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Haunting Soundtrack For Silent Classic 'The Phantom Of The Opera'

Blackhawk Films/Image Entertainment

The Phantom of the Opera, a 1925 silent film, tells the story of an organist who lurks beneath an opera house. This Halloween night, organist Aaron David Miller will be in plain sight at the Kauffman Center, when he provides the soundtrack for a screening of this film.

Aaron David Miller is a Minnesota-based organist and composer, who travels widely performing repertoire spanning all periods. Miller has gained a reputation for his "vivid musical imagination" and improvisation style. He's also accompanied a number of silent films, although mostly early comedies.

"I tend to do a lot of Chaplin movies, a few Buster Keatons," says Miller. "It's always fun to do a big, dramatic film like The Phantom of the Opera."

Interview Highlights: Aaron David Miller

On one of his first teachers, from Kansas City

"I studied with Carlene Neihart. She was my very first organ teacher...she was very much my first important organ teacher that taught me the landscape of the classical repertoire, and how the organ fits in the symphonic scene, and the history of the organ and so forth. Carlene in Kansas City has always been a special place in my heart."

On the appeal of the organ

"My very first experience with a pipe organ was a small mechanical action organ. Literally, there's a mechanical connection between every note and every stop and the pipe. And having somebody kind of walk me through that to see what those different connections are, and how you can manipulate the organ from the console. I was about five when that happened. I was really bitten by the bug, at that point."

On improvisation and repertoire

"With silent film...I use a lot of classical themes or themes that may have been popular when the film was first made, but also using that material to improvise the dramatic content of the film. That as a scene unfolds, I'm using either a classical theme or a folk song or something to push the dramatics of the film forward.

On The Phantom of the Opera as adventure film

"Most people identify it as a horror film, but in many ways it's kind of an adventure film. It takes place around a production of Gounod's Faust, so all the way through the film, you have all these references to Gounod's Faust and themes that occur in that opera.

"As the movie goes on, characters come in and are introduced, and other ones get killed off and suddenly become missing and so forth, so a lot of the musical thematic material for the film comes straight out of Faust."

On Halloween organ music on the Kauffman Center's Casavant organ

"There's a number of French Romantic organ pieces that have a very dark character. There's a piece by Eugène Gigout, Toccata in B minor, that has this wonderful, dark aura about it. A couple of times, I've slipped it into the film (Phantom) as just kind of a fun reference of the time that that piece would have been written, roughly about the time as that the film came out. And, certainly the organ at the Kauffman Center, has that very dark French feel to it. A lot of the reeds are very dark, and there's lots of wonderful string timbres that are very lush."

Organist Aaron David Miller accompanies the silent film, The Phantom of the Opera, on October 31, on the Casavant organ at Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway, Kansas City, Mo. It's part of the series called Screenland at the Symphony. Tickets are sold out, but there's a waiting list, as some tickets could become available before the show. (816) 471-0400.

The Artists in their Own Words series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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