It Ain’t Over Till The Fat Lady Sings: An Opera Singer’s Take on Phantom of the Opera

by Olivia H.

It seems like almost every trained singer or performer has heard, at one time or another, “Oh my gosh you sound amazing, you should be in Phantom of the Opera, it’s my favorite!” As a classically trained singer who has heard this statement numerous times, I feel the need to point out that Phantom is not an opera, it’s a musical. However, Phantom keeps public interest in the classical world alive, and for that, classically trained musicians should acknowledge the relevance and importance of this particular work. Phantom has undoubtedly shaped both the classical and musical theatre worlds, so much so that it is the most performed musical in the history of Broadway. Why is this musical, set in 1800s Paris and styled in a manner that could potentially alienate a modern musical theatre aficionado, be so popular, and how has it survived the ruthless chopping block of Broadway critics and fickle audiences? 

This musical is a happy medium, combining both the history of French Grand Opera and the theatricality of Broadway – the best of both worlds. Written by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Charles Hart, it premiered in 1986 in London at Her Majesty’s Theatre to great acclaim, winning Olivier Awards for Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical (for Michael Crawford’s portrayal of the Phantom). Two years later, it premiered on Broadway, promptly winning the Tony for Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical (same performer). Notably, Blair alumnus Chris Mann performed in the US touring production of Phantom of the Opera as the titular Phantom in 2015. 

Originally based on the French novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux, this novel was serialized and then subsequently turned into a silent film starring Lon Cheney, the “Man of a Thousand Faces.” The 1925 movie translated the novel and turned it into something easily digestible for American audiences. Another musical based on this tale was produced in 1976 but was nowhere near as popular as Webber’s version. In addition to the numerous staged performances, the 2004 movie adaptation  of Phantom of the Opera starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum pushed  the musical into the realm of Hollywood. 

For this particular essay, I watched the Royal Albert Hall’s 2011 anniversary production starring Ramin Karimloo as the Phantom and Sierra Boggess as Christine Daaé.It is important to note thatthis Royal Albert production is overwhelmingly white and/or white-passing. In 2015, Norm Lewis became the first African American to play the Phantom. To my knowledge, there isn’t isn’t one instance when the role of Christine has been played by a BIPOC. Much like opera, musical theatre is whitewashed, and has only recently begun to attempt to cast BIPOC in leading roles that don’t tokenize or stereotype based on racist preconceptions. 

The first number  – the Hannibal rehearsal – begins with Carlotta’s elaborate entrance, which sets the tone for the entire opera. Clearly, Webber drew inspiration from the rich history of French Grand Opera (or FGO), even going so far as to reference an opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer, a composer who loved to compose operas in the FGO style. When FGO was popular, audiences would see large, grandiose productions with both opera singers and ballet dancers, much like Phantom. The sweet ingenue, Christine Daaé, is a dancer and cannot be distinguished from the horde of other dancers who look just like her. Carlotta and Hannibal are stereotypical opera singers- fat divas who “park and bark,” or who simply stand there and sing. Eventually, Christine is plucked from the crowd and takes Carlotta’s place. Before our eyes, Christine transforms, changing from a shy chorus girl into a fully grown diva, ready for her debut performance. With triumph and relative ease, Christine finishes her metamorphosis and sings “Think of Me,” a syrupy sweet aria designed to showcase just how lyrical and youthful the performer’s voice is. Christine then finishes her cadenza and flings herself to the ground, folding over in supplication. 

Phantom keeps all of the traditional aspects of opera whilst adding modern elements, such as a fancy exploding chandelier and fog machines, but simultaneously adds visibility and accessibility through the use of English rather than a lesser known language. Phantom requires diligently trained singers and expert orchestral members; without the expertise of classically trained musicians, Phantom would not be sustainable. For example, the 2019 World Tour Carlotta, Beverly Chiat, is classically trained, and she has performed famed operatic roles like Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto, Olympia in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffman, and Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. All three of those roles require classical training and a certain “fach,” or type of voice, and no ordinary singer can perform these roles, just like no ordinary soprano can sing Carlotta or Christine. 

Unflattering stereotypes permeate both classic and contemporary musicals. The most common and well-known stereotypes are: the fat lady with horns on a helmet; the tenor that wears the scarf and steams his voice right before performing; vocalists walking around whilst humming and buzzing to warm up when there aren’t any available spaces. All singers, regardless of their musical background, have been one or more of these stereotypes. Phantom just happens to reinforce and introduce stereotypes like these to the common public. In Phantom, there are multiple stereotypes shown in several of the main characters- Christine, our slim, virginal soprano; Carlotta, the fat diva who throws a snit at anyone and anything when something doesn’t go her way; Raoul, the tenor who wants to love and be loved, but can’t possibly offer the excitement and sexual spontaneity that any baritone exudes; and the Phantom, our deformed baritone who is somehow inexplicably virile and intoxicating. In a way, Christine only exists to validate the Phantom. He wants to possess her because she is shiny and new, and in turn, she believes that she can help him. It’s very tempting to compare Christine to a manic pixie dream girl, simply because her character functions as a foil for the Phantom and a partner for Raoul. 

Is the Phantom’s “don’t look at me, I’m hideous, but please heal me” vibe what attracts all sopranos, or is it because lower male voices are just inherently sexier? Webber could have easily cast Christine as a mezzo-soprano, a female singer with a lower voice, but he chose to cast Christine with a higher tessitura, or vocal range- audiences love to revel in and even fetishize the beauty of impossibly high phrases, and Christine, our sexy soprano, gets to sing the high notes. This dichotomy of the soprano-tenor doomed love is a trope that is found in both operas and musicals (see: Violetta and Alfredo in La traviata, Mimi and Rodolfo in La bohème, Kim and Chris in Miss Saigon). There’s always a lusty baritone that manages to weasel his way into this relationship, and the soprano is always tempted by this interloper (Mozart’s Don Giovanni is the first example to come to mind). These musical tropes fuel Phantom and other vocal works and help the audience find common ground and make the productions relatable; no matter what educational background you come from, whether or not you have any musical training, you can almost always find a character that you relate to. 

Stereotypical (read: white) sex appeal and internalized fatphobia are important to mention when discussing musicals, and  Phantom is no exception. Broadway has a history of hiring very thin singers, both male and female. This purposeful avoidance of casting heavier and older performers in highly visible roles reinforces the underhanded message that fat people are not desirable. Simply put, we don’t want to find Carlotta attractive because she’s fat and old; for example, the new owners of the opera house, Firmin and André, make an effort to point out that Carlotta has been a resident of the Paris Opera House for the last nineteen seasons. We can reasonably assume that the audience, Raoul, the Phantom, and the managers of the opera house find Christine attractive because she’s thin and young and brings life to a stilted role. This thin-fat dynamic is further reinforced through the Royal Albert casting of slim Sierra Boggess in the role of Christine and the heavier Wendy Ferguson as Carlotta. The Phantom is bored with chubby, aged Carlotta, and wants to possess the freshly processed, slimmed-down product that is the ingénue. “Fat” is just an adjective, yet Broadway has managed to turn that word into a disgusting negative, reinforced by the near-constant casting of thin, white singers. Similarly, the opera world is going through the same reckoning, dealing with the obvious stereotypes thrust upon the singers that are so desperate to make a living in a divisive environment. Companies are attempting to hire more BIPOC performers, feature more works written by female-identifying and queer composers, and cast singers that aren’t short and petite, but there is still a long way to go. 

Carlotta’s opening line, filled with rolled r’s and gratuitous high C’s, shows far more finesse than any of Miss Daaé’s musical lines. While watching Phantom, one can’t help but think that Carlotta got the short end of the stick- the experienced and trained singer, furious about the “ghost” that’s trying to kill her, is shafted and tossed aside for a shinier, newer model. Most young singers can perform the role of Christine if you can sing a high C on command; in contrast, the famed high E at the end of the oft-performed “Phantom of the Opera” number is prerecorded and is never sung live. I acknowledge that this is my own bias, as my voice is too large to sing Christine, my body is not shaped like an ingenue’s, and admittedly I can be dramatic about the health of my voice. Through and through, I and so many others are Carlotta, and that’s okay. 

As a classically trained singer, and as someone who admittedly doesn’t like very many musicals, I have a deep respect for this musical. Webber has managed to create a work that combines both old and new musical techniques, proving that there is certainly room for opera in the everyday lives of normal people. On a personal note, I teach a studio of approximately fifty students, around twenty-seven of whom are singers; over half of those singers are women. Every single female singer that has come through my studio has, without fail, requested to sing a song from Phantom of the Opera, mostly “Think of Me.” Most of these students who have learned “Think of Me” have decided to pursue classical music for their careers. Christine, Carlotta, and the Phantom inspire generation after generation of young performers, and when you are a part of educating the next generation, it’s something that is truly inspiring and breathtaking. 

Phantom is the story of two misfits finding their way but somehow manage to find each other instead, and there’s nothing more American than finding your place in the world. Christine wishes to be a famous performer, and the Phantom wants to be loved. Phantom has spawned scores of budding young Christines and Phantoms as well as a sequel musical, Love Never Dies. From the original novel to the first movie remake to the 2004 movie to recent performances, it is clear that interest in Phantom has not waned. Singers dream of performing one of these roles, hoping that they too will have a chance to share the stage with that famous chandelier.

Phantom of the Opera makes us want to be Christine. We want to be on that stage, dressed in glittering costumes and caked with red lipstick, desired and adored, on a beautiful stage in Paris. We see characters that we can easily relate to, accompanied by a score that echoes the emotions showcased by the performers. Most importantly, we want to find our place in the world, and we want to find that place accompanied by the person we love. As Phantom is continued to be performed, I can only hope that the future casting directors choose to include a more diverse profile of performers, creating a cast that will find common ground in all types of people.

“If We Are Like You In The Rest, We Will Resemble You In That”: Belonging in Fiddler On The Roof

by Olivia H.

I have an obligation to preface this essay by saying that I am not Jewish – yet. That is a very personal part of my life which I choose not to share with many people, but I feel somewhat comfortable saying that I have a more than basic understanding of Judaism and a more unique perspective. Naturally, this means that my analysis may be biased to a certain extent (sorry). It’s also important to mention that while Fiddler on the Roof is a solid starter course when it comes to learning about Jewish life, it has an inherent flaw: it’s Ashkenormative, meaning that it only focuses on one particular Jewish cultural subgroup (Ashkenazim) and fails to acknowledge the existence of other Jews (i.e. Sephardim, Beta Israel, Mizrahim, Jews of Color, etc.) Jewish life, especially in the 21st century, looks very different than it did even a century ago. 

Consider the “Us versus Them” dynamic: insider versus outsider, normal versus abnormal, accepted versus unorthodox. Jews are part of a minority ethnoreligious affiliation (where genetics are not the sole criteria of belonging, but that’s another topic for a different essay), meaning that in almost every country and community, they are the outsiders. Fiddler flips the script and reverses the dichotomy – gentiles become the “Other” and the audience is the outsiders. Yet somehow we never fully forget that Jews are and have historically been the “Them,” the “outsiders.” Pogroms and the order from the Tsar to leave Anatevka tell us that to be Jewish means to be a part of a global diaspora which is constantly on the move, despite the occasional illusion of stability and belonging in a state which will never love them the way they love it. The Jewish residents of Anatevka love their little shtetl, but they have never truly belonged there, and they will never truly belong to the new places in the United States in Eretz Yisrael (where they move post-edict). 

It must be reiterated that Fiddler is a great introduction to Jewish culture, as long as you understand that Fiddler specifically addresses Ashkenazi minhag (or accepted traditions) and a more Orthodox interpretation of halacha (Jewish law). Fiddler is not the first, or the last, movie or TV show to attempt to educate gentiles and Jews alike on Jewish culture. Most recently, the Netflix show Unorthodox gave viewers an inside look at the Satmar Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. Fiddler, like the Netflix show, provides us a uniquely Orthodox perspective on community, belonging, interfaith relationships, and gender roles. Everyone, Jewish or Gentile, has an innate understanding of what it means to “belong” to something. What happens when Fiddler is the only source of information one has on what it means to “belong” to a Jewish community? How does this skew the viewer’s perspective on the Jewish patriarchy or various perspectives on interfaith marriage? These questions must be asked because they inform different levels of understanding the quintessential “Us versus Them” dynamic which fuels Fiddler and its resulting popularity. 

If you ask any person what the first thing they think of when you say Fiddler on the Roof (in particular, the 1971 Norman Jewison production), odds are they will say either “Tradition”, the Bottle Dance from the Wedding Scene, or maybe “If I Were a Rich Man”. “Tradition” goes through various aspects of everyday Jewish life. We meet Tevye, our hardworking protagonist, as well as other residents of the shtetl. We meet the other members of Tevye’s household- Tevye’s wife Golde and their three daughters Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava. The Bottle Dance, or the entire Wedding Scene, introduces even more key parts of Jewish culture- the importance of weddings, dance, music, and tradition, the glue that holds the community together.“Tradition” is our opening scene, and provides all of our first impressions. People from all backgrounds can find common themes and characters, it makes us feel at home. Most people understand or at least are familiar with the concept of the nuclear family, or a heteronormative nuclear family (husband, wife, 2.5 children, the works). “Tradition” hammers the importance of family into the listener’s ears, citing Jewish familial customs and halachic practices as cornerstones of Jewish society- why one wears tzitzis, how one observes Shabbos, how one lives a so-called “righteous” life. 

This concept of family is brought up in the song, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” Tevye’s daughters do the household laundry as they go over their own laundry lists of suitable qualities- “for Papa a scholar, for Mama rich as a king.” But by the end of the movie, all three daughters end up with men that were neither chosen by the matchmaker nor approved by Tevye. Tzeitel marries her poor friend Motel, Hodel chooses Perchik, and Chava pairs with Fyedka, a Gentile. The latter marriage is devastating to Tevye, forcing him to mourn the loss of his daughter to what he sees as the ultimate betrayal of Jewish values and law. Tzeitel, the eldest, is the first to marry, spawning one of the most iconic scenes in Fiddler, the Wedding Scene. The men and women are split apart and separated by a cord. The women are clad in bright colors, and the men in a uniform of bekishe and peyos. It’s considered a mitzvah, a commandment or “good deed”, to entertain a bride and groom during a wedding, and the attendees certainly do their best. The men kick up clouds of dust as they perform the Bottle Dance, an act that requires dancers to carry half-full bottles on their heads as they kneel and rise in rapid succession. A plucked string accompaniment follows the first half of the dance, rising to a crescendo that is complemented by crashing cymbals and a clarinet line reminiscent of traditional klezmer music.

So how does Fiddler on the Roof reinforce these “Jewish” elements? We see characters clad in what could be called shabby shtetl chic garb, with a dusty and gritty palette that sets the stage for our introduction to shtetl life. The cacophony of the ensemble actors shows us that life in Anatevka is chaotic yet somehow also harmonious, which is oddly comforting. The storylines of the various characters may change – a widower’s life story is different from a rabbi’s, which contrasts with Tevye’s – but the steady and reliable pace, and tradition, of Jewish life provides stability to the story and history of the Anatevka shtetl. Throughout the musical, we become accustomed to the noise and the grit and we start to feel at home, lulled into a false sense of complacency and peace, until outside events (i.e. the pogrom) throw us off our rhythm and remind us once again that we are just as much outsiders in Anatevka as the Jews are outsiders in Russia, and in the rest of the diaspora at large.  I still do not feel comfortable saying that I am Jewish. I honestly don’t know that I will ever feel fully comfortable saying it. I have become acutely aware of what it means to be an outsider in what implausibly feels like home. Fiddler was almost painful to watch because I felt so connected to it, and also so uncomfortably disconnected – perhaps even alienated. We have to ask ourselves what it means to belong, and why there are these boundaries of insiders and outsiders that have been created. We are all Tevye, Golde, Hodel, Tzeitel, and Chava. We are all Perchik, Lazar Wolf, and Motel. Perhaps we are also Fyedka, or even the Constable. Fiddler asks us to initially lean into stereotypes, and then question what we think we know about what it means to be both insiders and outsiders, strangers in a strange land, poor occupants of a small shtetl. Can we ever truly belong? Fiddler would seem to argue that, while we superficially can, at the core, we are all searching to belong.  

The Musical Fetishization and Appropriation of Asian Cultures

In Western musical academia, we assign certain modes and scales to Asian music. We direct actors to use offensive accents, dress them in stereotypical costumes, makeup, compose derivative melodies, and thus continue to reinforce these racist standards in our musical consumption. Two extraordinarily popular musicals, Miss Saigon and The King and I, rely upon such stereotypes. Kim, from Miss Saigon, is sexually abused, prostituted, and beaten down, reduced to nothing more than a sex worker and eventual maternal figure. The titular King from The King and I spends the majority of the musical proving that he isn’t a barbarian in order to grow close to his white love interest. These two characters are relegated to stereotypes- the savage and oversexed non-Westerner, an objectified prop for white people to “save” or “improve.”

In order to discuss how Miss Saigon and The King and I heavily fetishize Asian culture, we first must understand the conception and origin of these two musicals. There is a long and established performance history of white people portraying different races, decades before American musical theater became the conglomerate it is today. The performance practices for both of these musicals rely heavily on cultural appropriation. Both musicals were originally performed with white performers in yellowface whose characters wear traditional Vietnamese and Thai costumes. Three popular operas- Madame Butterfly (upon which Miss Saigon is based), The Mikado, and Turandot– were originally performed with white singers in yellowface. Thoroughly Modern Millie, a musical about an innocent Midwestern girl trying to make her way in New York City, features three Asian characters who are reduced to grotesque xenophobic stereotypes. The list of racist musicals is extraordinarily long, but Miss Saigon and The King and I are two of the most visible and relevant musicals. 

So why does the musical theater industry keep producing and performing these controversial musicals, when so much of the material is offensive? Recent professional revivals of these musicals have attempted to cast Asian people, but we still see white people in the majority of productions. High schools around the country perform Miss Saigon and place students in appropriative costumes and makeup. Is there a way to perform these musicals and be respectful of the cultures they use? 

Miss Saigon’s female lead Kim is a prime example of white fetishization. From the first downbeat of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical, viewers are assaulted with hypersexualized images of scantily clad Asian women. The lyrics in the first song, “The Heat Is On in Saigon,” reinforce this oversexed scene, referring to the women as “slits,” relegating them to walking vaginas and dehumanizing them. The Engineer, the resident pimp, does his best to sell the women to the American soldiers who frequent Dreamland. Kim, our sweet, virginal heroine, is traded and sold like a piece of prime meat at the market, offered to the highest bidder. Chris, our strapping American G.I., waltzes into the Dreamland brothel and sees Kim, coming to the realization that he has to “know her” (both biblically and platonically).  Kim’s character toes the line between innocent and slutty, and seemingly regains some of her feminine virtues when she assumes the proper role of mother to her son Tam. Miss Saigon is a white savior story that glorifies the sacrificial nature of motherhood and demonizes sex workers. Yet, without Kim, Gigi, Mimi, Yvette, and the other sex workers, we would have no plot. Miss Saigon has to fetishize these characters, or we have no one to save with our whiteness. 

On a similar note, The King and I also uses sex as a means to demote and divide the characters along racial lines. Anna, our white and widowed heroine, has one child and remains steadfast to her late husband for the majority of the musical. The King, conversely, has multiple wives and numerous children. During a conversation with the King’s head wife, Anna says that the King is a polygamist, but not a barbarian, hinting that Western marital standards are superior to those practiced in Siam. This perspective neglects the fact that polygamy is practiced in parts of the West: while it is certainly viewed as unorthodox, it is a far cry from being labeled as “barbaric.” The wives in The King and I function only as objects meant for sexual gratification and childbearing, just as the women in Miss Saigon are used. A prime example of such characterization is Tuptim, the gifted slave destined to become yet another wife to the King. We also see the forcing of Western culture onto the members of the King’s court. In the second act, the ladies of the court wear Western dresses, but neglect undergarments, so when Sir Edward raises his monocle to examine them, the ladies blush in embarrassment and fear and raise their undergarments over their heads, exposing themselves to the men. 

Both Miss Saigon and The King and I do a remarkable job of perpetuating the concept of the “white savior” – Chris is Kim’s hero, and Anna is the King’s better half. Both white characters must change the fates of their Asian counterparts. Costuming and makeup is a key part of both of these characters’ journeys. Kim from Miss Saigon is forced to wear revealing clothing as she works in Dreamland, clothing that is not Western; the other Dreamland prostitutes wear Western swimwear designed to flatter and show off the female body while barely covering genitals and breasts; the King and other court members wear costumes that mimic Thai traditional dress. Both the King and Kim were characters originally performed by white people (e.g.Yul Brynner). Pictures from the first production show Brynner with exaggerated eyeliner, clad in a robe, sash, and loose pants. 

If Kim is merely a sex worker, one iteration of a traditionally undervalued and belittled profession, then why do we continue to tell her story? And why do we tell the tale of the love story between the King of Siam and Anna? These tales echo relationships and situations found in our boring, everyday lives. Unrequited love, the loss of a parent- these traumatic archetypal events become almost easier to digest when pulped, processed, and seasoned with some cultural appropriation. It allows us, the viewers and white colonizers, to accept what we have done to a shocking portion of the world- we stripped it down and demeaned the indigenous populations, remaining unwilling to empathize with different cultures and using traditionally Christian morals as an excuse to obliterate thousands of years of history. Sex, love, and death act as catalysts for unity across cultural divides, but it doesn’t mean that we should have to boil down characters like Kim and the King in order to confront the consequences of colonialism. 

Kim’s tragic ending allows us to pretend that for a minute, we actually care about what Americans did during the Vietnam War, and allows us to repent for the sins of our forefathers. The ending of The King and I lets us escape to a fantasy world which lets us say, “We didn’t cause any harm to this culture!” But, we did, and we continue to mock survivors’ and descendents’ trauma by performing these musicals with white actors. While it is important to perform them, we must also be willing to discuss why exactly they are so problematic. We are compelled to sugarcoat the colonization and transform it into a peppy musical in order to assuage our white guilt and fragility. We are still absolving the sums of our collective guilt through the consumption of this art medium. Even though it is possible to continue to perform these musicals, they must be viewed not only as works of art, but as the imperialist propaganda they fundamentally are.