Loading ...

Faust’s Ghost

a radio feature produced by Lyn Gallacher

In 1888, Federici, the singer in Gounod’s Faust playing the part of Mephistopheles died on stage while descending into hell. And his ghost has haunted Melbourne’s Princess Theatre ever since.


So, is it foolhardy to make a bargain with the devil, or should Faust go to heaven in the end? Would that relieve the ghost of its anxious haunting?


This is story about the golden age of Australian opera, and a lost soul from the 16th century whom Goethe made famous.


In the 1880s Australian cities were full of theatre goers. It was a pastime that appealed to everyone. Performances ranged from the circus to high opera and everything in between. The theatre was the place to be seen, to socialise and to find a wife. At that time Melbourne had around seven large opera houses, some seating more than 3,000 people and Gounod’s Faust was the most popular opera of the period.


Many of the buildings have now burnt down, but we still have dozens of program notes in our national archives. In particular the National Library of Australia has a 1892 program from the Princess Theatre’s Melbourne production of Faust. It’s a small booklet that set producer Lyn Gallacher on a mission. She wanted to find out what it was and free Federici’s ghost from limbo.


Federici performed the role of Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust more than five hundred times before he died on the trap door to hell – a trap door, it should be noted that, was no ordinary stage effect. It was the cutting edge of theatre technology at the time. Electric lighting had only just arrived and was thrilling audiences with awesome possibilities.

As far as we know Dr Faustus was a real person. The first appearance of his story was a small booklet printed in Europe in the late 1500s. It became immediately popular as leaflet and as a travelling puppet show, one that Goethe would have seen as a child. Goethe’s Faust is in two parts. An early version of part one was published in 1806 and the second part Goethe worked on for the rest of his life, always worrying about the ending. It appeared posthumously in 1832. In it Goethe has Mephistopheles being cheated by God out of his bet for Faust’s soul. Faust is taken up to heaven in spite of the evil he’s done. Why? Clearly, Goethe was not an obedient Christian servant and perhaps it’s because he wanted to figure things out for himself that he couldn’t condemn the quest for knowledge in any way shape or form. But that’s only one theory. There are many more. Another one is that Goethe wanted to show how capitalism would ruin the world, and yet another is that Faust’s soul, by the end of his journey, is not a worthy prize. The end therefore can only be a pitiful absurdity where the distinction between good and evil is murky.


All of this contributes to the allure of Faust’s story and while Gounod’s opera only focuses on Faust part one, the story still pivots around the idea of a bargain with the devil. In the age of the enlightenment metaphysical tales such as these had a huge grip on the public imagination. They served as an antidote to the rational world. Until tastes changed and the Australian opera going public moved onto Wagner, the story of Faust was told with consistent regularity in all of our major theatres every two or three years. And just to prove how much she loved Faust, in 1896, singer Fannie Simonsen was buried with the score. At the time it seemed only natural that she would want to spend eternity with this music by her side.

Listen to the program here …

HindsightFaust's Ghost



Robyn Holmes


Elaine Marriner


Glenn McGuinness


Blair Edgar


Hans Kuhn


Dieter Rudolf


Manfred Koltes


Elke Richter





Lyn Gallacher, Producer




© 2013—Lyn Gallacher & ABC RN

Filed under: radio features, works