I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen The Phantom of The Opera. I’m talking about the stage version, mind you, not the 2004 movie version in which you basically had to squint in order to discern the Phantom’s facial deformity thereby negating the entire point of the story. (Sorry, but that really wasn’t cool.) Anyway, twenty is probably about right. And every time I see it, I notice something new — or deepen my understanding in some way. I hope I get to watch it another twenty times — or another fifty. (Feel free to call me a geek, by the way. You won’t be the first, or the last, person to do it and I’ll always take it as a compliment, whether you mean it as one or not.)
To further demonstrate just how geeky I actually am, I will now reveal that, during my most recent trip to see Phantom, the thing I walked away thinking about — parsing, analyzing, ruminating on — was a single line. A line which, on the surface, is fairly mundane and self-explanatory but which, this time, struck me as pivotal and integral to our understanding of the Phantom as a character. The line was this: “Christine, I love you.” Seems pretty self-explanatory, right? Well, I don’t really think so anymore.
“I love you” is the last thing the Phantom says to Christine. After he’s taken her down to his lair for the final time and tried to make her choose between living with him or killing her boyfriend, Raoul. It’s after she’s kissed him and he’s seen the error of his ways and let them both go without killing anyone (else). It’s when Christine comes back to return the ring he gave her. And suddenly, for the first (and last) time, the Phantom sings: “Christine I love you.”
In the past, I’ve taken this line to be one last attempt to get Christine to stay. Or least a sort of explanation for why he’s done everything he’s done. He loved her, and it consumed him. But this time I heard it differently. That line isn’t a confession. It’s a realization.
The Phantom, until this very last moment, has mistaken his lust — his burning passion — for love. He thought the near-sexual ecstasies Christine’s singing transported him to and the carnal longing he felt for her were the same as love. His obsession and his passionate need to be with Christine — and to hear her sing — set his heart afire with a feeling so intense, so all-consuming, that he felt sure that his heart was engulfed by the flames of love. But it wasn’t love, it was lust (and obsession).
When the Phantom overhears Christine and Raoul singing “All I Ask Of You” — their sweet and, to my ears, rather boring, love ballad — he can’t understand why Christine would pick that guy over him. “I gave you my music!” he cries. How could this steady, dependable, predictable viscount be better than him? He’s not even a musician for crying out loud! Does he even know how to love? The Phantom’s passion is so much stronger — burns so much more fiercely — than Raoul’s love for Christine that The Phantom can’t fathom why Christine doesn’t see it, and feel it too.
Later, when Christine reveals that the masked character on stage — who is supposed to be Piangi — is really the Phantom, the Phantom tries to win her over by singing “All I Ask Of You.” It worked for Raoul, it should work for him too, he’s thinking. His feelings are so much more intense and powerful, surely Christine will understand that, if he just sings this song that worked on her before. But it doesn’t work because he doesn’t mean it. He doesn’t even know what it means. His words are empty and she knows it.
“Have you gorged yourself at last in your lust for blood? Am I now to be prey to your lust for flesh?” Christine’s got his number. She sees the (creepy) mannequin of herself all dressed like a prostitute and lounging seductively on the Phantom’s chair. And it’s fairly obvious, given that the Phantom has dressed her in a wedding dress and is forcing a veil onto her head, that he’s thinking about the wedding night — not his undying spiritual love for her. And the Phantom is basically like, “Yeah, I want to have sex with you, what’s wrong with that?” (I mean, nothing between two people who actually love each other, but all kinds of things in this particular situation.)
The Phantom thinks that the transporting ecstasy that he and Christine feel when they sing together is the same as love. He thinks that the only thing that’s coming between him and Christine is his deformity. But, even though Christine is sexually attracted to the Phantom when they sing, she doesn’t (always) confuse that feeling with love. She thinks, at the beginning I think, that it could lead to love, but it’s not the same thing for her. Instinctively, she knows the difference.
And then the Phantom gets good and kissed. “Pitiful creature of darkness, what kind of life have you known? God give me courage to show you you are not alone!” Christine sees how mixed up the Phantom is — how consumed with unrequited passion and longing and how desperate he is for human contact of any kind — and she reaches across the void and touches him on his terms. She joins her body to his, not through sex, but through the often much more intimate act of a kiss. She shows him that it’s not his face that’s holding her back, its his behavior, and that she loves him (just not like that).
And — and this is what I realized this time — in receiving that kiss, the Phantom’s world is open to a whole new emotion: love. Lust and passion and romance can go with love, but they aren’t the thing itself. Raoul doesn’t have the Phantom’s deep sexual passion (no matter how hard we wish he did) but he does understand love. And, if a healthy relationship is what you’re going for, love is what you need. But, in the moment of Christine’s kiss, the Phantom suddenly understands why she’s choosing Raoul. Christine shows him love — she’s the first person in his whole entire life who does — and his heart cracks open and he feels love in return.
The Phantom has to let Christine go because love has taught him to think about someone else’s welfare, not just his own. He sees that he’s passed “the point of no return” and wouldn’t be a good match for her. And he sees that Raoul — boring as he is — will be.
So, when Christine comes back to return his ring, the Phantom is telling her that he gets it. He understands now what he’s been doing wrong, and how royally he’s messed the whole thing up. “Christine,” he says, in awe and in despair, “I love you.” And I’m sorry but I’ll be damned if that doesn’t make me love the guy even more.
Want more pop culture analysis? Check out Princess Origin Stories: Cinderella. A deep dive into the fairy tale behind Disney’s most iconic princess.