Even if you’ve never seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, chances are you’re familiar with its iconic poster. Not only is the West End phenomenon one of the most popular musicals of all time, it’s also the best-selling entertainment event to date with worldwide sales of USD 5.6 billion since its debut in 1986.
To put that into perspective, Michael Jackson’s total earnings (including posthumous album sales) add up to around USD 2.8 billion when adjusted for inflation. The surviving Beatles – Paul and Ringo – are comparative paupers with a combined worth of around USD 1.1 billion.
There had been attempts to bring Phantom of the Opera to Beijing as early as 1999, with the show finally coming to the capital in November of this year.
Having only previously seen the terrible 2005 movie adaptation starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum, I wasn’t sure what to expect at the Tianqiao Performing Arts Centre last Saturday.
The verdict? It was amazing. Phantom was big and bold and campy, with elaborate costumes, corset-busting musical numbers, and an atmosphere of Romantic longing and ruin courtesy of the late and great production designer, Maria Björnson.
The musical opens in 1911 at the Paris Opera House, where an auction is under way. An old man – the elderly Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny – bids for the first item, a music box. The next is a grand old chandelier, which suddenly flickers to life and rises over the orchestra, transporting the audience back to 1881.
In the midst of a rehearsal, the opera manager announces his retirement and introduces the new owners, André and Firmin. They must deal with the "opera ghost," an invisible presence feared by the dancers and respected by the ballet mistress, Madame Giry.
The opera ghost orders the lead soprano, Carlotta, to be replaced with Christine Daaé, an orphaned chorus girl. When his demands are laughed off, a falling backdrop nearly kills Carlotta.
To André and Firmin’s surprise, Christine surpasses the prima donna thanks to the singing lessons she has been receiving from a mysterious figure called the Angel of Music. Following her triumphant debut, she reconnects with her childhood sweetheart, the young Vicomte de Chagny.
Soon, the Angel of Music reveals himself to be none other than the opera ghost. The scene where he and Christine glide over an underground lake, lit by rows of glimmering candles, is one of the best pieces of set design I’ve ever seen.
As Christine falls deeper under the Phantom’s spell, she vacillates between love and art, fear and compassion. As over-the-top as the musical can get, I did get a bit weepy at the end (granted, the levee’s been known to break at Sarah McLachlan SPCA commercials).
"The Angel of Music sings songs in my head," croons Christine in "Little Lotte/The Mirror." Mine too, except they’re stuck there and I now draw sideways glances from strangers when I mumble the lyrics to "Masquerade" at the fruit shop. Thanks a lot, Andrew Lloyd Webber.
At RMB 480 per ticket, we ended up in the nosebleed section on the second floor. That made some of the dialogue difficult to hear; not everyone can rely on Chinese subtitles for context, so English-speaking fans might consider shelling out for better seats.
There are bathrooms on each floor, but the maddeningly inadequate number of stalls (two) meant the women’s line was massive; sneak out slightly before the break if you’re concerned about anyone peeing themselves. The area around Tianqiao is a transportation dead zone; your best bet is Uber or a taxi.
Phantom of the Opera
Until January 10, 2016. Recommended for ages 7 and up. English with Chinese subtitles. RMB 99 (students only), 280, 480, 680, 980, 1180 or 1380 for weekend shows (click here to buy tickets). Shows start at 2.30pm or 7.30pm.
Tianqiao Performing Arts Centre, Bldg 9, Tianqiao Nandajie, Xicheng District (400 635 3355) 西城区天桥南大街9号楼
Sijia Chen is a contributing editor at beijingkids and a freelance writer who has covered travel, tech, culture, parenting, and the environment. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, The Independent, the Beijinger, Midnight Poutine, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @sijiawrites or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.