Some thoughts on my writing process and an explanation of why I wrote the libretto the way I did.

Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen’s opera Gespenster, based on Ibsen’s Ghosts, with a libretto by me, is being staged at the Meininger Staatstheater. This is the same theatre where the first public performance of the play in Germany took place in 1886 under the direction of the theatre’s owner, Duke Georg II. The original premiere date was May 2020, but covid19 postponed it to 23 February 2024. 

First of all, I must say that I have learnt a lot about writing since I started this libretto. I had only made one similar attempt before, so I didn’t really know much. Composer Torstein Aagaard-Nilsen, who also wrote his first opera with this, was very patient with me as I wrote, cut, moved text and learnt. 

The task I was given was to transform an almost 140-year-old three-act play, which in its original text was rather unfashionable and voluminous, into essentially a one-hour chamber opera for a small cast. In the process, the project grew. We suddenly had more space, in terms of length, stage size and number of instruments and singers. New ideas were added several years after we started. I’m still discovering more and more about what I’ve actually written and how it can be interpreted. 

When the play was published in 1881, the naturalistic play was rejected by theatres and heavily criticised 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 working on the material in 2017 was to find and strengthen aspects of the textual material that are still relevant. There are also some (sometimes surprising) differences between modern Norway and Germany, which can start exciting conversations and questions about who ‘we’ are and why we are culturally the way we are. 

Despite the fact that the original version of «Ghosts» is still being performed around the world, I actually find it less stage-friendly. In my opinion it is vague, archaic and ponderous. The text is retrospective; the characters mostly talk about events in the past and there is little action on stage. So I decided to write in some dramatic action that Ibsen only vaguely refers to. 

When I started researching, I quickly realised that I didn’t want to keep the work as a peephole into a bygone era. Writing for opera is also quite different from writing for theatre. Singing a sentence takes much longer than speaking it. So the text had to be reduced from about 22,000 words to a maximum of 3-4,000 words, and the words have to be not only good to sing, but also have a dramatic and poetic-artistic quality. My text was then rewritten into German (by Dagfinn Koch), and with it came an extra layer of linguistic challenges. We also made quite a few changes to the action and language during these almost 7 years, not least with the two German dramaturges Corinna Jarosch in 2019 and Julia Terwald in 2023. There have probably been about 18-19 versions of this text. During the writing process, I completed about half of a bachelor’s degree in intellectual history at the University of Oslo, before Covid19 put a stop to it. The studies were very helpful for my writing. 

I got in touch with dramaturge Kristian Lykkeslet Strømskag, then at the National Theatre in Oslo, who gave me good advice and access to Ingemar Bergman’s rewritten version of «Ghosts» from 2001. Bergman helped me not only to understand what Ibsen probably meant, but also to choose more easily what to keep and what to change. Not only did I choose to interpret the play as radically as possible, but I also wrote in scenes that Ibsen only hinted at, and chose to focus on completely different themes. I also decided to give the mother the role of the villain instead of the stereotypical father.

I decided early on to take the play apart and put it back together again. I decided to remove the fire in the newly built asylum, and with it the focus on religion and society’s possible negative reaction to any insurance, as well as Helene Alving’s reading of controversial literature. I would rather focus on «internal fires». 

First and foremost, I want to focus on the role of the woman and mother when she is also an abuser, as well as contribute to the discourse of men as victims of women’s violence. My other writing also deals with complicated interpersonal relationships such as abuse and violence. Statistically, women are the most common victims, but men are also exposed. There are large unrecognised figures for all genders, and queer/trans people are perhaps particularly vulnerable. We know too little and have too little data and research, but what we can say with certainty is that many more men are victims of violence by women than is reported. There are many reasons for this. 

In the play we also find love triangles, lost love, infidelity, children with parents other than those listed on the birth certificate, narcissism, grief, longing, incest, illness, euthanasia and suicide. I want to explore how secrets can change and destroy individuals, and how people can harm themselves and others, both unintentionally and as a result of relationships that have been allowed to grow poisoned. 

Early on in the work, I gave the composer what I called a word bank; a series of words and phrases that fit the scene in question. These were intended as compositional possibilities, for example to give characters not involved in the scene something to sing.

I imagined the words and phrases woven into the background as a kind of abstract chorus, helping to emphasise the action and what the characters are thinking. 

I have tried to keep Ibsen’s words where it is natural, but large parts of the text are my words, spiced with selected, reworked sentences taken from a «deconstruction poetry» processing of the play. (The process can be described as a method of constructing new sentences from the words in a given text, thus generating new textual material. I have used this method in a previous video work, «Nemesis» from 2015, where I photographed all the words in the embedded Ibsen quotes along Karl Johans gate in Oslo and put them together into new sentences (sound design by Dagfinn Koch). Some of the text fragments from «Nemesis» have also been incorporated into the libretto of «Gespenster». If you are particularly interested, you can read more about it on my website 


I want to show Helene Alving’s intrusive, unpleasant memories. Therefore I let her be on stage both as a young woman and at the age she is in the present. I also allow deceased characters to be on stage with the living, as a kind of recurring character to show Helene’s memories. Initially I wanted to allow more of the characters, not just Helene, to be several ages at once, perhaps even future versions, but this was not possible 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 events surrounding it have been removed, I have chosen to set Erik Alving’s death in the present day. The story, 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 crucial for me to consider what about this play is relevant in a time like now. It seems strange to me that Helene Alving and her maid Regine should live alone in this house today for as many years as they do in Ibsen’s original text; in the long years between Erik Alving’s death and Osvald’s sudden decision, almost for no reason, but perhaps because he’s ill, to come home. Without the fire at the asylum, Pastor Gabriel Manders also has no reason to be there. That is why I wrote that he comes to bury his old friend. 

When Ibsen wrote the play, Osvald was sent to boarding school by his mother as a small child. Would a mother today really send a six-year-old away to save him from his father’s wild life, as Helene claims was the reason? Unlikely, especially in Norway, where many mothers’ lives revolve around their children. Without inhibition, many mothers expose large parts of their children’s lives on social media, showing a perfect, glossy family life.

A mother in Norway today would probably divorce her husband if she really feared for the welfare of her child. 

In my libretto, Erik has committed a white-collar crime which Helene discovered. This keeps them both trapped together under the threat of imprisonment and a dramatically deteriorating standard of living. This, and the knowledge that Erik is in fact Regine’s father, become the greatest secrets and instruments of power struggle between the spouses. I have written, though, that Erik always has loved his wife, but that she always rejected him. Over the years, the spouses amused themselves with quarrels coloured by mutual contempt and hatred. I imagine that Osvald must have been really damaged by growing up in this horrible family situation. The fact that both parents were constantly fighting is bad enough, but I have also written that Helene used her son as a substitute for her husband in every conceivable way. Even sexually. His mother got way too close to him, gaining power over him, both psychologically and physically. I want to show that not only men are abusers, and not only women are victims. I imagine this situation as a picture of human decay just 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 could actually have been allowed to be together. But there are so many emotions, love, hate, old grudges, terrible deeds between mother and son, that the mother chooses not to tell the truth. She can’t bear to watch the two find love, so she tells them that they are siblings, which makes Regine leave to go to Jacob. 

I decided to have Osvald pretend to be seriously ill in order to punish his mother. He loves to see her in pain. The only way he can really punish her is to distance himself from her. Osvald tells his mother that «he has Kharon’s coins», while holding a box of pills. He means this as a metaphor; payment to the ferryman for transport across the river Styx, i.e. a means of dying. At the end of the play, Helene is, apart from her son, completely alone. Her husband dead, lover is long gone, no friends remaining and now even her foster daughter Regine wants to leave her. When she realises that Osvald is really going to die, she decides to follow him. Instead of following Ibsen’s original text, I have mother and son make a suicide pact. She can’t bear the thought of being alone and refuses to let him leave her again. But Osvald decides to pretend. He pretends to have a seizure so that his mother thinks he is dying and gives him the pills. He spits them out, gets up and walks off the stage. I couldn’t resist the temptation to give him justice and vindication. He had to be given the chance to save himself and create his own life.