GESPENSTER / GHOSTS / GJENGANGERE
NEWS! PREMIERE 23. February 2024 at the main stage of Meninger Staatstheater!
Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen’s opera «Gespenster» based on Henrik Ibsen’s «Ghosts», libretto by me, will premiere at the main stage of Meininger Staatstheater February 23rd, 2024 – 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. Composer Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen writes the music directly for the vocal ensemble of the Meininger Staatstheater.
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. She treated her son Osvald more or less as a substitute for a husband, and invaded his body and mind since he was young. He escaped from home as a teenager. Now he has returned to the funeral of his father to the place of his childhood. Regine, Helene’s ward and Erik’s secret daughter, and Osvald falls in love. Out of jealousy Helene reveals that they are siblings (they are not), which makes Regine leave. To punish his mother, Osvald then tells her that he is dying. He has some pills in his pockets. She does not want to keep living alone with all these memories, these ghosts, so they make a suicide pact. When he feels another attack seizing his body, Helene gives him the pills, but not all. Apparently they both die. Then he rises, spits out the pills and leave the stage.
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. Also present on the stage is a young version of Helene, Osvald as a child, and Johanne (before she dies). They are all present as memories which Helene would prefer not to remember. All the memories requires her to take a hard look at her own behaviour and mindset throughout her life.
We start off seing young Helene, newlywed to Erik, as she has 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. She later explains that for pragmatic reasons, she went back to Erik, although she still aches for Gabriel. She has her reasons: it’s hard to be alone, and she eventually discovers that she is pregnant. And Erik has money and status.
Erik actually 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, rightly, that Osvald is his child. And Helene has discovered that Erik has done something illegal; Something he’ll end up in prison for if discovered. She is conflicted though. If she tells someone she’ll lose everything. Bitter and disappointed, she spends her life keeping the facade in order. Their son Osvald becomes the whole focus of her life. She treats him like a mix between a husband, a shrink and a puppy.
Erik’s love eventually vanes and 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, vicious parents.
Years ago, Johanne worked as a housekeeper at the young couple Alving’s house, until Erik gets her pregnant. He pays off Jacob and Johanne to marry and let everyone believe that Jacob is the father. Jacob treated Johanne and the daughter Regine badly. He sold Johanne as a prostitute to finance his own drug problem. In the end Jacob killed Johanne, but that was never discovered. When Johanne died, Helene and Erik took in Regine as their ward. Now Jacob comes and asks Regine to come and live and work at a hotel (AKA brothel) he intends to buy. Regine refuses.
Osvald, who fled his parents house at 16 and went to Paris to work as an artist, returns only to attend his father’s funeral. Osvald and Regine hits it off and starts planning a life together. She uses all her charm to get Osvald to promise to take her to Paris once his father is buried. She wants to live what she imagines his life is: 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 instead Erik. Because Gabriel keeps glorifying Erik, Helene tells him how awful the marriage with Erik was. She reveals that Erik is Regine’s real father, not Jacob. Afterwards Jacob threatens Gabriel and says he knows a lot of things; that Gabriel is Osvalds real father for instance. Jacob knows about all the Secrets everybody wants to keep hidden. Gabriel leaves. Johanne as a ghost appears and accuses her former husband, Jacob, of killing her, but he cannot hear her. Her case will never be solved, because nobody can hear her.
Helene most painful memory is that she’s been far too close and intimate with her son, both mentally and physically. We see an episode where her abuse is clear even to her. She realises that the abuse has seriously damaged Osvald. At the end of that scene, 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, so she brushes it off.
Being so close to his mother makes Osvald anxious and upset. He confronts her with the abuse she put him through. Helene tries to talk herself out of the blame, which makes Osvald furious. He needs to punish her, the harshest way he can: by taking himself away from her. He claims that he is gravely sick. Helene cannot handle it all and when he says that he has a relationship with Regine, she loses it. Out of spite and hate, Helene then asks Regine to come and drink champagne with them. And out of spite, she claims that they have the same father, which they don’t. Regine then leaves in anger to Jacob’s. Regine and Osvald could have been allowed to have this love, but nobody is going to be happy if Helene isn’t.
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: He produces a box of pills. Helene cannot cope with living the rest of her life alone, everyone dead or gone. They make a suicide pact. Then he simulate an attack, Helene gives him half of the pills and takes the rest herself. After his mother is dead, Osvald stands up, spits out the pills and walks off the stage.