What masks do we hide behind? What lengths would we go to in order to keep our secrets safe? How do we react when confronted with ugly, uncomfortable truths?
These are just some of the questions addressed – but not fully answered – in Aribert Reimann’s opera Ghost Sonata, based on a 1907 play by August Strindberg. It’s being staged this month by Opera Australia, with director Greg Eldridge at the helm in his first production with the company.
“It's pretty full-on,” he says of the piece. “Every day that we work on it we come away with more questions about ourselves as people, and not just the characters.”
The story follows a young man who, having fallen in love with a colonel’s daughter, enters the building she lives in. Along with an old man he meets outside, he joins the building’s inhabitants for supper, where it’s revealed that everyone has secrets they’re desperate to keep hidden.
“It's really all about deception, how we build up facades, how we tell ourselves lies in order to protect ourselves from the truth, and what we do once those lies are challenged,” Eldridge says. “The story is really about human interaction and what happens when we’re not our best selves.”
The production takes place in a Surry Hills backstreet, down a nondescript set of stairs and behind a blank door in Opera Australia’s mammoth scenery workshop where props for productions are made and stored – hundreds of pieces from shows throughout the years.
“Being in an environment that isn't silk and red velvet and leather … we're exploring what it means to be a person, in a space that’s raw and gritty,” Eldridge says.
The pop-up stage was built specifically for this production, as was its audience stand, which seats 300 people. It’s part of Opera Australia’s annual series where the company stages modern operas in usual settings (last year’s production of Metamorphosis was held here too) far from the glamorous rooms in the Opera House and pop-up stages on the harbour.
The departure from a typical opera experience is carried over to the staging of the show too. “I think we’ve tried really hard to be the opposite of 'stand at stage centre, raise your hands on a high note, wait for applause'. It's not that kind of piece at all, and I'm really proud of how much it isn't,” Eldridge says.
Because it’s a chamber opera, there are fewer characters and singers on stage, but the director says it adds to the overall experience. “A lot of the action is more detailed. You can hear the singers better and see their facial expressions,” he says. “We’re more invested in the stories that people are telling, and it becomes much more intimate.”
Eldridge has spent weeks with the cast and singers for rehearsals, and he describes it as something of a therapeutic, introspective experience that has allowed him to reflect on the universal aspects of the story. It’s something he hopes audiences will think and talk about when they leave the production.
“There are so many questions left unanswered by the ending – both in the story and in our personal experience – and the goal really is to get people to keep asking these questions,” he says.
Ghost Sonata is on from September 11 to 14 at Opera Australia’s Scenery Workshop, The Opera Centre, Dawson Street, Surry Hills.