Phantom unmasked

Ramin Karimloo speaks on his lead role in “Phantom of the Opera”


Phantom unmasked
by Darius Kadivar

"Whose is that shape in the shadows? Whose is that face, in the mask?"
–Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

I have always greatly admired Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Musical shows, From Jesus Christ SuperStar, Evita to Cats all have been great international success’ for more than three decades running regularly on the London Stage and elsewhere worldwide. They combine Lloyd Webber’s great compositions with Lyrics by such confirmed talents as Tim Rice, Charles Hart or Richard Stilgoe.

All the above musicals cited were also brought to Screen with great success. Other than the fact that most songs truly strike a sentimental corde with the audience is that these shows also involve large casts, incredible sets and visually stunning choreographies that share all the necessary ingredients that make a great entertainment very much like during Hollywood’s Golden Era. One of Lloyd Webber’s most successful musicals in recent years has undoubtfully been the The Phantom of the Opera, based on a novel published in 1910 by French author Gaston Leroux.

Leroux’s novel was to be brought to screen numerous times notably with Lon Chaney in the title role of the Silent 1925 version and Claude Rains in the Technicolor version from the mid 40’s. Finally Joel Schumacher directed the screen adaptation of Lloyd Webber’s musical in 2004 with scottish actor Gerard Butler ( Now known for playing Spartan King Leonidas in Zach Snyder’s 300 ) in the title role. Interestingly the lead role of the Phantom on the London Stage is now being played by a talented Persian Canadian named Ramin Karimloo who was also cast as the father of Christine, the Phantom’s love interest, in Schumacher’s Hollywood film.

Born in Tehran in 1978 , Ramin grew up in Totonto singing in Rock Bands before being drawn to the Theater and pusue a carreer on stage. His fabulous voice, charismatic and handsom looks are sure to make an impact both on Stage and hopefully Onscreen in the years to come! …

On a different note, there is a strange but happily ironic coincidence in having an actor/singer of Persian Heritage reprise the role of the Phantom. Indeed although the following detail does not appear in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version due to narrative choices, it deserves however to be mentioned: In the initial story by French author Gaston Leroux, the major protagonist, Erik, a horribly deformed musical genius known as the "Opera Ghost" has been running away from an obscure past, in a foreign land, that is only revealed gradually throughout the book by another mysterious character who serves essentially as the narrator known as “The Persian” or "Daroga"…

Born hideously deformed, in the city of Roen, France, Erik was a "subject of horror" for his family and as a result of which, he ran away as a young boy and fell in with a band of Gypsies and clowns, making his living as an attraction in freak shows, in which he was known as "le mort vivant (the living dead)." During his time with the tribe, Erik became a great illusionist, magician and ventriloquist. His reputation for these skills and for his beautiful singing voice spread quickly, and one day a fur trader mentioned him to the Shah of Persia (*). The Shah ordered the Persian to fetch Erik and bring him to the palace.

The Shah-in-Shah soon commissioned Erik, who proved himself a gifted architect, with the task of constructing an elaborate palace. The edifice was designed with so many trap doors and secret rooms that not even the slightest whisper could be considered private. The architecture was arranged for the purpose of carrying sound to a myriad of hidden locations, so that one never knew who might be listening in. At some point under the Shah's employment, Erik was also a royal assassin, using a unique noose referred to as the Punjab Lasso.

The Persian dwells on the vague horrors that existed at Mazenderan rather than going in depth into the actual circumstances involved. The Shah, pleased with Erik's work and determined that no one else should have such a palace as his, ordered Erik to be blinded. Thinking that Erik could still make another palace even without his eyesight, the Shah ordered Erik's execution. It was only by the intervention of the daroga (the Persian) that Erik was able to escape. He eventually makes it back to France and is bid on a contract to help with the construction of the Palais Garnier, commonly known as the Paris Opera House.

So here is where the Story of the Phantom of the Opera Takes Off in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Musical:

The Plot: "The Phantom of the Opera" is a magnificent tale that begins when an opera ghost terrorizes the cast and crew of the French Opera House while tutoring a chorus girl. He finally drives the lead soprano crazy so she and her friend leave. The girl is able to sing lead one night but the soprano doesn't want her show stolen so she comes back. The ghost demands they keep giving his protégé lead roles. Meanwhile, His pupil falls in love with the Vicomte de Chagny, but the Phantom is in love with Christine, his student. The Phantom is outraged by their love and kidnaps Christine to be his eternal bride. Will Raoul, the Vicomte, be able to stop this dastardly plan? …

Karimloo has been performing in the title role since September 10, 2007, and this year will also mark the Phantom's 21st anniversary in London's West End. I was happy to interview Ramin Karimloo on his new challenge in a demanding yet rewarding role of The Phantom of the Opera.

Darius Kadivar (DK): Ramin, you have been performing on the London Stage for some time now often playing the lead role but as Standby. How does it feel to be in the Spotlight now, but with full credit and Top Billing on the Phantom of the Opera ? You are also the youngest actor to play the part to date. Is it stressful or do you feel confident about the challenge ?

Ramin Karimloo (RK): The whole age thing is not something I am not really concerned with or interested in. It’s a great accolade for myself I guess and even my career to be the youngest to play the Phantom in London. But playing the role itself at any age would be a great achievement as well. As far as it age and it’s relevance to the show and character goes, it’s something that I had to actually forget about. The Phantom’s psyche, emotions and heart are all what makes his truth. Ultimately that’s the aim for me as an actor.

I do bring a different energy and physicality because of my age, naturally. It is a big challenge for me. I do however feel that this is the perfect time for me to be part of the show. I felt there are things I’d like to bring to the Phantom. I wanted to bring a new energy to the role.

DK: Musicals demand both singing and acting skills, and I suppose more importantly finding the right balance between the two … how do you manage to pace and control your breathing during such lengthy live stage performances as with Miss Saigon or the Phantom of the Opera ? Particularly in the latter with all your make Up ?

RK: I think the main thing is to keep healthy. I try and sleep regularly and keep a strict diet. I try and eat six meals a day to keep my energy levels up. I train in the gym anywhere between 3-5 days a week. Although lately Phantom has taken hold of most of my time with the 21st anniversary.

DK: How would you describe the character of the Phantom ? Is he an anti-hero, a good or loathsome person ?

RK: I guess in a way he’s all of the above. He definitely is not an evil person. He is a victim of circumstance and environment. He has been conditioned with such prejudice in his life. I believe the Phantom to be Autistic. I think he has a form of “Aspergus Syndrome”. When the Phantom kills I truly don’t believe it to be premeditated. He’s just losing control. Again, this all stems from his social conditioning. He’s never felt a mother’s love, nor his father. He has had to become a man without being a child.

DK: This story was brought to screen several times notably by Classic Hollywood Legends like Lon Chaney or Claude Rains. Most recently Joel Schumacher adapted Lloyd Webber’s Musical in which you took part but the title role went to Gerald Butler. Were you influenced by these former performances or have you attempted a totally different approach to the role ? Did you discover new aspects in his personality (i.e.: The Phantom) or his relationship with the other protagonists particularly towards Christine ?

RK: I approached the role from my own truths. There was a slight inspiration from Gerald’s Phantom which I thought brought a contemporary feel to the character. Actually, what he did was remind me that Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the role of the Phantom as a rock opera. So that got some ideas floating around my head and then I got the call to come and audition. That felt like fate was calling. I can’t really take on what other Phantoms do because their truths are not the same as mine. We all bring unique interpretations to the Phantom base on our own physicality, presence, and voice.

DK: Apart from the Phantom, of all your previous roles on stage which has been your favorite character to play or story to act in and why ?

RK: I had a chance to play Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard for a short period of time. That was a great role. I guess because I didn’t play him long and I was very young to play his too, 22, I would like to have a longer run at that. It was great to go from narrator to character within the same scene. There’s a lot fun to be had with that. He also has a great number at the top of Act II. So, I’ll say Joe Gillis.

DK: Tell us a little about cosmopolitan background ? Where in Iran were you born ? Have you kept any ties with your country of birth ?

RK: I was born in Tehran. Sadly I don’t know much about my roots there. I’m just now learning about our family history and also at the same time the countries history. It would be such an honor to go back one day and visit such a beautiful place.

DK: Do your Persian Roots influence or inspire you as an Artist or in your life in general ?

RK: Well as Persian’s we are instinctive and passionate so I draw on that. As for anyone in general, it’s hard to say. I left Iran within the first few months of my life so any artists that have influenced me would be from North America. Although when I hear the way the Koran is sung or when I hear Persian vocalists, there is something passionate that resonates that I always feel would sound great in a theatre show.

There’s a lot of heart when you hear someone like that sing.

DK: Defining yourself as a legit-Baritone/Rock Tenor and for someone who equally masters the classic repertoire as well as contemporary Rock, Jazz and Pop songs , do you see a clear distinction or antagonism between these two genres ? Do you feel that the themes expressed in classical pieces find echoes in our contemporary world and music ?

RK: Well we are always telling a story, whether it’s classical or contemporary. The style of voice I decide to use comes down to the character and style of music. I think the voice should be just as malleable as a person’s physique and appearance, which we alter for roles. For instance The Phantom has a different vocal tone and authority to Joe Gillis. Also, even though The Phantom is a rock opera role, there are still elements of opera within him. Joe on the other hand is much more laid back, Jazzy and narrative. So to me an overpowering and big voice for the most part would be overdoing it for Joe.

DK: Do you listen to any Persian Music be it classical or Pop ( Shajarian, Vigen, Aref, Googoosh ) ? Who do you like or dislike ? Are you sensitive to the Persian Melodies in general, do you sing or play any yourself ?

RK: Sadly I’m not familiar to Persian music. Obviously when I’m visiting family and they have it playing in the background I do like hearing it. Like I said earlier there is something in the tone and the melodies which I find very passionate and beautiful to listen to.

DK: On a different note I would like to have your impressions on the recent demise of Luciano Pavarotti ? Has he been an inspiration for your generation and fellow colleagues ?

RK: Without a doubt he would have been a huge influence to a lot of my colleagues. Even to me as an untrained rock singer, he was and is influential. I just loved watching him sing. In a scene as The Phantom I try and take on the persona of the Italian Opera singer to fool Christine. At times like that I remember Pavarotti just open his mouth and let all this sound effortlessly come out. What I love about his voice is, although he is technically faultless, he sings from the heart, full of passion.

DK: I also know that you would like to extend your experience on film and you seem to be also interested in Iranian films. Have you had any propositions from Diaspora directors or those from in Iran ? Is there any particular director/ actor you would like to work with ?

RK: Well I have had some interest from an Iranian director who’s name is actually Ramin. Unfortunately it has yet to materialize to something but I believe when the right thing comes at the right time, then it will work out. My Farsi is don’t think is strong enough for film but if an Iranian director wants an Iranian actor with an American/Canadian accent, then that is something I would definitely consider.
There are lots of actors and directors I would love to work with. I am pretty sure my list of wishes would mirror ever other actor in my position wanting to make that leap from the stage to the screen.

DK: Although this is not mentioned in Lloyd Webber’s adaptation, were you familiar with the enigmatic Persian past of the Phantom’s life in Gaston Leroux’s original novel ? It is certainly a Good Omen that you were chosen for the part, no ?

RK: Yeah, actually during my research I did come across how he did work for the Shah of Persia. I had to be careful how much back story I did take on board because some of it didn’t go with the book of the stage version we did. Although I did try and keep as much Persian back-story as possible. You know, keep it close to home. So I truly think it was a great Omen for me. (Laughs)

DK: You were born in 1978, therefore approximately at the time of the Islamic Revolution that took place in Iran, but I suppose like many of your generation, you grew up learning about that period through your parents. Sincerely has it been difficult for you to cope with your Persian Roots while growing up in the West ? Have you been to Iran and what are your hopes for its future if any ?

RK: I’m learning about my history now. Growing up it wasn’t too difficult because I left Iran so young. I grew up and learnt around North American culture and my parents embraced that for our sakes. In our home we kept true to our roots and heritage so we had the best of all worlds. Although when I got older I did find it hard to feel like I had a true identity, especially once I made England my home. I always say, my blood is Iranian, my heart is Canadian and my home is England.
DK: On a final note, given the international political and cultural tensions between countries in our Post Sept 11Th times, I would like to know if you think that there is an avenue particularly for Iranian Diaspora Artists ( and there are many) like you who are gifted with a dual heritage, where they could express themselves and bridge Persian Culture with the West and vice versa ?

RK: I think if there is any way we as artists can help is to continue to embrace multiculturalism and appreciate and accept that people will have different beliefs and faiths. Ultimately we all want a free world and to freely believe in what we want. What we can do is get involved in anything which supports community.

DK: Thank you sincerely Ramin for you precious time and I wish you the very best in your promising career both on and off stage and hopefully very soon onscreen.


Authors Notes:

(*) The story of the Phantom is set in the second half of the 19th Century, so the Shah is question is most probably Nasseredin Shah Qajar who traveled with great Pomp and Circumstance to Europe in 1871. The misadventures of Erik ( The Phantom ) In Persia were certainly inspired to novelist Gaston Leroux by the exotic nature of this Royal visit and the sensationalist press of the time.
Ramin Karimloo’s Official Website and MySpace page.

The Phantom of the Opera plays at Her Majesty’s Theater, Haymarket London See Official Website for Tickets and Schedule.
Recommended Viewing:Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music score added on the Lon Chaney film (youtube)


more from Darius Kadivar
Rosie T.


by Rosie T. on

in the original version, there's this secret Persia, this "Persia Within" behind both the most glorious and the most deformed face of Europe, which of course are one and the same. Makes perfect sense to me.... Darius, do you know what's happened to Colonel Hemayat?


"Aspergus syndrome"?!!! Bah

by Anonymous666 (not verified) on

"Aspergus syndrome"?!!! Bah Bah!