GESPENSTER / GHOSTS / GJENGANGERE
Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen’s opera «Gespenster» based on Henrik Ibsen’s «Ghosts», libretto by me, will due to covid-19 be postponed. It will premiere at the main stage of Meininger Staatstheater in 2023 – the same theatre that had the public premiere of Ibsens play in Germany in 1886 under the direction of the theatre’s owner, the Duke George II.
The funeral of Erik Alving brings old memories to life not only with his wife Helene. It quickly becomes clear that the image of the past has no absolute truth – everyone remembers it differently. Pastor Gabriel Manders, for example, denies ever having had an intimate relationship with Helene, while she vividly remembers the night together and the vows. For financial, social and pragmatic reasons she stayed with Erik. She sets up her life with a perfect façade; secrets, cruelty and mutual hatred hidden behind it – the perfect lie of life. Her son Osvald also suffered from domestic strife. Now he has returned to the funeral of his father to the place of his childhood.
He tells his mother that he is dying. Some pills have remained his only way out for a self-determined end, before he has to sink into the night of helplessness. When he feels another attack seizing his body, he asks Helene, «Give me the sun!» Helene gives him the pills, but not all. She does not want to live alone with all these memories, these ghosts.
The opera picks up essential moments of Ibsen’s play GESPENSTER, which once conquered the German-speaking world from Meiningen in the staging of Duke Georg II. Composer Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen writes the music directly for the vocal ensemble of the Meininger Staatstheater.
Erik Alving is dead. His wife, Helene Alving is in a state of shock. Both the past and the present plays out simultaneously throughout the play. Erik, though dead, is visualised through Helene’s memories. Helene also sees a young version of herself, their son Osvald as a child, and the late Johanne. Memories which Helene would prefer not to remember, requires her to take a hard look at her own behaviour and mindset throughout her life.
The older Helene remembers her life. Young and newlywed, she left her husband to be with her true love, pastor Gabriel Manders. It is early morning and they are waking up in his bed. Helene – happily looking forward to start a new life with Gabriel. He, however – highly distressed and demands that they both must forget what has happened. For pragmatic reasons, Helene goes back to Erik. Strongly affected by a heartache for Gabriel, Helene continues their marriage. After all, Erik is rich and popular and has a desirable position in society.
As a board member in Erik’s various companies, Helene has discovered that he has done something illegal; a Secret that gives her the upper hand. They use this Secret as a mutual threat: tell someone? Then she’ll lose everything. Bitter and disappointed, she spends her life keeping the facade in order. The son Osvald becomes the focus of her life.
In the beginning of their marriage, Erik loves his wife and hopes that he eventually will win her love. Her grief for Gabriel gives her a sharp tongue and a cold behaviour, which makes Erik seek love and excitement outside the marriage. He doubts, possibly rightly, that Osvald is his child. In 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. This turns them into cruel humans and harmful parents.
Years ago, Johanne worked as a housekeeper at the young couple Alving’s house, until Erik gets her pregnant. He pays off Jakob Engstrand and Johanne to marry and let everyone believe that Engstrand is the father. Engstrand treated Johanne and the daughter Regine 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. As an adult, she helps Helene around the house for a place to live. Now Engstrand asks Regine to come and live and work at a hotel (AKA brothel) he intends to buy. Regine refuses.
Erik and Helene’s grown son, Osvald, comes from his home in Paris to attend his father’s funeral. He left the childhood home at the tender age of 16 to escape his parents. Osvald and Regine resumes the fling they started the last time Osvald was visiting. She uses her female charm 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.
Gabriel, the pastor, has come to bury his old friend. Helene and Gabriel talks about their agonising secret from the past. He still insists that nothing happened between them. She claims that the reason Gabriel rejected her was that he didn’t love her, but Erik, which he shamefully admits. Because Gabriel glorifies Erik, Helene tells him how awful the marriage with Erik was. She
reveals that Erik is Regine’s real father, not Engstrand. Afterwards Gabriel bumps into Engstrand, who’s been standing outside eavesdropping. Engstrand has information about the Secrets that the other characters wants to keep hidden. Maybe Engstrand knows that Gabriel may be Osvald’s biological father? Gabriel leaves. Johanne as a ghost appears and accuses her former husband, Engstrand, of killing her, but he cannot hear her. Her case will never be solved, because nobody can hear her.
Helene sees that she’s been far too close and intimate with her son, both mentally and physically. Her own abuse has damaged Osvald. She also realises that Erik was the one she really loved. Their relationship could have been good, if only she had allowed it. It’s all too much for her.
Osvald reveals to his mother that he is gravely sick and that he has decided on Regine as a life partner. But being so close to his mother makes him anxious and upset. Helene tries to explain and talk herself out of the blame, which makes Osvald furious. Hurt, Helene then asks Regine to come and drink champagne with them, and reveals that they have the same father. Regine then leaves.
Disappointed, scared and angry, Osvald tells his mother more about his illness, that the next attack probably will leave him in the state of an infant. He has made sure he has a way to escape: an overdose of morphine pills. He tries to persuade his mother to help him commit suicide if another attack comes. Helene cannot cope with living the rest of her life alone, everyone dead or gone. They make a suicide pact. When the next attack comes, she first helps him take half of the pills, then she takes the rest of the pills herself and follows him into death.
SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT THE PROCESS AND AN EXPLANATION OF WHY I HAVE WRITTEN THE LIBRETTO THE WAY I HAVE.
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 period that Henrik Ibsen wrote it to be better able to discern the differences from then and now.
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, in number of instruments and singers – to now being performed at the main stage with a full orchestra and choir! When the play 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. The play is still being performed around the world, it’s obviously still considered to be relevant. But society has changed a lot since the 1880s, 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 differs greatly from writing 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 dramaturg Kristian Lykkeslet Strømskag at the National Theatre in Oslo, I got access to Ingemar Bergman’s rewritten version of «Ghosts» from 2001. Bergman helped me not only to understand better what Ibsen probably meant but also 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 chose 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 wanted to focus on «internal fires»; women’s roles, motherhood, triangular love, lost love, infidelity, grief, unfulfilled longing, sexual orientation, incest, illness, euthanasia and suicide. I wanted 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 to keep Ibsen’s words wherever possible, but large portions of the text are my words – spiced with selected, adapted sentences derived from «deconstruction poetry»-processing of the original play. I describe the process as a method for reading among the lines. I construct 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 of the Ibsen quotes embedded along the pavement on Karl Johan’s Street in Oslo and put them together into new sentences. Some of the text fragments from «Nemesis», also worked their way into the libretto for «Ghosts». I used the deconstruction poetry method in my first libretto as well; «Black Days», music by Hartmut Schulz, based on the novel «Back to the Future» by Sigrid Undset. (The opera is not finished)
Despite the fact that «Ghosts» still are performed world wide, I actually consider 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. They talk and talk. I chose to write into the libretto some action that Ibsen only vaguely refers to. I wanted to show Helene Alving’s intrusive, unpleasant memories, also of her own faults and shortcomings. To facilitate this, I show her on stage both at a young age and at her current age. I also allow deceased characters to be on stage among the living, as a kind of ghosts to show Helene’s memories. Having the opportunity to study a person in different times of 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 in Ibsen’s original text are still relevant in our day and age. As I see it, it seems strange that Helene Alving and the maid Regine in this time would live alone in the big house for the long years between Erik Alving’s death and when Osvald suddenly for no apparent reason 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 fathers 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 has been using her son all his life 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. In order to remember for myself what I have been thinking and to be able to explain why I wrote this or that, 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). Young Helene eventually finds the child Osvald and hugs him, while the older Helene hugs the adult Osvald. Both Osvalds shrug away their mothers 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 chose 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 will 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.