Ghost Stories at the Opera: Operatic Librettos Perfect for Halloween

Written by AVA Administrative Associate Stephen J. Trygar
Cover Photo by Paul Sirochman Photography from AVA’s 2018 Le Villi

Happy Halloween! As the nights are slowly creeping earlier up the clock and the air is getting chillier, it is the perfect time for ghost stories and mysterious events! The old walls of the Academy of Vocal Arts contain several of its own ghost stories to tell, as depicted in Tania Bagan’s haunting 2018 Halloween entry, but they have been hosting many others as well. This All Hallows Eve, we invite you to indulge in some of our favorite and most recent opera productions with bone chilling librettos and equally eerie scores.

These operas are presented in chronological order by production date within the last few years at AVA. It is not our intent to leave any productions unrecognized. If you have any favorite ghoulish operas you witnessed at the Academy of Vocal Arts, we’d love to hear your version of the story! Each opera is supplied with a full production video. These videos are purely for your enjoyment and give you a chance to witness the mystery and horror of these extraordinary tales.


Music: Charles Gounod (1818–1893)
Libretto: Michel Carré (1821–1872) and Jules Barbier (1825–1901)

Photo by Paul Sirochman

The aged philosopher Faust brings a vile of poison to his lips and prepares to take a sip. His hand is stayed by the sound of the Easter celebrations happening outside his old, dusty library. When the merriment has calmed, he attempts to drink the poison again, but the festivities interrupt him once more. Tormented, he laments of his wasted life and summons Méphistophélès, the Devil. Faust yearns for his youth and demands that Méphistophélès return it to him along with the pleasure that comes with it; the Devil agrees, but on the condition that Faust sell his soul to him. Faust hesitates, but Méphistophélès’ conjured vision of Marguerite enthralls the desperate old man, and he hastily agrees to the Devil’s arrangement. In a nearby town fair, Valentin, a young officer in the army, says goodbye to his dear sister Marguerite. Before he can leave, Méphistophélès interrupts the revelry by singing about greed and gold. A furious Valentin raises his sword to the Devil, but it mysteriously shatters. Faust, on his way to the festival, meets Marguerite on her way towards the church. He offers to escort her there, but she refuses his advances and continues alone.

Siebel, a young man in love with Marguerite, brings flowers to her garden hoping that she may learn of his devotion. Aided by Méphistophélès, Faust attempts to point favor in his direction by leaving a casket of jewels. As Marguerite enters her garden, the two men dash into hiding. She begins spinning at her wheel, but the jewels catch her eye and she exclaims with delight. She falls victim to another one of Méphistophélès’ and Faust’s schemes, and she admits that she returns Faust’s ardor. Realizing she is making a mistake, she begs him to leave, but Méphistophélès convinces Faust to return to her. Marguerite, racked with guilt over her love of Faust and relentlessly tormented by Méphistophélès, seeks refuge in the church. Valentin returns to the city, and his triumphant songs from winning in battle are snuffed out by a risqué serenade to Marguerite. Méphistophélès, who had been impersonating Faust, has instigated a fight between Valentin and Faust. Despite Faust’s attempts to calm the fight himself, Méphistophélès blocks Valentin’s sword, and Faust unintentionally delivers the fatal blow. Valentin spends his final breaths cursing his sister, swearing that he dies by her hands alone. Méphistophélès unsuccessfully tries to tempt Faust to forget his beloved Marguerite. She lies dying in prison, condemned for the murder of her illegitimate child. Faust arrives to free her, but she refuses. Seeing Méphistophélès hiding in the shadows, Marguerite cries out to the angels to save her. As she dies, Méphistophélès condemns her soul, but the angelic forces proclaim her salvation before his decree is finalized. With despair in his eyes, he watches as Marguerite’s soul ascends into Heaven.

Gounod’s devilish French grand opera Faust has appeared in four different seasons throughout the Academy of Vocal Arts’ 85-year history. This masterpiece made its AVA debut in 1945, and was staged again in the 1961-1962 (a condensed version), 2002-2003, and 2014-2015 seasons. In our 2015 revival, audiences were swept away by Diego Silva and Mackenzie Whitney as Faust, Melinda Whittington and Huanhuan Ma as Marguerite, André Courville and Anthony Schneider as Méphistophélès, and Michael Adams and Jared Bybee as Valentin. For a complete listing of the full cast, visit our performance archive on the AVA website!

Don Giovanni

Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1971)
Libretto: Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749–1838)

Photo by Don Valentino

Leporello, keeping watch outside the Commendatore’s castle while Don Giovanni tries to seduce Donna Anna, grumbles to himself about his troublesome and exhausting master. Don Giovanni races out of the castle wearing a mask, and he is pursued by Donna Anna trying to reveal his identity. The Commendatore rushes to his daughter’s aid by blocking Don Giovanni’s only exit, but the young philanderer kills him without hesitation. Having momentarily fled the scene, Donna Anna returns with her fiancé, Don Ottavio, and is horrified when she notices her dead father lying in a pool of his own blood. Enraged, she demands that Don Ottavio swear vengeance on the mysterious murderer. Roaming the town in quest of his next prey, Don Giovanni retreats leaving Leporello behind to calm the furious Donna Elvira, a former lover of Don Giovanni. Having temporarily succeeded in deterring Donna Elvira from pursuing her former lover, Don Giovanni and Leporello wander into the wedding celebration of Masetto and Zerlina. Catching Don Giovanni luring the bride back to his house, Donna Elvira thwarts the seduction. An unexpected visit by Donna Anna and Don Ottavio leaves Don Giovanni nervous that he will be discovered, but the distressed Donna Anna has already pointed him out to Don Ottavio has her attacker. While Don Giovanni prepares a feast in honor of Zerlina, Elvira, Anna, and Ottavio arrive at the festivities masked and uninvited. The host, more forceful this time, entices Zerlina to his chambers, but Don Giovanni barely escapes when the trio enter to rescue her.

Don Giovanni designs a ruse to continue his flirtations with Donna Elvira’s maid. Leporello, dressed as his master, is lured into a trap set for Don Giovanni by herself, Don Ottavio, and Donna Anna. Zerlina and Masetto follow shortly; the frightened servant reveals his true identity and vows vengeance on his master. He meets his master in a cemetery to hide from the evening’s madness, and upon realizing they are in the shadow of the Commendatore’s tomb, Don Giovanni impudently invites the statue to dinner. The statue bows its head and accepts the invitation. Leporello nervously prepares the banquet for the Stone Guest, and Donna Elvira attempts one final time for Don Giovanni to reform. He waves her aside as the Guest arrives. The statue of the Commendatore stands in the doorway summoning the fearless Don Giovanni to hell. Flames burst through the mansion and Don Giovanni is dragged into the fiery pits.

Mozart’s monumental take on the classic story of Don Juan kicked off AVA’s 2015-2016 season. It marked the eighth time this timeless score has captivated AVA audiences, and featured an accomplished and highly honored cast. The role of Don Giovanni was shared by Jared Bybee, Daniel Noyola, and Ethan Vincent (formerly Simpson); Meryl Dominguez and Vanessa Vasquez as Donna Anna; Anush Avetisyan and JoAna Rusche as Donna Elvira; André Courville and Nathan Milholin as Leporello; Allegra De Vita and Alexandra Nowakowski as Zerlina; Jorge Espino and Anthony Whitson-Martini as Masetto; Anthony Schneider as Il Commendatore; and Jonas Hacker and Alasdair Kent as Don Ottavio. To watch selected scenes, read reviews, and learn more about this spine-chilling production, visit our performance archive!

The Demon

Music: Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894)
Libretto: Pavel Viskovatov (1842–1905)

Photo by Don Valentino

A storm in the Caucasian mountains brews as a crowd of evil spirits call upon the Demon to destroy the beauty of God’s creation. He accepts their request out of hatred of the universe. An Angel pleads with him to reconcile with heaven, but the Demon ignores their petition. While devising a plan, the Demon becomes enamored by Tamara as she sits by a river with her attendants. Not knowing she is betrothed to Prince Sinodal, he promises her that the world would one day kneel before her if she reciprocated his love. Too frightened to answer, she announces her marriage to the Prince and returns to her castle. The Prince’s caravan has begun its journey to Prince Gudal’s court for his wedding with Tamara. A landslide prevents the caravan from continuing, and while they are stuck, the Demon appears and vows that Prince Sinodal will never see Tamara again. The caravan is suddenly overtaken by Tatars, and Prince Sinodal is mortally wounded. His dying wish is that his body be brought to his fianceé.

Unbeknownst of the caravan’s condition, the wedding festivities begin as scheduled. A messenger announces that Prince Sinodal’s caravan has been delayed, but when Tamara senses the presence of the Demon she fears the worst. When Prince Sinodal’s body is brought into the castle, Tamara is overcome by grief. Her horror grows as the hypnotic voice of the Demon replays repeatedly in her mind. She begs her father to let her enter a convent to escape the evil that has found her. The Demon, believing his love for Tamara has banished his evil nature, intends to enter the convent where she now lives. The Angel revisits him and tries to impede his strategy. Despite her ceaseless prayers, Tamara is plagued by thoughts and dreams of the Demon. The Demon takes a corporeal form in order to declare his love for her. When she refuses, he forces her to kiss him. The Angel swiftly appears and shows her the ghost of the Prince. Realizing what the Demon has done, she struggles out of his arms and falls dead. The Demon is damned to eternal solitude while Tamara’s soul is carried up to Heaven.

Rubinstein’s gripping opera has been rarely seen in Philadelphia. Its Philadelphia premiere took place on April 29th, 1922 at the Forrest Theatre in a production by the Russian Grand Opera Company. The opera was produced once more in 1928, but it disappeared from Philadelphian stages until the Russian Opera Workshop produced a concert version in 2015. One year later, AVA staged this thriller with Ethan Vincent, Timothy Renner, and Christopher Kenney sharing the role of the Demon; JoAna Rusche and Rebecca Gulinello as Tamara; Marco Cammarota and John Matthew Myers as Prince Sinodal; Nathan Milholin and Daniel Noyola as Prince Gudal; André Courville as the Old Servant; Alejandra Gomez as the Angel; and Matthew White and Piotr Buszewski as the Courier. AVA’s performance archives contain some photos of this photos and other useful documents for you to get familiar with our production.

Le Villi

Music: Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924)
Libretto: Ferdinando Fontana (1850–1919)

Photo by Paul Sirochman

Roberto’s and Anna’s family and friends gather to celebrate their recent engagement. Roberto must leave before the wedding ceremony to collect an inheritance, but Anna is worried that she will never see him again. She tells him of her dreams of his death, but he consoles her and promises that as soon as he returns, they will be wed. Despite his reassurances, Anna is still worried. A final attempt to calm his fianceé’s mind is made by Roberto; he asks Guglielmo, Anna’s father, to bless them before his journey to Mainz. Soon after his departure, Roberto is enchanted by a siren, and he forgets his beloved Anna. Anna waits through the summer and autumn, and in the winter, she dies in his absence of a broken heart.

Guglielmo holds Roberto responsible for Anna’s death, and he calls upon the Villi to take vengeance on Roberto. These Villi are legendary fairies who, when a woman dies of a broken heart, force the unfaithful partner to dance until death. They call upon Anna’s ghost and lure Roberto into the forest. Roberto, penniless and abandoned by the siren, returns home when the news of Anna’s death reaches him. The Villi stalk Roberto as he mourns, and when he finds one last flower in the dead of winter, he makes a final attempt to visit Guglielmo’s house. The curse put on him by the Villi forbid him from completing his task. He tries to pray for forgiveness, but the curse has also prevented him from doing so. Anna appears before him and tells him of all her suffering. He begs for her forgiveness as the burning pain of betrayal grows in his heart. Anna refuses to forgive him, and she calls upon the Villi to finish their curse. The Villi and Anna dance with Roberto until he dies of exhaustion at Anna’s feet.

Le Villi was Puccini’s first stage work, and was cleverly paired with one of his final operas, Sour Angelica, for AVA’s 2018-2019 season opener. This production marked the second time Puccini’s gruesome fairytale adorned our stage. The small, yet powerful, cast contained Daniel Gallegos, Ethan Vincent, and Łukasz Zientarski as Guglielmo; Yihan Duan, Rebecca Gulinello, and Kara Mulder as Anna; and Abraham Bretón, Mackenzie Gotcher, and Matthew White as Roberto. Visit AVA’s performance archives to read production related news and articles!

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