The Phantom got lost on his way to the Opera House it seemed. He was haunting the Cathedral instead on Friday night. In preparation for Halloween, that 3,000 year-old Celtic ritual, Friends of Cathedral Music presented organist Dorothy Papadakos accompanying the 1925 silent film “Phantom of the Opera,” starring Lon Chaney. Patrons were encouraged to come in costume, and many did.
A most personable and enthusiastic presenter, Papadakos, dressed as the Phantom, gave an oral history of the film, its first unsuccessful versions before being recast as the final masterpiece we now know. I’ve often thought that as a genre, the silent film with live music, due to its too-rapid fall into obsolescence, was never allowed to develop into the art form it could be. The dialectic between moving images and music has never been fully explored, though there has been a significant revival of the few silent classics with contemporary soundtracks.
When one has the privilege of hearing an improvising interpreter, even composer, such as Papadakos creating a rich tapestry of organ colors to illustrate a film, the effect is truly magical. Through a continual musical fabric, she can change the mood seamlessly in an instant from lugubrious menace to joyous frolic. This was the way the film was intended to be shown.
High points are many. Besides the iconic unmasking of the Phantom, the grizzly chase scene in the horse-drawn carriage and the Phantom in blood red skulking atop the angel figurine were made the more thrilling by Papadakos’ electric sonorities. The Phantom in red? Yes, only some of the film, at least in this print, is in true black and white. There are lavender, rose, blue and sepia tints and even an early version of color capturing the festivity of the bal masque.
Visually the film is a tapestry of moving paintings, each a feast for the eyes. (No over-rapid cutting of vacuous images here, as has become the norm in too many contemporary films.) Each shot is carefully balanced and composed from stunning sets and props. The journey through the underworld of the Paris Opera House especially with Papadakos’ lurid harmonies is truly mesmerizing.
The opera in the film is Faust, presumably the setting by Gounod. One might have been tempted to weave some of that music into the fabric, but instead Papadakos chose, rightly I think, to use only her original music, making the flow more integrated, less eclectic. And finally with the death of the Phantom, Chaney insanely leering until the end, Papadakos filled the spacious St. John’s Cathedral with waves of horrific sound as the Phantom sinks lugubriously into the Seine.
A tip of the cap to Spencer Beckwith from KUNM who highly recommended this event based on the showing (and playing) of Nosferatu last year. I can’t think of a better Halloween tradition to keep alive (or is it dead!)
— This article appeared on page F3 of the Albuquerque Journal