SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT THE PROCESS AND AN EXPLANATION OF WHY I WROTE THE STORY LIKE I DID
Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen’s opera «Gespenster» based on Ibsen’s «Gjengangere», with a libretto by me, is staged at the Meininger Staatstheater, the same theater that had the first public premiere of the play in Germany in 1886 under the direction of the theater’s owner, Duke Georg II. The original premiere date was May 2020, but due to covid19 it was postponed to February 2024.
When I was asked if I would like to write the libretto, I started researching; reading secondary literature, in watching the various productions of the play, which can be found in NRK’s web archive, including Antonio Bibalo’s opera version from 1984, reading reviews of productions, essays and articles. What I quickly became aware of was that I did not want to keep the work as a display cabinet until a time long past. But I needed to know more about the time the play was written to be able to more easily discern the differences between then and now. Incidentally, I found out that Ibsen himself emphasized that he did not want music at the spoken-word theater performances of «Gjengangere».
The task I was given was to transform an almost 140-year-old 3-act play, in its original text a fairly out-of-date and comprehensive play, into basically an hour-long chamber opera for a small cast. Along the way, the project grew, both in length, stage size and number of instruments and singers. The play is still staged on stages around the world in very different ways, so many people obviously find it still relevant. When it was published in 1881, the naturalistic play was rejected by theaters and strongly criticized 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 then, so my motivation when I started the material in 2017 was to find and reinforce aspects of the text material that are still relevant. There are also some (occasionally surprising) differences between modern Norway and Germany, which often start exciting conversations and raise questions about who «we» are and why we are culturally the way we are.
Writing for opera is different than for plays. Singing a sentence takes much longer than speaking. Therefore, the text must be cut down from around 22,000 words to around 3-4,000 words, and the words must not only be good to sing, they must also retain both the drama and a poetic-artistic quality. My text has then been translated into German (by Dagfinn Koch), so there is an additional layer of linguistic challenges.
Thanks to dramaturg Kristian Lykkeslet Strømskag at the Nationaltheatret, I got access to Ingemar Bergman’s rewritten version of «Gjengangere» from 2001. Bergman helped me to not only understand what Ibsen probably meant, but also to more easily choose what should be kept and what should be changed. Not only have I chosen to interpret the play as radically as I could, I have also written in scenes that Ibsen only possibly suggests might have happened, as well as choosing to focus on completely different themes. I also chose to let the mother get the role of «the bad one» instead of the stereotypical father.
I decided early on to take the piece apart and reassemble it. I have chosen to remove the fire in the newly built asylum and thus also the focus on religion and society’s possible negative reaction to possible insurance, as well as Helene Alving’s reading of controversial literature. I would rather focus on «internal fires», women’s and motherhood, love triangles, lost love, infidelity, grief, unfulfilled longing, sexual orientation, incest, illness, active euthanasia and suicide. I want to investigate how secrets can change and destroy individuals, and how people can harm themselves and others, both in ignorance and as a result of relationships that have been poisoned.
Most of the text are my words – spiced with selected, adapted sentences derived from my «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 the previous video works, «Nemesis» from 2015, and «Tørst» from 2022. I photographed all the words of the Ibsen quotes embedded along the pavement on Karl Johan’s Street in Oslo and put them together in a new way, into new sentences. Some of the text fragments from «Nemesis», also worked their way into the libretto for «Ghosts».
The music for this opera had not yet been written as I wrote the first version of this text (2017). Early in the work I gave the composer something I called a word bank; a bunch of words and expressions for him to freely fit into the scenes in question. These were intended as compositional opportunities, for example to give the characters not directly involved something to sing. I imagined the words and sentences woven into the background as a kind of abstract chorus, helping to emphasize the action and what the characters are thinking.
Despite the fact that «Gjengangere» is still staged around the world, I actually think of it as less stage-friendly. I experience the piece as vague, archaic and convoluted. The text is retrospective; the characters really talk mostly about events back in time, and there is little action that happens on stage. There is a lot of talk. I have chosen to enter dramatic action that Ibsen only vaguely refers to.
I want to show Helene Alving’s intrusive, unpleasant memories. That’s why I let her be on stage both as a young person and at her current age. I also allow deceased characters to join on stage among the living, as a kind of ghosts so we can see Helene’s memories. I initially wanted to allow several of the characters, not just Helene, to be in several ages at the same time, perhaps even future versions, but this could not be carried out in this production. Having the opportunity to study a person at different times in their life is an exciting way to develop their character and create drama both internally and externally.
Since the fire and the action surrounding it have been removed, I have chosen to put Erik Alving’s death in the present tense. The action as I have written it takes place in the days immediately after the death. This gives the characters an opportunity to be in the same place.
It has been absolutely crucial for me to consider what about this play is relevant in a time like now. The way I imagine it, it seems strange if Helene Alving and the maid Regine would live alone in this house for as many years as they do in Ibsen’s original text; in the long years between Erik Alving’s death and Osvald suddenly, almost for no reason, but perhaps because he is ill, decides to come home. Without the fire in the asylum, Pastor Gabriel Manders has no reason to be there either. That is why I have written that he is coming to bury his old friend.
As Ibsen wrote the play, Osvald was sent away to boarding school by his mother as a small child. Would a mother today really send the 6-year-old away to spare him from his father’s wild life, as Helene claims the reason was? Not likely, especially not in Norway where many mothers’ lives revolve entirely around the lives of their children. Without inhibition, many mothers expose large parts of their children’s lives on social media, roughly acting, playing a perfect, glossy family life. A modern mother would divorce her husband if she truly feared for her child’s welfare in that way.
In my libretto, Helene does not want to divorce Erik because of looming secrets and the threat of a dramatically deteriorating personal economy. I have written that Erik has always really loved his wife, but that she has always rejected him in a very hurtful way. Since they were sort of forced to remain together, over time they delved into mutual contempt and hatred. I think instead that Osvald must have been quite damaged by growing up in this terrible family situation. The fact that both parents argued constantly is bad enough, but the fact that his mother settled down and became far too close to him, both mentally and physically. Helene used her son as a substitute for her husband in every conceivable way. Also sexually. I want to show that not only men are abusers. I imagine this situation as a picture of human decay as strong as his being sent to boarding school as a child.
Regine is Erik’s daughter, while Osvald is Gabriel’s son. So they are not siblings, and really could have been together. But there is so much emotion, love, hate, old grudges, horrible actions between mother and son that the mother chooses not to tell them the truth. She cannot bear to watch the two of them find love, and tells them that they are siblings, which causes Regine to go to Jacob.
I therefore choose to let Osvald, in order to punish his mother, just pretend that he is seriously ill. He loves to see her suffer. The only way he can really punish her is by removing himself from her. Osvald tells his mother that «he has Kharon’s coins», while holding out a box of pills. He means this as a picture; payment to the ferryman for the carriage across the river Styx, i.e. a means of dying. At the end of the play, Helene, apart from her son, is completely alone. Husband gone, lover long gone, no friends left and now even foster daughter Regine wants to leave her. When she seriously realizes that Osvald is actually going to die, she decides to follow him. I therefore let mother and son enter into a suicide pact instead of following Ibsen’s original text. She can’t bear the thought of being alone, and she refuses to allow him to leave her again. But Osvald chooses to pretend. He fakes a seizure so that his mother thinks he is dying and gives him the pills. an spits out the pills, gets up and leaves the stage. I could not resist the temptation to give him some redemption. I simply had to give him the chance to save himself and create his own life.