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Photo credit: expositions.bnf.fr

André Castaigne: Leroux’s Illustrator

At least one edition, the first, of Gaston Leroux‘s Fantôme de l’Opéra (The Phantom of the Opera) was illustrated.  Its illustrator,  André Castaigne (21 January 1861 in Angoulême – 1929 in Paris), had been a student of academicist painters Jean-Léon Gérôme and Alexandre Cabanel.

French-born Jean Alexandre Michel André Castaigne, who spent twenty years in San Francisco, is known mainly for his illustrations.  I will quote a post containing information about him as well as several illustrations, but none from The Phantom of the Opera.  To access this blog, please click on Illustrations Art Solutions:

“André Castaigne first came to the United States in 1890 after a six-month stay in England and became a director of Baltimore’s Charcoal Club. His first of many illustrations appeared in The Century magazine around 1891.
In 1894 he returned to France and became a painting instructor in Paris, where he maintained a winter studio in addition to his summer studio in Angoulême. 
He traveled extensively in Europe, and wrote and illustrated stories for The Century in Germany, Corsica, and Greece. 
As the principal draftsman for French president Félix Faure, Castaigne was awarded the ribbon of the Legion of Honor. 
In 1901 he returned to America as an official representative of the Imprimerie Nationale to study American printing plants in various cities.”
Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, illustration by André Castaigne
Photo credit: litteranet.blogspot.com
(Please click on the image to enlarge it.)

The Legend or “true” Story

It appears Gaston Leroux’s Fantôme de l’Opéra was inspired by real events which I will recount, except for a possible suicide by hanging.  No rope was found.  Moreover, a dancer fell to her death from a galery.

The River

The first event was an obstacle encountered by architect Charles Garnier during the building of the foundations of l’Opéra Garnier.  Allow me to quote Wikipedia as I do not think I can provide an adequate account of the event.

According to Wikipedia (Opéra Garnier):

“The opera house needed a much deeper basement in the substage area than other building types, but the level of the groundwater was unexpectedly high. Wells were sunk in February 1862 and eight steam pumps installed in March, but the site would not dry up. To deal with this problem Garnier designed a double foundation to protect the superstructure from moisture. It incorporated a water course and an enormous concrete cistern (cuve) which would both relieve the pressure of the external groundwater on the basement walls and serve as a reservoir in case of fire. A contract for its construction was signed on 20 June. Soon a persistent legend arose that the opera house was built over a subterranean lake, inspiring Gaston Leroux to incorporate the idea into his novel The Phantom of the Opera.”

From this event a legend also arose according to which there was an underground river called Grange-Batelière running under l’Opéra Garnier.  In fact, Paris does have an underground river named Grange-Batelière, but it does not flow under l’Opéra Garnier.  However, it would have been difficult for Leroux to resist the lure of an underground river.  There have long been underworlds.  

In Greek Mythology, the River Styx “formed the boundary between Earth and the Underworld [Hades].”  (See Styx, Wikipedia.)  In fact, the Greeks also had the concept of Tartarus.  Tartarus was an abyss used to torment and torture.  Those who had committed evil deeds during their life were sent to Tartarus.  Tartarus therefore resembles the Judeo-Christian hell.

The “Bazar de la Charité” Fire

The second event, a terrible tragedy, occurred on 4 May 1897.  On that day, a fire destroyed the shed in which a yearly charitable event, called the Bazar de la Charité, was taking place.  The Bazar was established in 1885 by British journalist and socialite Harry Blount.  As a bonus, people could see, for a small fee, “moving pictures,” the latest from the frères Lumière.  At about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, there was a fatal accident.  The projectionist asked his assistant to light a match, but neither the projectionist nor his assistant knew that ether was leaking from the projector lamp.  Allow me to quote Wikipedia (Bazar de la Charité) a second time:

“On the afternoon of 4 May [1897], the second of the planned four days of the bazaar, the projectionist’s equipment (using a system of ether and oxygen rather than electricity) caught fire. The resulting blaze, and the panic of the crowd, claimed the lives of 126 people, mostly aristocratic women. Over 200 people were additionally injured from the fire.  The disaster was reported nationally and internationally.”

In Leroux’s novel, the projector lamp may have been become the large chandelier that fell and killed a spectator whose seat was number 13.

The “real” Fantôme de l’Opéra

This is how the “true” story unfolds.  On 28 October 1873, a pianist was disfigured during a fire at the conservatory, rue Le Peletier.[i]  This same fire also killed the pianist’s fiancée, a ballerina.  Our disfigured and devastated pianist started living underground, in the lairs of l’Opéra Garnier, then under construction.  His name was Ernest and his underground home was near the reservoir located under the building.  He stayed there for the remainder of his life, playing music.  He billed l’Opéra 20,000 francs a month and demanded his own box, number 5.  He died within the entrails of the Opéra, but his body was not recovered until later and it is unlikely that it was identified conclusively.

Confirming the existence of a fantôme was a young woman by the name of Christine Daaé, an orphan adopted by the wife of her singing teacher.  She could hear someone call her name during the night and claimed to have seen the fantôme.  In fact, The Phantom of the Opera‘s plot is about Christine’s growing fondness for the phantom.  It is therefore a Beauty and the Beast narrative.

The Grand Chandelier and Gounod’s Faust

Then, on 20 May 1896, during a performance of Faust, by Charles Gounod (17 June 1818 – 17 October or 18 October 1893), a chandelier had fallen and, as mentioned above, had killed a spectator, occupying seat 13.  Decades earlier, long before l’Opéra Garnier was built, Gounod’s Faust (1859) had been rejected by the Paris Opera, then located rue Le Peletier.[ii]

Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame

All of the above, true or false, may have influenced Leroux.  These events and the legend it generated constitute powerful archetypes.  However, I believe Victor Hugo‘s 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) is the Fantôme‘s birthplace.  The phantom could be a reborn and rather mangled Quasimodo (the Hunchback), and Christine, the beautiful but doomed Esméralda.


Unfortunately, illustrations for Le Fantôme de l’Opéra are not easily available. But we have one, the main one.  As for the lore surrounding our Fantôme, it gives the novel a context and tends to pin it down.  At any rate, I thought I would pass on to my readers the information I had gathered.

Love to all of you,


[i] This is the street where the former Paris Opera was located before l’Opéra Garnier was built.
[ii] See: Paris Zig Zag: http://www.pariszigzag.fr/visite-insolite-paris/fantome-opera-garnier
Charles Gounod (1818-1893)
Valse de l’opéra Faust (Waltz from Faust)
Wiener Philharmoniker
Rudolf Kempe (14 June 1910 in Dresden – 12 May 1976 in Zürich)
Micheline Walker©
June 24, 2013
Photo credit: www.greenriver-paris.fr