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Syracuse Professor Explores Critical Response to Lloyd Webber’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’

Amanda Eubanks Winkler reflects on ‘Phantom’'s success amid Thatcher/Reagan era

Oct. 30, 2014, by Rob Enslin

Amanda Eubanks Winkler
Amanda Eubanks Winkler
Critical response to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, within the political and economic milieu of the Thatcher/Reagan era, is the subject of a scholarly article by a professor in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences.  

Amanda Eubanks Winkler, associate professor of music history and cultures in the Department of Art and Music Histories (AMH), is the author of “Politics and the Reception of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera’” in the November issue of the Cambridge Opera Journal (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Much of the article focuses on Lloyd Webber’s most popular stage work, set against the sweeping economic conservatism of the mid-1980s.

“British critics writing for Conservative-leaning broadsheets and tabloids took nationalist pride in Lloyd Webber’s commercial success, while others, on both sides of the Atlantic, claimed Phantom was tasteless and crassly commercial, a musical manifestation of a new Gilded Age,” says Winkler, an expert in English theater music and the director of AMH's undergraduate program in music history and cultures. “Broader issues regarding the relationship between government and elite culture also affected the critical response.”

Winkler maintains that, for some, Phantom represented a new kind of populist opera that could survive and thrive without government subsidy; for others, it was a mockery of high art.

“The show’s puerile operatics were considered to be sophomoric jibes against an art form that was held in esteem,” she says.

Phantom opened in London’s West End in 1986 and on Broadway two years later—a time when critical hostility toward Lloyd Webber and mega-musicals had reached a fever pitch. European blockbusters such as Cats, Starlight Express, and Les Misérables may have held sway with mainstream audiences, but some critics saw the genre’s runaway extravagance and crass consumerism as out of step with the unsettled economic times.

Case in point: The U.S. premiere of Phantom came on the heels of the so-called Black Monday stock market crash, which caused a wave of global economic uncertainty.
Andrew Lloyd Webber in London, 2013
Andrew Lloyd Webber in London, 2013
Still, Lloyd Webber’s material success and political conservatism (he was a vocal champion of Tory policy in the U.K.) seemed to matter little to populist audiences.

“These traits may have helped him in some places, particularly in the U.K., among those who supported Margaret Thatcher’s economic values,” Winkler says. “While she did not actively cut the government’s funding of the arts, she failed to increase government subsidy. Thatcher herself pointed to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows as an exemplar of profitable capitalist art—a model to be emulated.”

Winkler devotes considerable ink to the age-old discussion between art and commerce. She says the very qualities that made Phantom successful—an operatic storyline, a lushly orchestrated score, and a small amount of spoken dialogue—were also the ones with which critics found fault.

Yet, there’s no denying that Phantom helped bridge the gap between the pop and opera worlds, something that Winkler attributes to the aesthetics of the time.

“One could argue that the ‘traditional values’ of Reagan’s and Thatcher’s ideology are embedded in Phantom’s musical language,” she says, adding that the work foregrounds a dialogue with the past. (Phantom’s score frequently begs comparisons with the music of Meyerbeer, Strauss Jr., Puccini, Britten, and Orff.) “Lloyd Webber proved that high culture could survive in Reagan/Thatcher’s unforgiving commercial marketplace and that broad audiences might still derive pleasure from the music of a latter-day Puccini.”

Although Lloyd Webber hasn’t had a hit in more than 20 years, Phantom is still regarded—in the words of The New York Times’ Ben Brantley—as “one of the first (and best) versions of that grandiose showbiz genre, the musical as an amusement park ride.”

Adds Winkler: “Many of Lloyd Webber’s more recent works have been haunted by the specter of Phantom, in financial, artistic, and critical terms. Even today, he and his reviewers continue to renegotiate and reframe their complicated relationship with this work and with each other. They just cannot let Phantom go.”  

In addition to English theater music, Winkler has published and lectured on an array of subjects, including the relationships among musical, bodily, and spiritual disorder; musical depictions of the goddess Venus; the gendering of musical spirits; and the intersection of music and politics. Her first book, O Let Us Howle Some Heavy Note (Indiana University Press, 2006), analyzes the musical conventions associated with disorder on the early modern English stage and is cited by literary scholars and musicologists in equal measure. She has two forthcoming books that consider other facets of musical life in early modern England and has also edited two volumes of theater music.

A former department chair, Winkler is involved with numerous academic and administrative committees at Syracuse, including the Music History and Musicology Working Group of the Central New York Humanities Corridor.

Media Contact

Rob Enslin