The movie Gaslight (1944) tells the story of an opera singer, played by Ingrid Bergman, who wonders if she is going insane as the lights in her gaslit house mysteriously flicker and dim. It turns out, however, that her husband, played by Charles Boyer, has been trying to convince her that she is losing her mind and that the shifting light is one of her many imaginings. Those of us who have lived fully in the electrical era have no memory of the special character of gas illumination. But during the age of the gaslit opera house, from the 1820s to the 1880s, operagoers were offered “a completely new experience of light” that, according to the musicologist Gabriela Cruz in Grand Illusion: Phantasmagoria in Nineteenth-Century Opera, reshaped the musical and dramatic dimensions of operatic composition and performance.
In the earlier age of candlelight at the opera and the theater, “the audience normally sat in a house that was dimly lit, peering at a dimly lit stage.”1 Hundreds of candles, arranged in chandeliers and along the stage, were tended by stagehands during the performance, with limited means for lowering the light by manually placing open-ended cans around the flames. Gaslight, replacing candles or oil lamps, made it possible not just to conceal the lighting apparatus with pipes and valves, but also to offer a more constant illumination that was vastly brighter and capable of being raised and dimmed. Nocturnal darkness on the stage—or a brightly lit stage in contrast to a darkened auditorium—was now technologically achievable.
Cruz contemplates the gaslight revolution alongside the introduction of the magic-lantern apparatus to theaters in the nineteenth century: the projection of images could supplement or replace traditional painted sets. By tracing the complex historical intersection of musical and technological development, her fascinating book offers new insights into the history of opera in the age of Giacomo Meyerbeer, Richard Wagner, and Giuseppe Verdi.
Gas illumination has been so thoroughly supplanted by electric light in today’s post-Edisonian world that “gaslighting” has become a word with a completely untechnological meaning, referring rather to the Ingrid Bergman film and the psychological maneuver of trying to make someone think she’s crazy. In fact, the gaslit opera houses of the mid-nineteenth century sometimes presented new works that were intended to unsettle the public psychologically by conjuring phantasms or ghosts with lighting, staging, and music. The association of opera house lighting with mysterious haunting became sensational in the early twentieth century with Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera (1910).
The word “phantasmagoria” to describe such illusory effects originated with an itinerant performing magician known as Paul Philidor, probably Dutch, who used magic-lantern projections to create the illusion of ghosts, first in imperial Vienna in 1790 and 1791, and then in revolutionary Paris in 1792 and 1793. A French account from 1793 quoted Philidor’s claim to his public: “I will bring before you all the illustrious dead, all those whose memory is dear to you.” The phantasmagoria show was a sort of séance:
He introduces you into a black room covered with images of the dead, lit by a sepulchral lamp. Soon a magic breath extinguishes this feeble light: all light disappears, your eyes can no longer distinguish anything…. Suddenly, thunder rumbles, lightning intermittently dazzles the eye, seemingly to render the obscurity even darker. At the same time, all the signals of a storm are heard; rain, hail, and wind together become the overture and symphony of the scene being played out. Then, from the floor itself, a whitish figure appears to grow by degrees to human dimensions. At first you can barely distinguish it; it is still enveloped by a kind of cloud, which then brightens and dissipates. The phantom becomes more and more visible, aglow. You can discern its features: it is MIRABEAU…. You tremble, he advances again. You are about to touch him when he disappears, and you find yourself back in the darkness.2
Mirabeau was one of the political heroes of the French Revolution; he died in 1791 but returned to life as a ghost—or as a magic-lantern illumination—in Philidor’s phantasmagoria. The relevance of such a show to the operatic world was already clear in this early notice, and the elements included in the description—the thunderstorm as the overture to the scene, the apparition of the ghostly hero—could also describe Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (1843), which stands at the center of Cruz’s book.
Wagner brought all of these elements together in his emerging vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk—the total work of art that united music, text, and staging—but he built upon a tradition that had been evolving since the late eighteenth century. Philidor’s phantasmagoria shows in Vienna took place during the last year of Mozart’s life, and though we don’t know whether the composer attended them, he would likely have been intrigued by the theatrical conjuring of ghosts and spirits. In Prague in 1787 he had presented Don Giovanni, in which the graveyard statue of the Commendatore came hauntingly to life after his murder—the ideal scenario for the phantasmagoria projections and gas lighting that were not yet in use for theatrical production. Mozart, however, was interested in lighting, and the libretto describes the infernal flames that illuminate Don Giovanni’s final, fatal encounter with the Commendatore. Don Giovanni sings, “Where do they come from, these vortices of fire, full of horror?” but in 1787 they came from candles or torches. In 1791 Mozart presented The Magic Flute, his fairy-tale opera replete with supernatural appearances, most notably the terrifying “star-flaming” Queen of the Night, her nocturnal role ideally suited to the light projections and gas illuminations of the future.
The fairy-tale opera that actually inaugurated the age of gaslight was Nicolas Isouard’s Aladin, performed at the Paris Opéra in the new Salle Le Peletier in 1822. One of the stage designers was Louis Daguerre, a founding figure in modern photography for whom the daguerreotype was named. He was very much interested in theatrical optics and the projection of light. “The subject of this now forgotten opera,” writes Cruz, “is light itself, the illuminating fluid that pours out of the wonderful lamp as though magically connected to the new gas main.” She describes the brilliant lighting of the fairy tale’s enchanted palace and then its disappearance into darkness, made possible by the gas valves. When the libretto of Aladin invoked the “lampe merveilleuse” (magic lamp) and its “lueur mystérieuse” (mysterious glow), the latest technology of illumination was at hand to bring the drama to life.
Isouard belonged to an older generation of composers and was already dead when Aladin was produced, but a younger generation was focusing on the possibilities offered by phantasmagoria and the gaslit gradations of darkness. In Berlin in 1821 Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz summoned the devil at midnight, and in Naples in 1835 Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor was haunted by ghosts and madness, while in Paris in 1827 Gioachino Rossini’s Moses and Pharaoh staged the plague of darkness in Egypt, the return of light, and, eventually, the parting of the Red Sea.
The most important composers for Cruz’s study, however, are Meyerbeer and Wagner, with Meyerbeer dominating the gaslit Paris Opéra in the 1820s and 1830s and Wagner staking out his primacy in German opera beginning in the 1840s. Cruz argues that together they revolutionized the relation of opera to technology, and particularly to lighting. Meyerbeer, already famous, gave his support, including financial backing, to the young Wagner, and then Wagner scurrilously attacked him, making him the unnamed villain of his viciously anti-Semitic essay “Jewishness in Music” (1850): “The uninspiring, the truly laughable, is the characteristic sign by which this famous composer shows his Jewishness in relation to music.” Yet, according to his wife Cosima’s diary, in 1872 Wagner, after Meyerbeer’s death, dreamed that they were walking together amicably in Paris, “arm in arm,” and Cruz suggests, in this study of theatrical haunting, that Wagner and Meyerbeer haunted each other across the decades, each responding to the other’s spectral projections.
Meyerbeer took up the challenge of setting gaslit phantasms to music with his “ballet of the nuns” in Robert le diable in 1831, which called for nuns rising from their graves by night, in moonlit dance and ghostly chorus. Cruz evokes the scene:
The theater went dark; later, a ray of moonlight, contrived by affixing gas-fed “moon boxes” to hangers in the wings, contributed a special state of penumbra to the stage; finally, out of this penumbra a new sense of light emerged and illumination became the crucial element in the work.
With Robert le diable, Cruz argues, considerations of technology became paramount for the composer’s operatic purposes:
Meyerbeer created a musical dramaturgy of light and darkness—a correlative to the new gaslight technology—by endowing both voice and orchestra with the power of generating shadows and mirages familiar to spectators of phantasmagoria.
The ballet was sufficiently interesting as a study in light for Degas to paint it forty years later as a scene on the stage of the Opéra, the ghostly nuns illuminated in the upper half of the painting while the audience and orchestra are submerged in relative darkness below (see illustration above).3
In 1848 Karl Marx announced that “a specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism,” but in the operatic world of the 1840s the supreme spectral apparition was the phantom ship of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, with its ghostly captain and crew, which first touched shore in 1843 on the stage of the Semperoper in Dresden. This fully modern opera house, designed by Gottfried Semper, had opened in 1841, and its gas lighting would in 1869 cause a fire that destroyed the building. It served, however, for the premiere of The Flying Dutchman in 1843 and then Tannhäuser in 1845, before both Wagner and Semper had to flee Dresden as political revolutionaries at the end of the decade. When Marx wrote afterward about the short-lived political gains of the revolutions of 1848, he declared that “everything has disappeared like a phantasmagoria.”
Wagner accused Meyerbeer of seeking to produce musical effects without meaningful dramatic causes, and Cruz suggests that one of the paths toward the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk involved integrating music and lighting. When the spectral sailors of the Dutchman’s ship come to life in the penultimate scene and begin to sing, the score specifies what should happen onstage:
The sea, which is elsewhere calm, begins to rise in the vicinity of the Dutch ship; a somber blueish light flares up as a watch fire…the crew, who were invisible before, come to life in the light of the flame.
At the same time the crew begins to sing their sea calls: Hoe! Hoe! Hoe! In the score Wagner specifies three piccolos, the tam-tam, and a wind machine.
“The sonorized phantom ship produces awe in the manner of a horror show,” notes Cruz, and lighting could enhance the horror, haunting the imagination of the public. Wagner’s phantom ship also haunted the imagination of Meyerbeer, Cruz suggests, for he spent the rest of his life composing and revising L’Africaine, which follows the life of Vasco da Gama; in the third act his ship is seized by African captives in an operatic storm. L’Africaine was finally produced in Paris in 1865, the year after the composer’s death and the year of the first performance in Munich of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which opens on the ship carrying Isolde from Ireland to Cornwall to marry King Marke. In the first act Isolde cries out in vain for a storm to destroy the ship at sea, and in the second act the great love duet requires one of opera’s most seductive stagings of nocturnal darkness.
Stage technology is fundamental to every opera production, and the historical relation of opera and technology has increasingly become a subject of academic research. Cruz’s stimulating (dare one say, illuminating) study of lighting can productively be read alongside the musicologist Gundula Kreuzer’s monograph Curtain, Gong, Steam: Wagnerian Technologies of Nineteenth-Century Opera. Kreuzer and Cruz agree that Meyerbeer and Wagner must be central to any discussion of technology and opera, for grand opera, as conceived by Meyerbeer—often on historical subjects, with large casts and orchestras and spectacular scenic designs—made huge demands on staging, while the Gesamtkunstwerk, as imagined by Wagner, called for a complete integration of music and drama that could only occur through stage production. Kreuzer suggests that Wagner perhaps envisioned himself as Venus in Tannhäuser, conjuring a magic grotto on the stage; as Wotan in Das Rheingold, building his celestial castle, Valhalla; or even as Klingsor in Parsifal, the magician presiding over his enchanted gardens. In this sense Wagnerian operas were sometimes actually about the technology of magical construction—the same work that went into the staging of the operas themselves.
Kreuzer writes about Wagner’s musical timing for the rise and fall of the curtain, about his incorporation of the gong (the tam-tam that signals the appearance of the Dutchman’s phantom ship) into the orchestra, and especially the deployment of the modern technology of steam to create, in coordination with lighting, fogs and mists onstage. Just as the steam engine powered the railroad revolution of the nineteenth century and transformed shipping, so it also became essential to theatrical production—even today fog and mist remain staples for the staging of theater and opera. When Wagner’s theater at Bayreuth opened in 1876, with gas lighting, there were also two steam engines concealed in a wooden shed outside to provide steam onstage. In Das Rheingold the steam functioned as a kind of curtain, appearing during the orchestral interludes that linked the scenes, for instance during the descent to Nibelheim (“the sulfur steam darkens to a quite black cloud”), thus allowing the music to continue without dropping the curtain during the change of scenery.
Fog and mist offered the perfect scenic conditions for apparitions and phantasms, and steam thus combined with gaslight and phantasmagoria to produce the haunted operatic scenarios of the nineteenth century. In 1843 the setting of The Flying Dutchman, off the Norwegian coast, was invariably foggy, while in 1847 Verdi presented the misty landscape of Scotland in Macbeth, first performed in Florence. It was Verdi’s most haunted opera, with its first scene given over to the chorus of witches who foretell Macbeth’s future; Lady Macbeth then invokes infernal spirits of darkness, and later the witches conjure apparitions that disappear into the Scottish mist. In 1865, almost twenty years later, Verdi revised Macbeth for Paris, which allowed him to deploy the full technology of the gaslit Paris Opéra. He composed a brilliant new aria for Lady Macbeth as night falls in the second act, “La luce langue”—the light languishes—a haunted waltz particularly well suited to a stage technology that allowed for the dimming of the lights.
In discussing Verdi, Cruz is most interested in Aida, first performed in Cairo in 1871 and then at La Scala in Milan in 1872. The original production was designed by the French archaeologist Auguste Mariette, with details copied from the carvings in the excavated tomb of the pharaoh Ramses III. Cruz suggests that Verdi’s music, combined with Mariette’s designs, should be understood in the spirit of phantasmagoria, conjuring back from the dead (indeed, from the tomb) the ancient Egyptians and bringing to life their stone carvings. She observes this particularly in the ballet scene for the Egyptian priestesses in the Temple of Vulcan at Memphis, as noted in the stage directions: “A mysterious light descends from above, a long row of columns, one up against another, recedes into the darkness. Statues of various divinities.” This phantasmagorical scenario, with the invocation of supernatural spirits, depended upon the lighting, while Verdi composed the ballet with a leading part for the flute around ritually recurring themes—characterized by Cruz as “elements of an abstract design that could very easily be a full-fledged text as undecipherable as hieroglyphs.”
Cruz describes Verdi’s visit to the Egyptian Museum in Florence to try to find an Egyptian flute, even as he imagined constructing a brand-new “hyper-flute,” in order to suggest by its magnified volume the supernatural presence of the Egyptian deities. She considers the “mortuary” qualities of Aida, which concludes inside a tomb, and even proposes that among the “operatic mummies” preserved within the opera are the embalmed remains of Meyerbeerian grand opera in all its former magnificence. In particular, the African heroine Aida could be recognized as the Verdian sister of Sélika, the enslaved queen of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, which was produced (in Italian) at La Scala in 1870, just two years before Aida arrived—both productions illuminated by gaslight.
The supernatural associations of Verdi’s flute music in Aida—returning again in the moonlit Nile scene—were already part of the phantasmagoria of Donizetti’s Lucia in the 1830s. In the Scottish mists of the first act, the flute suggests to the heroine the ghost of a girl killed by her jealous lover and then returns to accompany Lucia’s mad scene in the third act after she has murdered her bridegroom. (Donizetti originally wanted to make use of the otherworldly timbre of the glass harmonica instead of a flute.)
In the 1850s, when Gustave Flaubert published Madame Bovary, he set a crucial chapter at the opera in Rouen, sending his heroine, Emma, to a performance of Lucia. Emma, like many other nineteenth-century operagoers, identifies utterly with the romantic passions on the stage. She recognizes her own longing and despair in Lucia and, during the great sextet, believes that the tenor is looking directly at her:
She longed to run into his arms, and take refuge in his strength, as the incarnation of love itself, and to cry out to him, “Carry me off, take me away, let us depart! Yours, yours! All my ardors and all my dreams!”
Then the curtain falls on the act and on her fantasy, and Flaubert tells us that Emma is left with “l’odeur du gaz”—the smell of gas. Her rapturous sense of illusion was partly induced by gaslight.
We will never know the particular magic of a gaslit opera house—neither the smell, the warmth, the gentle humming of the gas, nor the characteristic flickering and glowing of the illumination as it dimmed and brightened. Gaslight had a fairly brief theatrical prime, from the 1820s to the 1880s, which happened to be the great age of Romantic opera, and then it gave way to the odorless, soundless, steady brightness of electric light, with its greater degree of fire safety. The first fully electrical theater was the Savoy in London, which opened in 1881 with Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience. La Scala went electric the day after Christmas in 1883 with Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, and Bayreuth went over to electricity in 1888. The stage lighting of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York was not fully electrified until 1903. Boldly bringing together the history of opera and technology, Cruz demonstrates that gaslight did not merely facilitate operatic production but actually contributed to the musical and theatrical reconception of opera itself. History, in the spirit of phantasmagoria, is often a matter of conjuring some of the forgotten ghosts of the past.
“Lighting,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, edited by Stanley Sadie (Grove, 1992), volume 2, p. 1265. ↩
“La Phantasmagorie: description d’un spectacle curieux, nouveau et instructif,” La feuille villageoise, February 28, 1793. ↩
An earlier version of the painting, The Ballet from “Robert le Diable” (1871), is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. ↩