The Discworld Reread: Book 18
Agnes Nitt, formerly of Lancre, has had enough. She doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life being known as the big girl with a lovely personality and great hair, and she isn’t going to meekly join Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg as dogsbody in their coven. Instead, she’s going to Ankh-Morpork to become a singer at the Opera House. It sounds like a great idea, until she discovers that opera types are an odd bunch: neurotic, superstitious and obsessed with the resident Opera Ghost, who leaves maniacal notes with too many exclamation marks, and demands that the best box in the house is reserved for him. And things are about to get worse. Fortunately for the world at large, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg have come to Ankh-Morpork too, just to keep an eye on Agnes, and they are more than a match for any man who ponces around in evening dress and a mask. A glorious parody of The Phantom of the Opera, this has always been an absolute favourite of mine, and it’s only got better on rereading.
Agnes’s voice is extraordinary for numerous reasons. She has a range that extends beyond human hearing in both directions. She can sing in harmony with herself, project her voice and tackle any aria the management throw at her. They swiftly recognise her potential, but the problem is that Agnes is a fine figure of a woman and, on the Discworld anyway, Wagner hasn’t been invented yet. We’re stuck firmly in the realm of belcanto and the vogue is for wilting, consumptive heroines. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Agnes’s fellow newbie fits the physical bill exactly. Christine is bright, happy, enthusiastic, pretty, vapid and completely without talent. And, when Christine complains to Agnes that someone is talking to her in the middle of the night, and convinces Agnes to swap rooms, Agnes discovers that the Opera Ghost has become smitten with Christine and has great plans for her. Cue a subterfuge of the highest order.
But who is the Opera Ghost? As Agnes is drawn deeper into life at the Opera House, with its highly-strung cast and its confused new owners (formerly in the cheese business, they’re now beginning to regret taking on such an absurd enterprise), she becomes determined to solve the mystery. And it becomes more urgent when the Ghost begins to kill. But who knows the truth? Andre, the enigmatic organist with a mysterious past? The slightly sinister musical director Salzella? Poor Walter Plinge, harmless dogsbody? Agnes is sensible, practical and has acres of common sense; but even she might need a little help. Luckily, the Witches of Lancre are on hand (along with Greebo) to flush out the Ghost in their own inimitable fashion. We have masquerades, secret passages, hidden basements stacked with music, swinging on chandeliers, breathless chases across the roof of the Opera House – this is tongue-in-cheek adventure at its finest and, the more you know about Phantom of the Opera and opera in general, the better the jokes get.
I first read this when I was fourteen and obsessed with the musical version of Phantom, to the point of learning the entire libretto off by heart. I adored the fact that Pratchett makes fun of the musical while, at the same time, throwing in the odd Easter egg to delight fans. Massive spoiler ahead, so you’ve been warned. I can still remember the thrill, at fourteen, of realising who the Ghost was and also realising why I should have known that from the start. Because it’s obvious, when you think about it. Who does Walter Plinge remind you of? Frank Spencer from Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, of course. And who played Frank Spencer? Michael Crawford. And who played the lead role in the very first Phantom of the Opera…? Yep. You’ve got it. Moments like that made me so happy. And I adored the fact that the Ghost, down in his subterranean den, isn’t writing grand operas but strange new light entertainment of a kind no one has never written before. As one of the characters says in confusion, after being presented with these scores, who would ever want to watch an opera about cats? Basically, there are an awful lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber jokes here too, so it might be one of the best gateway Discworld books for people who don’t really think they like fantasy.
And there are so many other wonderful things. The immensely stout tenor Enrico Basilica, formerly known as plain old Henry Slugg from the Shades, who’s fed up of pasta and just wants a plate of good old solid Ankh-Morpork food. Greebo once again employing his transformational skills and setting hearts aflutter in black leather. The dead roses gifted by the Ghost, whose petals come to ghostly life at night. Mobs with flaming torches! People saying ‘The show must go on’! And, of course, the subplot about Nanny Ogg’s unexpected bestseller, The Joye of Snacks: a cookery book which has taken Ankh-Morpork by storm (and steam). It’s a chaotic romp and I love it even more now that I get the opera jokes as well. Strictly speaking, I suppose it’s so derivative from Phantom that purists might feel it isn’t proper Discworld – but for me it remains one of the greats: Pratchett having a huge amount of fun.
Hugely recommended if you love Andrew Lloyd Webber, opera or indeed pure and simple farce, spiced with a soupcon of actual danger. And swinging on chandeliers which, as I have lamented so many times, doesn’t happen enough in books.
Last in the series – Interesting Times
Next in the series – Feet of Clay
And some more Paul Kidby goodness. Hello Greebo.