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The Phantom of the Opera: the world famous musical taking on new life at Sydney Harbour

Simon Philips’ hit show on the waters was a roaring success even amid the poignant underlying theme of a Phantom deprived of his own name under the cloak of ableism.

Photography by Hamilton Lund for Opera Australia.

The Phantom of the Opera is the longest running musical theatre show in Broadway’s history; it has played to over 140 million people in 35 countries across the globe. The story is taking on new life in its production at Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. This production is unique in its vivid setting, using a floating stage and the al fresco backdrop of the city to create a truly stunning performance. The addition of fireworks at the end of the show imbues a sense of grandeur befitting the musical’s stature in modern theatre.

The title hits The Music of the Night and Masquerade linger in your mind long after the melody has stopped, much like the ghostly origins of this musical. The orchestra, which sits beneath the stage at Sydney Harbour’s Handa Opera, brings the soundtrack to life and creates a sensory wonderland out of the natural backdrop.

The cultural significance of this opera cannot be understated and the brilliance of its performance at Sydney Harbour reminds us why it remains one of the most popular musicals of our age. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version of Phantom opened in 1986, but the original novel by Gaston Leroux was first published in 1909. The story quickly gained popularity as, in the twentieth century, its gothic themes of depravity, passion and uncertainty reflected public anxieties at momentous changes that accompanied the turn of the century. 

The performance marks the theatrical epitome of gothic fiction, merging dark fantasy with romance. The murderous ‘ghost’ of the opera house, a disabled man who hides beneath the theatre, is consumed by his desire for the young singer Christine Daaé. Christine is drawn to him as her Angel of Music, inspiring her musical success. The phantom is both human and spectral, transgressing the lines between the living and the dead and shrouded in mystery.

In many ways, the rejection of the Phantom, who is also deprived of his real name, Erik, due to his disability, transforms this ghostly tale into a manifestation of society’s rejection of difference. The Phantom seeks solitude in his lair due to discrimination over his physical apperance, hiding his face with a mask and sheltering from the public eye. He seeks Christine’s affection as projection of his fantasy of acceptance into society, and is angered by the lack of control he has in the Opera House that he longs to be a part of. Thus, his story is a product of foisted malevolence, rendering him half-human as scornful ableism resigns him to the shadows.

The history of this tale is equally as fascinating and mysterious. It was inspired by a theatrical tragedy in the Paris’ Palais Garnier, where a chandelier fell from the ceiling and injured several audience members, killing one. Consequently, the French journalist, Gaston Leroux, adapted these events and built on rumours to create the Phantom of the Opera

In Leroux’s original novel, the phantom was more of a macabre skeletal figure who slept in a coffin and represented ‘living death’. In Lloyd Webber’s version he became the unfortunate product of spurned love and fear. The underground lake where the phantom lives is something that existed in the original architecture of the Palais Garnier. This structure fits perfectly with the setting of Sydney Harbour, as the boat that is used to get to the phantom’s lair maximises the illusion that it is floating on the water surrounding the stage.

Director Simon Phillips and Designer Gabriela Tylesova have outdone themselves in the brilliant costume designs and captivating performance. The setting of this piece is integral to the communication of its story, as it relies on the workings of the theatre as the backdrop to The Phantom’s horror. The show features a large chandelier that crashes down during the climax, hanging above the stage thanks to a clever suspension system. The chandelier also provides different lightscapes, mirroring the reflection of the moon which bathes the floating stage in an ethereal glamour. 

The show’s merging of tragedy and gothic fantasy forms a large part of its appeal. The public continues to be enthralled by The Phantom’s story, whose ghostly origins lurk behind the music. I wholeheartedly recommend the show for a truly unforgettable night. 

After the final bows you can walk away marvelling at the performers and clutching a token Phantom teddy bear, complete with a little black cape and its own mask.