuing work throughout the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune's rule in 1870 and 1871.  However, even though Leroux took liberties with the timeline, it is clear that he used actual incidents that occurred both during and after Abdul Hamid's reign in writing the novel.
The Singers Who May Have Served as Models for Christine Daae
The second half of the 19th century produced a number of female operatic superstars, some of whose later works were preserved on phonographic records.  Jenny Lind (1820-1887), nicknamed the "Swedish nightingale" became one of the first superstars in any field, when P.T. Barnum arranged for her to tour the United States.  Although she was Swedish, she is unlikely to have been the model for Christine, because she was born earlier than the others, and was 54 years old when the Paris Opera House opened.
Adelina Patti (1843-1919), was considered one of the greatest sopranos of all time.  Born in Spain of Italian parents who were both opera singers, she had a number of musical siblings.  Her sister, Carlotta (!), sang mostly in concerts because of her limp.  Adelina, on the other hand, earned a fortune performing on the operatic stage, and eventually bought a castle in Wales.  She had a connection to Sweden; after her second husband, to whom she was happily married, passed away when she was 56 years old, she married a Swedish baron 26 years younger than she.  Nonetheless, she is unlikely to have been the model for Christine, because her life's trajectory was so different.  Some have speculated that she was the model for Carlotta, but, aside from the coincidence of her sister's name, she and Leroux's Carlotta had little in common.  For one thing, even though both were born in Spain, Carlotta was a pedestrian singer, and no one could ever accuse Adelina Patti of such a failing.  Also, Leroux referred to Carlotta as "the celebrated, but heartless and soulless diva," and, once again, Adelina Patti did not suffer from such an infirmity.  Instead, she had the reputation of being thoughtful, kind, and generous. Leroux was apparently not thinking of Ms. Patti when he wrote about Christine, and was unlikely to have had her in mind as his model for Carlotta, either.
 A third great soprano is the one that most sources believe was the inspiration for Leroux's Christine Daae. Kristina (sometimes spelled Christina, or even Christine) Nilsson (1843-1921) was born in Sweden, the youngest child of seven.  Her family's fortunes declined, and, at the age of eight, she began playing the violin and singing in country inns, at fairs, and at other gatherings, to earn money to help her parents.  At the age of fourteen, she was performing at a fair in Ljimby when her talent impressed a distinguished gentleman, who offered to pay for her musical education. Her music teacher was a Mademoiselle Valerius.  Three years later, she moved to Paris to continue her studies, and eventually sang with the Paris Opera.  She became well-known in Britain, as well as on the continent, and made four tours of North America.  Christina Nilsson was blonde and blue-eyed, which matches Leroux's description of Christine Daae as golden-haired and blue-eyed. (It is only in later Phantom of the Opera incarnations that Christine has become brunette).
Leroux wrote of Christine and her father:
[Daae's] wife died when Christine was entering upon her sixth year. Then the father, who cared only for his daughter and his music, sold his patch of ground and went to Upsala in search of fame and fortune. He found nothing but poverty.
He returned to the country, wandering from fair to fair, strumming his Scandinavian melodies, while his child, who never left his side, listened to him in ecstasy or sang to his playing. One day, at Ljimby Fair, Professor Valerius heard them and took them to Gothenburg.
This passage is, of course, a slightly altered biography of Christina Nilsson's early years. Leroux changed the sex of the music teacher, but kept the name Valerius.  Christina and Christine both played at fairs to earn money for their impoverished families, and their singing talents were discovered in Ljimby.  Both received the opportunity to study in Paris and each sang at the Paris opera.  There is little doubt that Leroux based Christine on Christina Nilsson.

Adelina Patti

Carlotta Patti

Christina Nilsson

Christina Nilsson

I see a resemblance between Christina Nilsson and Sarah
Brightman as Christine Daae. Does anyone else see it?