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'Phantom' tones: Organist Aaron David Miller will perform an improvisational score for ‘The Phantom of the Opera’

Lon Chaney is the title character in the 1925 film "Phantom of the Opera," which will get a live, improvisational score during a screening Friday at Sacred Heart Music Center. Photo illustration by Gary Meader / gmeader@duluthnews.com1 / 3
"Phantom of the Opera," a silent film from 1925, will get a live, improvisational score during a screening Friday at Sacred Heart Music Center. Photo from "Phantom of the Opera" 2 / 3
Aaron David Miller is an award-winning organ player who will perform a live, improvised score for "Phantom of the Opera" on Friday at Sacred Heart Music Center. Photo courtesy of Miller3 / 3

Move over, Gustav Hinrichs. The German composer might have written the original orchestral score for "The Phantom of the Opera," but the 1925 film is about to get a new, yet unheard, completely unpredictable soundtrack.

Aaron David Miller, an award-winning, classically trained organist, will perform an improvisational score on the house Felgemaker pipe organ while the silent movie screens at 7 p.m. Friday at Sacred Heart Music Center.

Miller has created an original, on-site score for "The Phantom of the Opera" at least five times in the past decade, he said, typically during the Halloween season.

"It's a fun film," Miller, a Twin Cities-based artist, said in a recent phone interview. "A lot of times 'Phantom' gets categorized as a horror film, but it's kind of an adventure film. It's the 1925 version of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.' There's a carriage chase scene, crawling around in the catacombs. It's a very lively film."

"The Phantom of the Opera," based on a novel by Gaston Leroux and directed by Rupert Julian, is the story of a deformed man who haunts the Paris Opera House. The Boston Globe called it a "grand pulpy potboiler of a suspense melodrama" in a 2011 review.

Since 1925, it has been recreated as a Broadway musical and has had a cinematic update.


Miller has always been an improviser, which was a rarity among American organ players when he was growing up. He learned to play by ear, then began creating his own songs and embellishing the work of others. When he went to Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., he realized he could study improvisation as a discipline. He created his own curriculum, which involved traveling to New York City when improvisers visited from Europe, he said.

He would seek out a lesson or master class, or at the very least attend the concert.

Years ago, Miller was living in rural Ohio where he found a limited audience for traditional organ concerts. Occasionally, he would add brass or a choir — then he decided to get experimental. He had heard of events that mixed silent films and live, improvised scores and said he thought it would be a way to attract a mixed audience of film buffs and organ fans.

"I've been doing it since," Miller said.

Miller, who is music director at House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul and performs all over the country, said even his traditional concerts have a touch of improvisation.

"I'll take themes from the audience," he said. "I've always just liked having fun and using the organ in unconventional ways."

He was on the bill for Hurricane Mama's birthday concert in 2014. The performance, celebrating the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ, featured nine players. Miller was the only improviser and he took suggestions from the audience — which ranged from "Twinkle, Twinkle" to the theme from "Superman," according to the Los Angeles Times.

"He riffed from one to the next, turning the organ into an audible color wheel as he went along. Most of the time, Miller produced an impressive haze of swirling virtuosity ...." according to a reviewer.

Velda Bell, chair of the Friends of the Felgemaker committee, heard Miller accompany Chaplin's "The Circus" in early 2014 at First Lutheran Church in Duluth.

"He improvises like you wouldn't believe," said Bell, who can appreciate the difficulty level. The organ player said she can't do it. "He makes it connect very well."


When it comes to silent film scores, Miller prefers the old: Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin's short films. "Phantom of the Opera" is a favorite, Miller said, because of the way it has held up over time.

"This film has a modern flair," he said. "(It has) modern sensibilities about pacing and it relates to modern audiences effectively."

It's the story of a man in a mask who haunts the bowels of the Paris Opera House. He's fallen for a young soprano — the lead's understudy — and finds evil ways to coerce management into letting her star. Meanwhile, an old boyfriend has resurfaced and is pressuring her to quit show business.

Miller prepares by screening the film once a day for the week leading up to the performance. He develops an outline, looking for key plot points and mood shifts.

"It takes time to get that into muscle memory," he said.

Miller plays in a style that reflects the era. Because of how "Phantom" starts, he will use themes from Charles Gounod's "Faust," for slapstick, he incorporates sounds of ragtime. He also takes cues from the audience.

"It's a mishmash," he said. "For me, the best approach is to look at the film and see what an organist of that era would have been using and use those ideas to base the improvisation on."

The performance will stand alone. Miller doesn't record his live film scores.

"It's fun to let it be something different every time you do it," he said.

If you go

• What: "Phantom of the Opera" with live score by organist Aaron David Miller

• When: 7 p.m. Oct. 6

• Where: Sacred Heart Music Center, 201 W. Fourth St.

• Tickets: $10 adults, $5 children at the door