GESPENSTER / GHOSTS / GJENGANGERE
The norwegian composer Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen‘s opera «Gespenster» based on Henrik Ibsen’s «Ghosts», libretto by me, will premiere at the main stage of Meininger Staatstheater in 2020 – the same theatre that had the leading public premiere of Ibsen’s play in Germany in 1886 under the direction of the theatre’s owner, the Duke George II.
When I was asked if I would consider writing the libretto, I was somewhat unsure if «Ghosts» would be suitable as an opera. I started researching; reading of secondary literature, watching the various productions of the play found in NRK’s web archive, including Antonio Bibalo’s 1984 opera, reading play reviews, essays and articles. I needed to know more about the time it was written to be better able to discern the differences from now and then. By the way, I found out that Ibsen himself emphasised that he did not want music in the speaking theatre performances of «Ghosts».
The assignment I was given – transforming an almost 140-year-old 3-act, in its original text relatively unfashionable play, into an hour-long chamber opera for a small crew, has been an exciting task. Along the way, the project grew in length, scene size and number of instruments and singers. The play is still being performed around the world in very different ways, so many people still obviously consider it relevant. When it was published in 1881, this naturalist play was rejected by theatres in the Nordic countries because it was seen as an attack on the existing social order, which it certainly was. Society has changed a lot since, so my motivation for approaching the material now (in 2017 as I write this), lies in finding and reinforcing what in this text is still relevant today. There are also some (sometimes surprising) differences between modern Norway and Germany, which often spur interesting conversations and questions about who «we» are and why we culturally are the way we are.
Writing for opera is quite different than for speaking theatre. Singing a sentence takes much longer time than talking. So the text must be cut from about 22000 words to around 3-4000 words, and the remaining words must not only be as singable as possible, they must also retain both the drama and a poetic-artistic quality. My text is then recreated into German (by Dagfinn Koch), so there is an extra layer of linguistic challenges added.
Thanks to the dramaturge Kristian Lykkeslet Strømskag at the National Theatre in Oslo, I got access to Ingemar Bergman’s rewritten version of «Ghosts» from 2001. Bergman has helped me not only to understand better what Ibsen probably meant, but also to be able to choose what to retain and what, though painfully, to cut. Not only did I choose to interpret the play as radically as I’ve dared, I have also written new scenes that Ibsen only suggests might have happened.
I decided early on to take the text apart and put it together in a new way. I have chosen to remove the fire in the newly built asylum and thus the focus on religion and society’s possible negative reaction to insurance, as well as Helene Alving’s reading of controversial literature. I rather want to focus on «internal fires», women’s roles and motherhood, triangular love, lost love, infidelity, grief, unfulfilled longing, sexual orientation, incest, illness, euthanasia and suicide. I want to examine how knowing and keeping secrets can change and destroy individuals, and how people can harm themselves and others, both unawarely and as a result of relationships grown intoxicated.
I have tried as far as possible to keep Ibsen’s words wherever possible, but large portions of the text are my words spiced with selected, adapted sentences derived from a «deconstruction poetry»-processing of the original play. (The process can be described as a method of constructing new sentences from the words in a text, and thus generate new text material. I have used the method in a previous video work, «Nemesis» from 2015, where I photographed all the words in the Ibsen quotes embedded along Karl Johan’s street in Oslo and put them together into new sentences (sound design by Dagfinn Koch). Some of the text fragments from «Nemesis», have also worked their way into the libretto for «Ghosts». I used the deconstruction poetry method in my first libretto as well; «Black Days» with music by Hartmut Schulz, based on the novel «Back to the Future» by Sigrid Undset. See my website www.malink.no for more info.)
The music for this opera is, at the time I write this, not yet written. Some places in the libretto I have given the composer something I call a word bank. This is meant as compositorial possibilities, i.e. for giving the characters that are not involved in the current scene something to sing. I imagine the words and sentences woven into the background as a kind of abstract choir that helps emphasise the action and what the characters think.
Despite the fact that «Ghosts» is still performed worldwide, I actually think of it as not particularly stage-friendly. I experience it as vague, archaic and meticulous. The text is retrospective; the characters mostly talk about events that happened back in time, and there is not so much action actually happening on stage. They talk and talk. I choose to write into the libretto some action that Ibsen only vaguely refers to. I want to show Helene Alving’s intrusive, unpleasant memories. To facilitate this, I show her on stage both at a young age and at her current age. I also allow deceased characters to get on stage with the living, as a kind of ghosts to show Helene’s memories. I initially wanted to let more of the characters, not just Helene, be present at different ages at the same time, maybe even future ages, but that cannot be done in this production. Having the opportunity to study a person at different times in their life, is an exciting way of evolving their character and create drama both on internal and external levels.
Since the fire in the asylum and all the drama around it has been removed, I have chosen to move Erik Alving’s death to the present time. The storyline as I have written it takes place in the days between his death and the funeral. This gives the characters a logical opportunity to be in the same place.
It has been crucial for me to highlight which aspects of Ibsen’s original text are relevant in our day and age. As I see it, it seems strange that Helene Alving and the maid Regine would live alone in this house for the long years between Erik Alving’s death and when Osvald suddenly decides to come home. Without the fire in the asylum, Pastor Gabriel Manders would also have no reason to be there. That’s why I’ve imagined him as coming to perform an old friend’s funeral.
The way Ibsen wrote it, Osvald was put into boarding school as a little child. Would a mother today really send away a 6-year-old child to boarding school to spare him the effects of his father’s wild life, as Helene claims to why she did it? Probably not, at least not in Norway where many mothers’ lives revolve around their children. Without hesitation, many mothers expose large portions of their children’s lives on social media, almost performing, acting a perfect, glossy family life. I think a modern mother probably would have gotten divorced if she really feared for her child’s life that way. In my libretto, Helene is hindered from divorcing Erik by looming secrets and the threat of a horribly worsening personal economy. Since they are somewhat forced to stay together, they become immersed in mutual contempt and hate over the years. I think instead that Osvald must have become quite injured by growing up in this dreadful family situation; both parents constantly fighting, but also by his mother coming way too close to him, both mentally and physically. Helene is using her son as a substitute for her husband in every thinking way. I think this whole situation is equally strong as an image of human perishing as Osvald being sent to boarding school as a child.
There is a tough balance between a librettist’s opportunity to suggest action on the stage and what is the dramaturg’s task. As the singers are also actors, it is tempting for me to write further action than just singing. As I write, I see it as an inner movie with movements and action. In order to remember for myself what I have thought and to be able to explain why I wrote certain words, and in order to keep this text from becoming as talkative and in places stagnant as I find Ibsen’s original, I feel the need to create some action on stage. An example: I let Osvald as a child (child actor, not a singer) hide and young Helene look for him (in the background while something else is going on. Only the audience and the older Helene sees this). Young Helene eventually finds the child Osvald and hugs him while the older Helene hugs the adult Osvald. Both Osvalds shrug away the mother in the same physical way, twisting out of her uncomfortable grip, to illustrate that this is not new. I have been asked to delete stage directions like these. But the manuscript will become quite confusing and lacking a lot of action without them. As for now, I leave the remaining directions.
There are so many emotions; love, hate, old grudge, horrible deeds, but also unbreakable bonds between the main characters in this opera, especially between mother and son. I choose to let mother and son enter into a suicide pact instead of following Ibsen’s original text. Helene Alving is, at the end of this play, completely alone. Husband gone, lover long gone, no friends and now even foster daughter Regine leaves her. When she realises for real that Osvald might die, she decides to join him. She can’t stand the thought of being alone, and she will not allow him to leave her again. That is why I let them both die in the end.
Ibsen might have spun in his grave if he read my libretto, and I suppose Ibsen connoisseurs will be critical. But in order to give the play more relevance today, I have not taken that into account in the writing process.
When the play starts, Erik Alving is recently dead. His wife, Helene Alving is in a state of shock. Even though Erik is dead, he is present at the stage through Helene’s memories. Throughout the play, Helene also sees a young version of herself, their son Osvald as a child and the late Johanne. Memories that Helene would prefer not to remember, become clearer and require her to take a hard look at her own behaviour and mindset throughout her life.
In the first scene, the older Helene starts reminiscing about their marriage and long life together. As young and newlywed, she left her husband to be with her true love, Gabriel Manders. It is early morning and they are waking up in his bed. Helene, still joyful from the night they’ve just spent together, is happily looking forward to starting a new life with Gabriel. He, however, is highly distressed and demands that they both forget what has happened. It is not mentioned whether she has any children yet, so the possibility of her becoming pregnant on this occasion with her son Osvald is present.
For pragmatic reasons, she goes back to Erik. Helene continues their marriage, strongly affected by an invincible and lifelong heartbroken grief over Gabriel. But Erik is rich and popular, has a position in society and a future bringing the opportunities she wants. Erik eventually makes Helene a member of the boards of several companies owned by him and his companions. It is implied that the position and prestige accompany the marriage. The high standard of living she has become accustomed to will disappear if they divorce – a standard of living she is ready to give up immediately if only Gabriel wanted to have her.
As a board member in these various companies, Helene has discovered that Erik has done something illegal; a Secret that gives her the upper hand. If he wants to divorce her, she will reveal this Secret and he will end up in prison. But if she reveals The Secret, she will lose everything too. They use this Secret as a mutual threat. Bitter and disappointed, she, therefore, spends her life keeping the facade in order. The son Osvald becomes the whole contents of her life.
When they are young, Erik actually loves his wife. At the beginning of their marriage, he hopes that he eventually will be able to win her love. At the same time, he is not willing to waste his life, so he seeks love and excitement outside the marriage. Helene is most concerned with the facade and what people will say. She has a sharp tongue and is acting prudish and rejecting. Erik, therefore, is chronically unfaithful, in time even quite openly. He doubts, possibly rightly, that Osvald is his child. Through time, their marriage transforms into a mutual hateful relationship in which they get satisfaction by hurting each other. They use their son as a weapon against each other. Secrets, lies, threats and hurts make the both of them become cruel humans and harmful parents.
Johanne worked as a housekeeper at the young couple Alving’s house, until Erik got her pregnant. Jakob Engstrand and Johanne were richly rewarded by the couple Alving to marry and let everyone believe that Regine was Engstrand’s daughter. Engstrand treated Johanne and Regine very badly. He sold Johanne as a prostitute to finance his own drug problem. When Johanne died, Helene and Erik took over the care of Regine, who was then about 11-12 years old. Now that she is an adult, she has her own apartment in the house, and she helps Helene around the house as a return favour for a place to live. Now Engstrand asks Regine to come and live and work at a hotel he intends to buy. Regine certainly will not join him.
Erik and Helene’s son, Osvald, returns home to attend his father’s funeral. He left the childhood home at the tender age of 16 to escape his parents. He is presently living and working in Paris as an artist, only visiting the childhood home when he absolutely must. Osvald and Regine resume the fling they have had going on since the last time Osvald was visiting. Regine has larger plans for her life than to stay with Helene. Without hesitation, she uses her body to get Osvald to promise to take her to Paris once his father is buried. She wants to live what she imagines is his life: a festive, artistic, bohemian, delightful chaos. She also wants to become an artist and has vague plans to write a book or maybe paint.
Gabriel has come to bury his old friend. Helene and Gabriel clean the air regarding their agonising secret from the past. He still insists that nothing happened between them. She claims that the reason he rejected her was that Gabriel didn’t love her, but Erik, which he shamefully admits. Because Gabriel glorifies Erik, she decides to tell him the truth about how awful the marriage with Erik was. She reveals to Gabriel that Erik is Regine’s real father, not Engstrand. Afterwards, he bumps into Engstrand, who’s been standing outside eavesdropping. Engstrand uses pompous and weird sayings that he invented himself which he thinks sounds profound and wise. He has, in a for us unknown way, gotten hold of information about the Secrets that the other characters want to keep hidden. We do not know what he knows, we only see the stress he’s causing the others. He behaves in a cryptical, threatening and uncomfortable way towards Gabriel. Maybe Engstrand knows that Gabriel may be Osvald’s biological father? They exchange a few words, and Gabriel finally really understands that Engstrand is a horrible man.
Gabriel leaves, but Engstrand stays behind, very pleased with himself. Johanne as a ghost comes to confront her former husband. She accuses him of killing her, but he cannot hear her. Her case will never be solved because nobody can hear her.
Now that Erik is dead and she cannot escape the memories from her life, Helene begins to realise that she’s been far too close and intimate with her son, both mentally and physically. She now understands how injured he has become from the parent’s contorted relationship, but more gravely, from her own abuse. Finally, after Erik is dead, she realises her own enormous guilt, but also that Erik really was the one she loved. Their relationship could have been good, if only she had allowed it.
Osvald and Helene’s settlement with the past and present is a painful experience for both of them. He reveals to his mother that he is gravely sick and secondly, that he has decided on Regine as a life partner. But being so close to his mother makes him anxious and upset. He is obviously very damaged from all he has experienced in his childhood. Helene tries to explain and talk herself out of the blame, which makes Osvald furious. Helene becomes hurt and a need for punishment and revenge arises. She, therefore, asks Regine to come and drink champagne with them, – and then she reveals to them they have the same father. Regine then leaves.
Disappointed, scared and angry, Osvald tells his mother more about his illness and that the next attack will likely leave him in the state of an infant. He refuses to live like that and has made sure he has a way to escape if another attack comes: with an overdose of morphine pills. Osvald tries to persuade his mother to help him commit suicide if another attack comes. Helene cannot cope with the idea of living the rest of her life completely alone, everyone dead or gone. Furthermore, her entire life revolves around Osvald. Helene and Osvald make a suicide pact. They are both used to her meddling in all sides of his life, so he isn’t even allowed his own death. Her grip on his life is everywhere, even there. When the next attack comes, she first helps him take the pills, then she takes the rest of the pills herself and follows him into death.