Film with live piano returns


Jackie Jahfetson

Disfigured and secluded in the bunkers of the Paris Opera House, the former composer known as the “Phantom” hides behind a mask and haunts the auditorium. He falls in love with a young understudy and tries to make her a star, creating an array of chaos and murder. This 1925 horror silent film will come to life on Oct. 24, in a screening featuring a live grand piano performance.

In its 11th annual silent film event, the NMU French program will screen Rupert Julian’s “The Phantom of the Opera” at 7 p.m. in the Ontario Room of the University Center, and will feature music from local pianist Robert Buchkoe. Admission is free and French-inspired refreshments will be served.

Adapted from Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, the film stars Lon Chaney as the “Phantom.” After seeing young aspiring opera singer Christine Daaé from the rafters of the stage, he falls in love with her and aims to make her a star. Christine realizes she has a secret admirer—the Phantom, but she is skeptical of his nature. When the Phantom kidnaps Christine and demands her affection, her suitor Vicomte Rauol de Chagny sets out on a quest to rescue her. The film has been adapted into many theater productions and movies.
Buchkoe, who is a piano teacher and well-known local pianist and has many years of piano experience, said he tries to improvise while he watches the film by creating certain themes or moods for certain characters. His playing style originates from traditional old silent film pianists, but some of it carries a modern touch in order to “fit the tension” of a particular scene, he said.

“I am a great fan and semi-scholar of movie history and truly enjoy partaking in such an event as this. Fortunately I have had an ability to improvise almost as long as I have been playing the piano,” Buchkoe said. “Many of the house musicians during the silent era had to depend on books of musical snippets, which were categorized by mood and type of scene in the index.”

Buchkoe has been involved with the silent film screening every year but said he always enjoys providing music. With sound help from his friend Cresence Leigh, it’s imperative that the screening not only have music but sound effects, Buchkoe said. Old silent films didn’t have all of the digital technology and pre-recorded music we have today. The house pianist or organist would have to supply all of it, he added.

The films are selected by the students of the French program who help put together this event, NMU professor of French and Russian languages, literatures and international studies Nelly Kupper said. This event is not only a way for students to get involved and out of the classroom, but a way to help people “slow down,” she said, explaining that when today’s world is so fast paced, silent films allow for people to sit back, relax and enjoy a classic movie even if it’s in black and white.

With Buchkoe’s talent, the music is always creative and unexpected, Kupper noted. Though Buchkoe doesn’t prepare things ahead of time, his playing is “spontaneous” and makes the event not just a screening but a performance, she said.

“It’s one of the greatest films ever made,” Kupper said. “The original authentic music, the story of this man who’s been mistreated, and is left alone and estranged and the way the film is made is beautiful.”