It's very hard to take The Phantom of the Opera seriously when one was raised singing along to Riders in the Sky's Phantom of the Chuckwagon (I recognize, that by linking to that, I have probably sacrificed any credibility this post will have.) And sure enough, when I watched a performance of Phantom for the first time, it was easy to mock. Ostentatious, theatrical, melodramatic, shamelessly populist - it's a mishmash of 80s rock, Broadway musical numbers, and just a bit of real opera, all knitted together by the plot of a 1910 novel, Le Fantôme de l'Opéra. But there's something more than that - an honesty lacking from many such stories.
I was suspicious at first. It didn't help that it had a decidedly French emphasis on sexuality (my puritanical evangelical soul wasn't sure what to think). The Phantom plays the role of seducer, father figure, and tutor to the young soprano, Christine Daae. He lives, Gollum-like, underneath the Paris Opera, creeping about through catacombs, poling across his underground lake, swinging through the rafters.
Christine is fascinated and repulsed by his darkness, and finds his mystery intriguing, despite the evil things he does. To the rest of the characters, the Phantom is a monster, orchestrating a reign of terror in the Paris opera house, requiring cash payments and complete obedience to his every whim. His obsession with Christine is his only redeeming quality. In other words, he's a monomaniac stalker who uses his victim's guilt and fascination to manipulate her. Charming.
As for Christine, her feelings are divided when another suitor, the straight-laced, masculine viscount, Raoul de Chagny, appears. His advances are of a very different kind - he offers protection, financial stability, and a chance to "share with me one love, one lifetime."
Obviously, this must be the stolid, boring traditional villain, I conclude. But no. As the Phantom continues establishing his Machiavellian rule, losing more and more of his mystique, he reveals himself to be less sensitive bad boy than masked thug, while Raoul's offer remains unequivocally positive.
Christine is torn. She's no fool, but the Phantom has taken advantage of her grief and uncertainty for so long that she finds it difficult to turn away. Also, he doesn't take kindly to break-ups, taking it out on poor secondary characters. The Phantom is a thoroughly modern hero - he has a tragic backstory which he uses to excuse his behavior ("The world showed no compassion to me!") and retreat into low self-esteem. He begs Christine to "lead me, save me, from my solitude." Naturally, his psychologist would recommend that he think positive thoughts and indulge his passions (it's not his fault, you see). He tries to fill his own emptiness with deceiving domination masquerading as true love.
Up until this point, I had been skeptical but appreciative, worried that the story would glamorize the abusive relationship at its center. It's the same basic format of awkward, naive girl and gorgeous but dangerously aggressive boyfriend that you can see in Twilight, and to a greater extent, 50 Shades of Grey. But the way in which Phantom's plot is finally resolved is completely different from the other two: the salvation comes through an act of unmerited grace born of reality, not escapist dreams.
Love is not love until the lover is willing to sacrifice everything - their very self - for the object of that love - even and especially if that object doesn't deserve it. This love acts from complete humility in which there is no possibility of personal gain. The act of grace in The Phantom of the Opera is like this. It is a love which shows that only through sacrificing everything is one made complete.