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A Listener's Guide To The Ghosts That Haunt Opera

Do you believe in ghosts? The age-old question pops up this time of year when Halloween looms — the answer for opera composers seems to be a resounding "yes." Many of them, from Mozart to Corigliano, have given ghosts a few choice moments on stage. Operatic apparitions arrive suddenly in the middle of the night, crash dinner parties or do their ghostly duty simply by playing tricks on the minds of the living. While adding a palpable chill to opera, they may also tell us a little something about the composers.

After watching these supernatural scenes, you might think twice about whether phantoms really walk among us or just make their home in our heads.


Mozart: Don Giovanni

What could be more terrifying than a ghost who holds the keys to hell's front door? The Commendatore, killed by Don Giovanni in the first act, returns as a ghost made of marble near the end of the opera to dispense some spine-chilling justice. When the ghost appears at Giovanni's dinner party, demanding repentance, the music turns menacing. Dissonant chords thunder through the orchestra and the rare deployment of trombones adds gravitas. With Giovanni in his icy grip, the Commendatore drags him down into hell, to the horror of the guests. All that's left to say, crafted into a short sextet for the remainder of the characters, is that the scoundrel got what he deserved. Still, into an opera that begins and ends with death, Mozart inserts humor, forcing us to question the traditional boundaries between good and evil.

Verdi: Macbeth

Whether it's Shakespeare or The Sopranos, whenever someone orders up a murder, it comes back to haunt them. It may be in the form of more violence, or it may just mess with their head. In Macbeth, which Giuseppe Verdi converted into a tightly wound thriller in 1847, it's both. After his wife convinces him to kill King Duncan in Act 1, Macbeth starts ordering hit jobs like take-out pizzas. By the time he throws an elaborate party in Act Two, he's the new king of Scotland. When one of his hitmen pulls him aside to describe the latest job, Macbeth sees the ghost of the freshly murdered Banquo sitting at the banquet table — and the specter completely unhinges him. As with Mozart's Commendatore, this ghost is also introduced with pounding orchestral chords as Macbeth cries, "Go, spirit of hell! Earth, open a ditch and swallow him." In the end, it's Macbeth who is consumed by guilt, and ultimately, death. (Note: In this non-traditional staging from the Bavarian State Opera, that's not a pregnant Lady Macbeth near the end of this clip. It's the severed head of Banquo that drops from beneath her dress!)

Tchaikovsky: Queen of Spades

Obsession can derange the mind. It can also drive a person to the brink of murder. Such are the problems for Herman, the central character in the Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsky's high-strung, Pushkin-based drama from 1890. First Herman's obsessed with Liza, then with a mysterious gambling secret known only by her grandmother, the Countess. Sneaking into the Countess' bedroom, Herman so violently demands the secret that she dies in fright before relinquishing it. Later, it's her turn to repay the visit. On a stormy night, her ghost appears in Herman's room, where she finally reveals the magic combination of cards. She will materialize once more at the opera's closing moments, when all is lost for Herman, including his own life. Oddly, Tchaikovsky identified so closely with Herman that he wept while writing the character's final scene.

Korngold: Die Tote Stadt

Ever felt the presence of a deceased loved one? It's not that uncommon in real life, and in Erich Wolfgang Korngold's sumptuously orchestrated, emotionally aching Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City), the phenomenon is ratcheted up a level. Paul mourns his late wife Marie, but is aroused by a woman who looks nearly identical to her. After she visits Paul's home, at the close of Act One, Marie's ghost rises out of a photograph, telling him in a tender duet to get on with his life. Much of the rest of the opera unfolds in a series of visions in Paul's head, leading to an imaginary murder. At the end, he decides to leave the "Dead City" for good. Any Jungian psychiatrist could have a field day with Korngold's spacey psycho-thriller.

Britten: The Turn of the Screw

For adults, ghosts are scary enough, but for children, they can be especially frightening. That's where Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw excels. His 1954 chamber opera is set at a country house where the former governess and manservant still roam the grounds, despite being dead. In their quest to control, and perhaps destroy, the two young pre-teens of the household, the ghosts represent evil unleashed and unstoppable. Britten's music, when not merely atmospheric or evocatively creepy, is enough to make your blood jump. This excerpt picks up at the end of the first act when the ghosts, accompanied by celesta and harp, call the children to them at night.

Corigliano: The Ghosts of Versailles

As its title suggests, John Corigliano's 1991 opera is positively infested with ghosts. They aren't particularly frightening, but they do try to rewrite history. The ghost of playwright Beaumarchais — the author whose stories inspired Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Rossini's Barber of Seville — tries to relieve the anxiety-ridden ghost of Marie Antoinette by crafting a new play which spares her beheading in the French Revolution. But the play's characters (those same personalities found in Mozart and Rossini's operas) hilariously derail the proceedings. Corigliano's ingenious score includes everything from Mozart quotes and spirited Turkish-style dances for the play's characters, to atonal techniques and evocative dissonances for the ghosts. In this excerpt from the original Metropolitan Opera production, Marie Antoinette laments her fate in an extraordinary performance by Teresa Stratas.

Copyright NPR 2016.

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