A Guide to Opera’s Most Famous Ghost Stories
This year, Des Moines Metro Opera is bringing the supernatural to the stage with Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, but this is far from the only show to feature ghosts in the opera repertoire. Read on to learn about some of opera’s spooky scenes and horrifying haunts with a bonus Spook-o-Meter for each show!
The Ghosts of Versailles
As the title suggests, this opera is all about ghosts. Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and premiered there in 1991. In this opera, the spirit of Beaumarchais attempts to entertain King Louis XVI’s ghastly court and cheer Marie Antoinette after her beheading. A light-hearted opera within an opera ensues as Beaumarchais’s characters perform the final play in the Figaro trilogy with a twist to rescue Marie Antoinette and change her fate.
Mozart’s Don Giovanni premiered in 1787 and was the second of three works with a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte. The character Don Giovanni is known for his many romantic (and often less than consensual) conquests in the tradition of the Don Juan archetype. His past literally comes back to haunt him in the final dinner scene when the Commendatore’s ghost arrives to drag him to Hell for his crimes. Never one to linger on doom and gloom, Mozart ends the opera with a lively, light-hearted ensemble about Don Giovanni’s deserved fate.
Lucia di Lammermoor
The appearance of a ghost early in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor always seems to pale in comparison to Lucia’s mad scene in Act 3. Her mad scene certainly has more to do with our spook rating below. Nevertheless, the ghost of a murdered girl appearing as you wait for your lover is not what you want. The audience may not see the ghost on stage, but we can feel Lucia’s fright and her maid’s true terror at the meaning behind the ghost’s appearance.
In Shakespeare’s classic tale of ruthless ambition, Macbeth seeks the throne of Scotland no matter the cost. Verdi’s setting of this play, from 1847, brings the frightening and fantastic aspects of Shakespeare’s play to life. In addition to the witches who crop up throughout the opera to add spooky prophecies and rituals into the mix, a ghost makes a spectacular appearance at Macbeth’s banquet to haunt the newly crowned king. Macbeth hired assassins to murder Banco and his son, fearing they may be competition for his throne. The appearance of Banco’s ghost drives Macbeth into fits of rage and madness that terrify his guests.
Carl Maria von Weber’s 1821 opera Der Freischütz was a huge success with its German folk themes and use of the supernatural. The appearance of a ghost in this story may be one of the least surprising in opera repertoire, and the scene in which it appears is sure to scare in other ways! The huntsman Max must win a shooting contest to marry the woman he loves, but his confidence is shaken. He seeks the help of Caspar, who says he can help Max make magic bullets that will fly true. Little does Max know that Caspar has made a deal with the devil to steal Max’s soul and kill his beloved. The ghost of Max’s mother appears to warn him away from the Wolf’s Glen and the temptation of the magic bullets. Surrounded by tumultuous and dissonant music, the moments Max sings of his mother’s ghost are relatively tranquil before returning to a frightening fury.
The Queen of Spades
While Eugene Onegin may be Tchaikovsky’s best-known opera, his dramatic masterpiece The Queen of Spades is his spookiest! This opera, written in 1890, was one of Tchaikovsky’s last operas and showcases his powerful and tuneful musical style. The story focuses on the officer Gherman as he seeks love and fortune, both of which are linked to a mysterious Countess who has a beautiful granddaughter and a fortune from gambling. Gherman wins the granddaughter’s heart, but when he presses the Countess for the secrets of the cards at gunpoint, she dies of fright. Soon after her death, the Countess appears to Gherman to tell him the secret. But you won’t find out until the final scene if she is telling him to save her granddaughter or seek her own vengeance…
The Turn of the Screw
Many of Britten’s operas explore psychological and surreal subjects, but The Turn of the Screw takes the creepy cake! In this 1954 chamber opera, a Governess takes a position caring for two young children at Bly House. She is soon disturbed by the appearance of the spectres of the former valet and governess, and considers abandoning her post to escape the unpleasantness of Bly House. Though she decides to stay, the Governess cannot protect the children from possession and manipulation by the vengeful ghosts.
Based on Stephen King’s novel of the same title, Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell’s The Shining premiered at Minnesota opera in 2016. The opera more closely follows King’s novel, so you can expect to notice some differences from the 1980 film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick. One thing that is in all three versions is the collection of ghosts at the Overlook Hotel. While these spirits start as a troubling presence lurking around the edge of the story, they become the center of attention as they work to undo Jack Torrance and his family.