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Vancouver Master Chorale gives a voice to horror classic

Choir, guests provide scary accompaniment to classic ‘Phantom of the Opera’

By , Columbian staff writer
4 Photos
Vancouver Master Chorale will provide a spooky soundtrack for silent film "The Phantom of the Opera" at Battle Ground High School on Oct. 29 and 30.
Vancouver Master Chorale will provide a spooky soundtrack for silent film "The Phantom of the Opera" at Battle Ground High School on Oct. 29 and 30. (Public domain) Photo Gallery

Big news on Broadway is the recent announcement that “The Phantom of the Opera,” the record-breaking Andrew Lloyd Weber musical that’s been running since 1988, will close early next year.

Don’t worry about missing out. Closer to home, big “Phantom” news is that a lively, jazzy musical score for the original silent film version of the same spooky story enjoys its U.S. debut this weekend — right here in Clark County.”

Accompanied by many musical guests — including the Vancouver Master Chorale, local student singers and an orchestral octet — the classic 1925 “Phantom of the Opera” will screen at Battle Ground High School on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, Oct. 29 and 30.

The tricky new score “is funny, it’s witty, it’s a total hoot,” said Master Chorale artistic director Jana Hart. “It’s also a real challenge.”

That’s because composer Andrew Downing, a jazz bassist and professor at the University of Toronto, writes like a playful jazz cat, Hart said. Downing’s score for “Phantom” is full of musical mischief, surprises and room for improvisation, she said.

If You Go

What: Screening of silent 1925 horror classic “The Phantom of the Opera” with accompaniment by Vancouver Master Chorale, instrumental octet.

Also: “Double Trouble” from “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “The Monster Mash,” featuring students from Battle Ground and Prairie high schools.

When: 7 p.m. Oct. 29 and 3 p.m. Oct. 30.

Where: Battle Ground High School, 300 W. Main St., Battle Ground.

Tickets: $25. $5 at the door for all students (including middle school, high school, college, River HomeLink). Free for age 12 and younger.

On the web:

“There’s a place where he puts in, ‘trombone improvises 32 measures,’ ” Hart said. “Then it says, ‘violin improvises drops of water,’ four measures. And then, ‘howling sounds.’ ”

“It’s tricky for the singers because of odd musical intervals and chords,” said Master Chorale member Tom Paulu.

He said the chorale’s part often includes the film’s on-screen subtitles and dialogue, like creepy questions about the mysterious being lurking below the Paris Opera: “Real or just imagination? Flesh and bone and mutilation?”

When it comes to dramatic horror-movie vocals, Hart’s guidance for her singers has often run opposite to what she’s usually after, she said.

“It’s not about round values and beautiful sounds. It’s more like acting,” she said. “We have a job to do in getting emotions across, getting the big thrills and chills across.”

Get ready for 95 singers whooping and shrieking along with the story, as in this warning about the Phantom’s face: “There is no nose!”

Still scary

Directed by Rupert Julian, 1925’s “Phantom of the Opera” is one of the original, groundbreaking monster-makeup movies, according to horror film scholar Adam Hart, Jana Hart’s son. Adam Hart is an author and film-studies teacher at the University of Pittsburgh, where his main focus has been the horror films of George A. Romero.

In a short essay, Adam Hart writes that movie star Lon Chaney became famous — even infamous — as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” after his grotesque appearances in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1923 and “The Phantom of the Opera” in 1925.

Chaney’s shockingly creative makeup and prosthetics stole the limelight from his mature, artistic performances, Adam Hart writes, and scared off some moviegoers of his day.

“In the years before Dracula and Frankenstein, audiences were not quite prepared for the grisly sights of a horror movie,” Adam Hart writes. “Intrigue, murder, and the most frightening, most monstrous, most ghastly make-up job the cinema had ever seen were too much for many viewers!”

It wasn’t until decades later, when Chaney’s Phantom started appearing on TV and in neighborhood movie theaters, that people learned to love him, Adam Hart writes.

“It became Chaney’s signature role, the performance that ensured he would be remembered as one of the great actors of his era and which placed him on the Mt. Rushmore of horror actors alongside Lugosi, Karloff, and Vincent Price,” Adam Hart writes.

While films of the silent era are often marked by melodramatic overacting, Adam Hart writes, Chaney’s legendary performance remains powerful and terrifying.

“Lon Chaney’s performance still has the power to shock and thrill audiences,” he writes. “Its surreal, dreamlike images and its staggering lead performance are still, like so much of silent cinema, underseen.”

Kind of wonderful

Downing’s 2016 score debuted in Victoria, B.C., and has been performed several times in Canada, but never before in the United States. Jana Hart said when she learned about the piece and then listened to it, she found it irresistible. Performing the piece became doubly irresistible after she contacted Downing, who proved incredibly nice in that typical Canadian way and who substantially cut his usual fee to license the performance, Jana Hart said.

Downing would be attending the Battle Ground concerts, except that the retreat of COVID-19 means he’s grown too busy at home in Canada lately, she said.

While the pandemic was ruinous to live music performance and especially to groups of singers, its aftermath has brought many new participants to the Vancouver Master Chorale, including many trained musicians who have graduated from local schools or recently started jobs at local tech companies, Hart said.

“People are just starved for art, they’re starved to sing,” she said. “At this point I have requests for auditions every day. It’s kind of wonderful.”

Also wonderful, Jana Hart said, is the $80,000 grant Vancouver Master Chorale recently received from the local Cowlitz Tribal Foundation’s Education and Art Fund.