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How the CCP will transform into Paris Opera House

/ 08:46 PM May 13, 2012

“Everybody knows the Paris Opera House. At least by reputation. It is with regret that I assure you it hasn’t changed at all: For the sake of the passerby who hasn’t been warned, let me say that it looks like a railway station. But once you’re inside you’ll be more likely to mistake it for a Turkish bath.”—Debussy (1862-1918)

culturalcenter.gov.ph photo

Today, of course, the Paris Opera House is regarded as a masterpiece of architecture and is a staple in all package tours of the French capital. In “Great Architecture of the World,” English historian and travel writer John Julius Norwich raves:

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“Garnier (Charles, 1825-1898, the architect) triumphed over a cramped and difficult site, handling the carriage-ramps and approach steps, the foyers and staircases, both in section and plan, with confidence and skill. The style is monumental, classically based and opulently expressed, as the times demanded, in an elaborate language of multi-colored marbles and lavish statuary … Every city needs its occasional monuments and occasions of grandeur.”

The “cramped and difficult site” includes, among other things, a lake underneath.

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Neither one of these two impassioned descriptions of a theater arts address applies to the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Three months from now, however, the CCP will start transforming into what the Paris Opera House means for theatergoers around the world—the remarkable setting of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera,” object of the most lavish praises from critics across the continents, and the longest-running show on Broadway.

The CCP run, which starts August 25, features the touring production that is still performing in Johannesburg, whose cast members come from the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and South Africa.

“Phantom” proved to be such an audience magnet for the 1,870-seat Teatro in the leisure-casino complex Montecasino where it opened on January 31 that the final date was moved from March 25 to April 22. And thank goodness for that. On April 17, a small group of Filipino journalists watched “Phantom” there.

Even before they left Johannesburg, the run was again extended to May 22.

Current online notices read: “Over 200,000 tickets sold. Show must end on June 3.” That’s because, in order to open in Manila by end of August, the production’s packing should start on June 4 and not a day later.

“Tons and tons and tons of stuff,” in the words of Pieter Toerien, South African producer. Details offered by international technical director Richard Martin includes “110 tons of scenery and nearly 50 fly lines (systems of ropes, blocks and counterweights) to hang all that scenery …” At least two out of 40 container vans will be carrying lights alone.

And, not to forget, the chandelier—effectively one of the main characters—that weighs no less than a ton, which will be suspended above the audience for almost the full length of the show. (The CCP Main Theater’s ceiling may have to be reinforced for this.) Plus the false proscenium modeled after a portion of the original in the Paris Opera House. Let alone onstage “stuff,” even special washing machines for the hundreds of costumes are coming to Manila with the cast and crew.

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Absolute replica

Toerien relates: “Cameron Mackintosh (one of the original producers) prepared a blueprint and said, ‘You can do my shows in other countries but they have to be absolute replicas of the originals.’”

Mackintosh sent a team to Johannesburg to train the South African company. “When they finished,” Toerien continues, “they left behind a local team empowered to carry on [with] the work.” This is the team that will mount the musical in Manila.

Toerien says it took him two years of planning to bring the show to South Africa, at the end of which 33 people from all over the world came to build the set into Teatro. “That process took a full two weeks. They worked 16 hours a day, six days a week, and there wasn’t a minute to be wasted. When something went wrong, they had to work right through the night; that’s the only way they could catch up.”

Source of pride

The elaborate production design and intricate costumes by the late Maria Björnson are a constant source of pride for any company that stages the musical.

“Phantom,” as a stage production, is 25 years old and the South African company has some of the original costumes, a few of them made of antique material to start with, about 100 years old. Eugene Titus, head of wardrobe, says: “The people who guard over [Björnson’s] work insist that every single detail is as it was when she first designed them. We started pre-production four months before rehearsal; there was a lot of planning and organization involved to bring the wardrobe up to form. It takes 19 people to run the department.”

During the Johannesburg junket, one question asked of the Manila promoter, Concertus, by the Philippine journalists was, where would all these—scenery, props, costumes, lights, etc.—be stored at the CCP? Bambi Verzo, in charge of logistics and promotions, admitted that this aspect would take some figuring out. “But we will find space.”

‘God’s gift’

As for the show, from the spectators’ end, little remains unknown about “Phantom.” The iconic half-mask renders the musical’s title decipherable in any language or script. And what contemporary music lover hasn’t been captivated by “All I Ask of You” or “Music of the Night”?

For the record, these two all-time favorites, both haunting and thrilling, are not the only numbers that a member of the audience is bound to be humming in his head while striding out of the theater.

It is hard to imagine “Phantom” without the songs; harder even to think that it was first presented to an audience in 1925 as a … silent movie!

Further back, in 1911, the book on which it was based, “Le Fantome de Opera,” by Gaston Leroux, was published. Leroux has been quoted as saying that he was inspired after visiting the Paris Opera House to write the story of a disfigured genius masterminding the career of his beautiful protégé. Roaming its lower depths, the writer said, he found a mysterious subterranean lake (where he eventually envisioned the Phantom’s lair to be). He also said he recalled an accident in 1896 when one of the counterweights had crashed on the audience.

Leroux gave a copy of his book to Carl Laemmie, then president of Universal Pictures, who stayed up all night reading it and, by the morning, was determined to turn it into a film. “The Phantom of the Opera,” the movie, starred Lon Chaney, Hollywood’s “man of a thousand faces.”

In May 1984, Andrew Lloyd Webber came across a review about a stage adaptation of the movie and called Mackintosh about the possibility of turning it into a new musical.

Mackintosh’s account: “The original production went into rehearsal in London on Aug. 18, 1986. Hal Prince (director) and Gillian Lynne (choreographer) had assembled a wonderful cast. After several weeks of exhilarating mayhem, ‘Phantom’ opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Oct. 9 and proceeded to become one of London’s greatest musical successes.”

The Times UK called it “God’s gift to musical theatre.” In 1988, “Phantom” won seven Tony Awards, including best musical.

Ultimate test

On Dec. 18, 1874, the famous seven-ton (some accounts peg it at six) bronze-and-crystal chandelier in the theater of the Paris Opera House was lit for the first time. The architect Garnier himself had designed it. It aroused much controversy and was criticized for obstructing views of the stage by patrons in the fourth-level boxes. In his 1871 book, “Le Théâtre,” Garnier wrote this defense: “What else could fill the theatre with such joyous life?”

In May 1896, the falling of one of the counterweights resulted in the death of one member of the audience. This was the incident that inspired Leroux’s gothic novel.

As musical theater, one of “Phantom’s” trademarks is the scaled-down (only six tons lighter) replica of that chandelier. Certainly a thrill—and the ultimate test of how engaging the music can be—is sitting right under it and forgetting it is there.

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TAGS: Cultural Center of the Philippines, Music, Musical, Paris Opera House, Phantom of the Opera, Theatre
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