Another cult Italian director, Dario Argento, made two versions of the story—both much darker, as befits his still-current status as master of the distinctively Italian horror-thriller genre, the giallo. The first (Opera, 1987) is an extremely free interpretation, but predicated on the classic Phantom of the Opera plot-situation: the heroine, a young soprano, has been given the chance to make her big-stage debut at the expense of a more established singer who has had an unfortunate ‘accident’. In the original novel, and in many of the adaptations, the latter is Carlotta, a diva cliché, whose behaviour and exaggeratedly coloratura voice are nothing less than monstrous. Here, it is the supposed sexual appetite of the female singer that is monstrous. And as the film delves deeper into the background of the violent deaths that are plaguing a new production of Verdi’s Macbeth, it seems that the singer she is really replacing is her own mother, mysteriously murdered years earlier…
This disturbing plot-complex is introduced gently enough, with the young soprano and her (similarly young and likeable) boyfriend alone at her home. He quotes a piece of opera lore that is still regularly repeated in the industry: the hormones associated with sex are beneficial to the soprano voice. She replies ‘Either I’m not a great soprano or I’m an exception.’ While this reticence, sexual and artistic, seems to derive from her ingénue character, it turns out also to have origins in repressed memories to do with her mother, memories that are eventually revealed to have a bearing on the case in hand. She and the viewer (re)discover this connection together, in a dream/flashback sequence towards the end: 01.18.05-19.12. Up until that point, and arguably afterwards too, the opera house is successfully portrayed as not just the natural environment for hiding and intrigue, but even for extreme sexual perversion.
Argento’s return to the Phantom story in the (relatively) more faithful adaptation Il fantasma dell’Opera, 1998, took up again the theme of children’s experience of abusive sexual deviance. Set at the Paris Opéra in 1877, the film represents that abuse as thoroughly institutionalised. As implied in Leroux, the rats that are chased through the bowels of the building are no more at risk than the ballerinas—also nicknamed rats, according to Margaret Miner as in ‘Opé-ra’; see her ‘Phantoms of Genius: Women and the Fantastic in the Opera House Mystery’, 19th-Century Music 18/2 (1994), 121-35—who are exploited by male patrons. In this version, the Phantom (un-disfigured, indeed rather good-looking) is protective of both, notably in the scene 48.29-50.36, in which a predatory paedophile gets his gory comeuppance.
Il fantasma dell’Opera goes further than Opera in that it presents not only the opera house but the whole culture as sexually decadent at best: there is a scene at a bath-house featuring Raoul in uncharacteristically dissolute mood, with opium, prostitutes and, bizarrely, a violent argument over the relative merits of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. But the music remains firmly at the centre of all this, and the soprano voice an instrument of erotic pleasure. As in this extract featuring the so-called ‘Bell song’ from Lakmé by Delibes (59.07-1.00.15, see picture above), this can be for the performer as much as for the listener.