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Starlet of the "Opera'

At 12, Emmy Rossum was a student at Manhattan's chic, all-girl Spence School when educators upset with her frequent absences delivered an ultimatum: Spend less time at the Metropolitan Opera, where she had been singing in the children's chorus for five years, or sever her ties with their institution.

She chose the latter.

She missed out on the usual high school camaraderie, but the tradeoffs were considerable: By night she performed alongside stars including Placido Domingo, Kiri Te Kanawa and Denyce Graves and by day took "virtual classes" sponsored online by Stanford University. At the Met, she also learned breath control, language dexterity and discipline, handy skills when, shortly thereafter, she switched her focus to acting.

That path, like her previous one, has been an education in itself.

After a series of TV roles, Rossum, then 13, played a tooth-deprived Appalachian orphan in Maggie Greenwald's Songcatcher, a performance the Independent Spirit Awards honored as the "best debut" of 2000. Two years later, she picked up pointers from a who's who of Hollywood talent, playing Sean Penn's murdered daughter in Clint Eastwood's critically acclaimed Mystic River. Last summer, Rossum co-starred as a brainiac love interest in the global warming disaster film The Day After Tomorrow.

Nothing prepared her, however, for assuming a lead role in Joel Schumacher's $70-million film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. Although the picture has elicited mixed reviews, Rossum has come out a winner.

The National Board of Review called her portrayal of Christine, a young soprano at the Paris Opera who falls under the Phantom's spell, the best breakthrough performance by an actress this year. The Broadcast Film Critics Association also gave her a critics choice award. And, this month, the 18-year-old will compete for best actress, musical or comedy, at the Golden Globes ceremony.

Reached at the tiny New York apartment she shares with her mom and teacup Maltese, Chrissy, Rossum basks in the afterglow. Three bouquets arrive during one 90-minute stretch.

And her Spence classmates have been calling.

It seems to have slipped their minds, Rossum observes dryly, that, lacking designer clothes and upper-crust credentials, she had never been embraced by them. Now it's all about having lunch . . . six years too late.

Schumacher, a Hollywood veteran (The Client), knows the syndrome well. Success is a "bucking bronco," he said, and the bumps are inevitable.

"Child performers have additional pressures," the director said. "Either they go crazy and become drug-crazed slackers or they incorporate the training into their DNA. Emmy has an incredible work ethic. She was a young girl of 16 at the beginning of the shoot and a formidable woman at the end."

The daughter of a photographer mother and banker father who divorced when she was 3, Rossum is self-possessed and intelligent.

"Some actors come to the set and don't know what scene they're playing, but that would make me crazy," she said. "It's not about control but perfectionism, my biggest vice and one of my biggest assets. I have strong feelings about the emotions of the character and am not shy about expressing them. I go along with directors after I agree with them. While they have the last word, they're not paying me to read lines."

After auditioning 200 actors in six months for Christine, Schumacher came up empty-handed.

Then he learned about Rossum, giving her a call in May 2003, right after The Day After Tomorrow wrapped. Two days later, she was back in New York singing Think of Me for her screen test.

Watching her in costume and full makeup, Gerald Butler, hired to play the Phantom, stood behind Schumacher at the monitor and whispered "Hire her" in his ear. Rossum repeated the tune for Lloyd Webber in his New York apartment and, obviously, scored again. A few days later, her agent was on the phone to her, saying she had gotten the part, a moment equal to that, a few years back, when she got Mystic River and The Day After Tomorrow in 24 hours.

Rossum intentionally avoided seeing the stage production to avoid preconceptions. She studied the older man-younger woman relationship between choreographer George Balanchine and ballerina Suzanne Farrell to get a grip on the student-mentor dynamic between Christine and the Phantom. She attended a seance to better understand Christine, who is still coming to terms with her father's death. Before the shoot, she studied ballet and started singing again after a five-year hiatus.

"This shoot was tough on my family because _ inhabiting Christine's terror and pain _ I was depressed, tormented for six months," she said. "Wearing the tightest of corsets for 14 hours a day made things even tougher. I ate ice cream rather than solid food because it melted on the way down."