I took my 9 year-old to see The Phantom of the Opera, and I’m still recovering…in the good way. It was my 3rd time seeing it. Once, through the eyes of a teenager full of angst. Once as a young adult falling in love with her future husband. And now, as a mother, watching her child experience something for the first time. Each time, I am moved by the story, affected by the music, and saddened by the ending. I wasn’t sure my son would understand it enough to love it, or even like it, but I figured the experience couldn’t hurt. Besides, fancy drinks and concession stand goodies, late on a school night, are the stuff memories are made of.
He was engaged from the start, never taking his eyes off the stage. I’d done some pre-loading to prepare him for the jarring sounds and visuals, which he got through emotionally intact. No surprise, he connected with the music. His love for all things instrumental has been present pretty much since birth. (This is the same kid who asked for a harp from Santa on his 3rd Christmas!) At intermission, he was full of words. He could barely get them out fast enough. And OMG the fire! The gunshots! The chandelier!! As soon as the lights flickered telling us to take our seats, he was off. Down the corridor, warm chocolate chip cookie in hand, C’mon Mom!
From the first verse of Masquerade, he was transfixed. As the second half of the story unfolded, I realized I had not remembered the intensity. He seemed ok, but whispered a few questions to me as we saw the Phantom’s backstory explained through shadowy images, projected on a wall. The shadows revealed that some characters had met their demise at the hands of the Phantom’s anger. In the last scenes, the Phantom’s face is revealed to be disfigured— a startling visual for a 9 year-old. I could see my son’s expression turn to concern. I wasn’t sure if he was reacting to the stage make-up, the change in mood when Christine Daae is being held captive, the intensity of the music, or just the overall tension that filled the auditorium.
As the curtain came down for the last time, he clapped enthusiastically, glancing sideways to check it was really the end (I think hopeful, that maybe it wasn’t). As soon as the applause ended and we could talk, he said, I didn’t like the ending. Not expecting this, I wanted to know why. I don’t like that the Phantom couldn’t be happy. Out of the mouths of babes. I understood wholeheartedly how he felt. We are conditioned to want a happy ending.
Our discussion continued in the car… and as he was getting his pajamas on…long after bedtime. Why couldn’t they make it so he was at least a little bit happy? Why did he have to be so alone? And the clincher, with tears in his eyes, Are there really people who have that sad of a life? Boy, this parenting stuff sure can deliver a sucker punch. My motto is to be honest if I can, and yes, people do have that sad of a life. But, maybe we don’t need to go there, at 10:30 on a school night?
My son is a major reader, so I grasped for characters to use as examples for explanation; hoping to insert a fictional buffer into our conversation. Real life hardships faced by kids all over the world: abuse, neglect, poverty, bullying, would have to wait for an earlier time of day, preferably on a weekend, or when my husband wasn’t out of town.
He’s obsessed with all things Harry Potter, so I tried Voldemort.
No Mom, Voldemort had a hard childhood, but he was bad from the beginning, he didn’t even try to be good. The Phantom was born with a different face and was put in a circus and put in a cage…anyone would have turned bad who was treated like that!
Ok, good point. And man this kid really paid attention to the plot!
Are people really treated like that in real life?
(Ok, hello 11:00 PM, we are having this conversation now, school night or not.)
Enter brutal truth. Yes. There are children who never get a fair start; who are born into much different environments than you and your brother. There are kids who are bullied their whole lives, and it changes them, and sometimes they make really bad choices out of anger or fear. And we can’t do much about it. The only thing we can control is how we treat others. We have to remember that everyone has a backstory, even those who act in ways we don’t understand.
Yes, mom, like Snape! Everyone thought he was bad, but he was so good.
Ok, we’re back to fiction, phew! Yes, like Snape.
He is actually the hero. He loved Lilly the most. And James isn’t what Harry thought, I bet Harry is ashamed of James.
Oh boy, we are digging deep here, and it’s not getting any earlier. Well, yes, in some ways. But people aren’t perfect, even those we love the most. But we have to accept all of them, even the parts we don’t like. And yes, even the ‘good guys’ can be complicated.
Mom, James is a bully! And Snape loves Lilly so much that he protects Harry, even though he reminds him of James, who bullied him. And when his patronus is a doe, it’s sooo saaad!
And Mom, The Phantom was bullied too and treated terribly and the only way he could escape was to fight and to hurt the people hurting him. And no one ever loved him. It’s just. sooo. saaad.
Why couldn’t I have just taken him to see Storks?! I had to get us out of this somehow. He hates mushy stuff and kissing, but we had to go there. Because school. We needed to put a period on this conversation and go to bed! It was time to talk about the ending that started this conversation…so.long.ago. So we talked about the kissing…ewww!
Our discussion in a nutshell: Christine Daae kisses the Phantom at the end to show him he was worth loving, he was worth something, and not a monster. And in turn, he lets her go, because he loved her. To my surprise, there was no cringing. No, Gross, Mom! Just a question.
Mom, Do you think he ever found a friend or anyone who was nice to him, or was he alone forever?
Continuing with the truth telling thing we had going I said, I don’t know.
And finally…quiet. That was enough, for now.
He climbed into bed (taking a dog with him to cuddle) and said more to himself than to me— But it was just a story.
Yes, a sad story. And he will learn as he goes, what I already know.
The sad ones stick. The sad ones move you. The sad ones are often the stories of the underdog. Sometimes they are the most important to tell because they are the voice for those who were never going to get a happy ending; but who’s story is still worth telling.
I’m glad my kid is sensitive. (But we never use the S word since I have heard it enough for both of us.) I tell him he feels things deeply. He does, he always has, which makes him complicated. I know how he feels, because he gets it from me. It’s a blessing and a curse. And just like James Potter, and Snape, and The Phantom, it’s what makes us imperfect and vulnerable, and sometimes taxing on the ones who love us. But it’s part of our story, and it’s the only one we know how to tell.