It was either the Tuesday or the Wednesday Of that week, I think it was the Tuesday, that my life changed. The sky outside my cabin room window was very dull, grey and I was lying on my bed very bored. It was during the two hours of free time that we had between the last organized activity of the day and dinner at five O'clock, I think. It was supposed to be free swim time, but I didn't like swimming. The lake was always so cold, even late in the afternoon. I had had a heart problem when I was younger, and thankfully that had been sufficient grounds for the counsellors to excuse me from free swim. So I had stayed in my cabin. Roberta, Melanie and everyone else had gone swimming however, so I was alone.
While she was at free swim, I borrowed Roberta's little tape player to listen to Les Miz since I had not brought my own. (I don't remember whether I had asked Roberta if I could borrow her tape player or not. Regrettably, I don't think I had.) I wanted to put on Gean Valjean's death scene and act and sing along with it. But I couldn't figure out how the damned thing worked. So I just lay on my bed, bored, waiting for dinnertime.
Then a figure appeared in my open doorway. It was Anita, the young counsellor whom I had met on my way in from the lake on whatever day that had been, who had the recording of Colm Wilkinson singing "Bring Him Home". She asked me if I would like to come and hear the recording now. Glad for something I was interested in to alleviate my boredom, I got off my bed and followed her across the hall, or perhaps it was down to Dogwoods, I don't remember, to her room, which was exactly like mine. I went in and sat on the bed which was near the window. (In all the rooms there were two beds with yellow bedspreads.)
On the table between the beds was Anita's little tape recorder. She put a tape in and pushed "play". But the song that came on wasn't "Bring Him Home".
"Oh!" Anita exclaimed mildly. "It's on the wrong side."
She reached to turn the tape off but I stopped her. I had recognized the song as "Somewhere" from West Side Story. CFMX had played it a few years before on their Saturday night program of complete operas and musicals. I thought I remembered from their plot summary that this song had something to do with Tony being in bed with Maria? I told Anita that I liked that song (the fascination of sex to the mind of a pre-teen. What can I say?) and asked her to leave the tape on.
"Okay." She said. "Bring Him Home is the first song on the other side; so when this side runs out just turn it over."
"Okay. Thanks!" I replied. Anita then left the room and closed the door, leaving me alone with the music. "Somewhere" finished, and I just waited for the tape side to run out.
The next song began plainly with a minor chord.
"Sing once again with me
our strange duet."
Interesting? Haunting? I don't even remember what my first impression of that song was. Did it have my attention yet? I don't remember.
"My power over you
grows stronger yet."
That must have caught my attention. I had always been attracted to dark, powerful characters who commanded awe. I especially loved the ones who, though they might have been bad guys, were not completely evil and got redeemed at the end of the story. What can I say? My first real hero/character crush was Darth Vader.
"And though you turn from me
to glance behind"
I think at this point I did begin to recall having heard this song somewhere before. I think it seemed familiar. But I don't remember whether I placed it yet or not. I'm fairly sure, though, that by now it had my full attention.
"The Phantom of the Opera is there
inside your mind."
Phantom of the Opera!
Now I remembered where I'd heard that song before. I had heard it at Aunt Lynn's house (she is actually my Godmother but we think of her as an Aunt) back in the spring. What was it she and Mother had said about Phantom?
"His face was very badly scarred..." "He lives in the nether-regions of the opera house..." "Although her voice was beautiful, she was untrained..." "He masterminded her career..." "They thought they loved and trusted each other enough for her to take off his mask..." "repulsed by his face..."
As I recalled these ideas, the song exploded into its second verse. It was now no longer slow and mysterious but carried along by a fast, driving, exhilarating rhythm. It carried me along with it. It was fascinating. The tiny fragments of ideas that I recalled Mom and Aunt Lynn talking about were fascinating.
The words to the song were fascinating too.
"Those who have seen your face
Draw back in fear.
I am the (some word which I learned later was "mask you wear")
It's me they hear
Your Spirit and my voice
in one combined
The Phantom of the Opera is there
inside your mind.
I don't know if I can do justice in words to the effect which that music had upon me as I heard it that day, alone in that little room. But the song, with its haunting first verse and commanding second and third verses, the bits of ideas from that day at Aunt Lynn's, had an effect on me which was like nothing I'd ever known. I felt an elation I'd never felt before. Each nuance of the song, every note, word and rhythm, each cornel of an idea about this new universe, was like a sweet wein candy to be drawn out and savoured. It was as though I had taken a strong dose of a powerful stimulant. I felt as though I was flying fast and high though I was still standing in the room not making any sound. I didn't want to come down.
The next song was, if I recalled Aunt Lynn's tape correctly also from Phantom; "Music of the Night". So I listened to it with rapture as well, savouring anything that had to do with this new and wonderful thing. But after it, the side of the tape ended. By now, I had forgotten all about my original purpose in coming to listen to the tape. Therefore, when the tape finished, I sought the rewind button to hear that song, the Phantom song, again. I wanted more of that incredible elation, that feeling as though I were flying.
For the past two years, people had described me as "obsessed" with Les Miz. And to be sure, I had talked about it rather incessantly for most of that time. But in truth, I was not obsessed with Les Miz. Not like this. I had been deeply "into" it, it was true. But Les Miz had been an intellectual fascination with the concepts of poverty, slavery, prostitution and romantic love. It had never made me feel like that. I had never felt that elation while listening to Les Mis. It never made me feel as though I was soaring. It never instantly eclipsed all interests which had gone before it in an all-consuming fire of passion.
Phantom had caught my attention even that day at Aunt Lynn's. But I had not shown my intrigue then because I was too proud to admit that I could be interested in anything other than my universe of Les Mis. But now, alone in that room, with no one around in front of whom to be embarrassed about falling out of love with Les Mis, I gave myself utterly to the fire which Phantom ignited in me. I dove with rapture into the whole new world which I glimpsed as I listened to the Phantom song. I could almost see the darkness of the nether-regions of the Opera where the Phantom lived. I could almost see him calling Christine too him. What was it Aunt Lynn had said when I had asked her why, in her version of the song, there seemed to be another guy calling out Christine's name as she sang with the Phantom?
"Well, she's almost gone over to the Phantom and her boyfriend's trying to call her back."
I remembered wondering just exactly what would be wrong with her going over to the Phantom if she wanted to. But suddenly, Anita was standing in the now opened doorway telling me it was time for supper. Drat! I had to leave the Phantom tape. I left the little room still elated from the Phantom song, my heart still flying, filled with that strange, sweet sound. As I walked down the boardwalk to Great Oaks, the sky, visible from underneath the overhang of the boardwalk, had cleared and was now a vibrant blue with the sun shining clear and brilliant.
That night, or was it the next night, was Talent Night. So, after dinner and a brief free time back in our cabins, though not enough time to go and listen to Anita's tape, we all congregated in the lounge side of Great Oaks for the performances.
I started the show by singing My Castle On a Cloud, after which, I went and sat down. I ended up sitting beside Marius who had been part of our little gang of Les Miz fans at school the previous year. Later in the show, a group, I don't remember who, did a dance to New Kids On the Block's "Hanging Tough", a song and a group whom I made out to hate but some of whose songs I had secretly come to find rather catchy. Everyone sang along as they performed their dance. Marius and I sang too. But we didn't sing the real words. We sang: "Les Miz is bet-ter! And New Kids suck!" But we sang it quietly enough that we were the only ones who knew, just among ourselves. As we sang the insult words though, I found myself thinking of the Phantom song, thinking that Phantom was better still even than Les Miz.
I don't remember whether the high from hearing the Phantom song earlier had stayed with me all through dinner or not. But I do remember that, as I thought about the song then, as Marius and I sang, and even when I'd been thinking of it during my rendition of My Castle on a Cloud, I felt an echo of that incredible elation as I called the song to mind.
The next time we had a lengthy period of free time, I found Anita and asked her if I might go listen to her tape again. Perhaps if she had said no, I would have eventually come completely down from the heights to which the Phantom song sent me, and have returned to my old self. But she said yes; and that second session with the tape clinched my obsession.
For the remainder of the free time I flew, feeling as though I were ten-thousand feet above the earth and yet somehow there with the Phantom in his nether regions of darkness. I played that song over and over. I couldn't get enough of it. I couldn't get enough of the elation, the flying sensation it made me feel. I wanted, at one and the same time, to love the Phantom and be the Phantom, to see his face and overcome the fear. I wanted to have the person seeing the face overcome the fear. After that, I arranged with Anita that, whenever we had free time and she wasn't in her room, I could use her tape recorder and listen to her tape. And I did, every moment that I could.
I was supposed to leave camp half a day early that year to go to my Father's wedding to the woman who was to become my Stepmother. My real Mother was to pick me up on the Friday at noon to drive me to the wedding, so I would miss the Halloween-in-August dance which we were to have that night. Nevertheless, I joined the rest of the campers that morning in making costumes outside under the clear, brilliant blue sky. By then I had had two or three days during which I had listened to the Phantom song during every moment of free time that I had. And when I wasn't listening to it, it played in my head. Knowing that I would have to leave it at the end of the week, I had memorized the words so that I could sing the song to myself. I could not get enough of the incredible elation which I went into every time I heard that song, thought about Phantom or sang it to myself, which things I did any time that I was not actually engaged in an activity that required my attention. I couldn't get it out of my head, and I didn't want to. Hearing the song in my head and singing it to myself, let alone actually listening to the tape, were enough to send me flying, though at that point I still felt the need to keep my obsession private and not let it show to others beyond singing it quietly and mentioning that I liked Phantom. Naturally then, when it came time to make our costumes for the dance, the costume that I chose to make that morning was my first attempt at the Phantom's mask, a half-mask, cut from a styrophome plate. It didn't look at all like the real thing, but to me it was wondrous.
Even once I had left camp and Anita's tape, I flew on the elation from the Phantom song all through the next week. It played in my head and on my lips and I soared on it. Then, at the end of that week, a friend of the family gave me my first Phantom tape, for I had told my Mother about Phantom on the drive up to the wedding and I had not been able to shut up about it since. I could no longer keep it back, nor did I have any wish to do so anymore. Rather, I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. I wanted to make others understand and share my rapture.
I listened to my new tape as soon as she who gave it to me had gone home. I did not understand the plot at all, but that did nothing to bring me down from the elation. Then later that year, I saw the show on stage for my first two times, two weeks apart by a heavenly fluke. Even then, I still did not understand the plot, although by my second time seeing it I believe that I had read the original novel which helped somewhat. Full understanding of the musical's story did not come until the dawn of the following year, by which point I had had a chance to read the libretto. But each listening to of the tape, each chapter of the book, each time I saw the show, each new level of understanding was bliss.
What more can I say? The flame had been lit, and it was all consuming, thrilling and beautiful. Ignited by that song, it lived on the song and the story which I came gradually to know in it's various incarnations. It burns still, sometimes all-consumingly as it did for most of the rest of that year, sometimes just as a faint glow, resting in the back of my mind, waiting to be lit again. I have since even had other flames lit in my life in addition to Phantom, sharing the hearth with it, and have learned to accept and make room for them though Phantom will always be first after God. And that flame still burns high and brightly whenever I am brought back to Phantom and to what Phantom is all about. Through that song that week, I tasted the ecstasy for the first time of the poignant, beautiful, glorious sadness and joy that is the Phantom of the opera, and through it the beauty of love.