It seems entirely appropriate that the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, The Phantom of the Opera, should have had its Australian premiere at Melbourne's Princess Theatre in 1990, and where it has had its third Australian season in 2007.
Reason: The Princess Theatre has been likened to the Paris Opera, setting of the book and musical of The Phantom of the Opera; and the Princess Theatre, where several opera productions have been staged, is reputed to have its own phantom, a ghost that has manifested its existence on several reported occasions.
At least two of these occasions are worthy of mention.
Opera's tragic end
In March 1888, Gounod's opera Faust was being performed at the Princess Theatre. The opera ends with Mephistopheles returning to the fires of hell with his prize, Dr Faustus, who had sold his soul to the devil.
The role of Mephistopheles was being played by the baritone Frederick Baker, known on the operatic stage as Federici. At the end of the opera, a trapdoor onstage opens and the character played by Federici is lowered, to sigify his descent to hell.
On March 3, 1888, the opera ended as usual. The trapdoor was opened, and Federici was lowered through it until he vanished from the audience's view. On the way down, the opera singer is reported to have suffered a heart attack and died.
The cast took its bows to the usual applause. When the cast was later told Federici had died, and could not have returned to the stage, the cast replied in confusion: "He's just been onstage and taken the bows with us."
Fast forward from 1888 to the early 1970s. Kennedy Miller (perhaps best known for his Mad Max movies and the recent Oscar-winning animated feature Happy Feet) was filming a documentary at the Princess Theatre when a photograph was taken of the film set. The photograph is said to reveal an ashen-faced, partly transparent observer. No one had seen that figure on the set that day, and only appeared in the photograph.
These, and other, Princess Theatre "ghost" incidents were discussed in an Australian Broadcasting Corporation television program broadcast on August 29, 2004.
Present during the discussion were Rob Guest, who played the lead in The Phantom of the Opera's second season; Elaine Marriner of the Marriner family which owns the Princess Theatre; and investigative journalists Christopher Zinn and Justin Murphy. The television program, Rewind, was presented by historian, author and broadcaster Michael Cathcart.
According to Marriner, it was generally accepted that a sighting of the "ghost" boded well for the production being staged. Catchcart said: "For many years, there was a tradition of leaving one seat in the dress circle empty on opening night for Federici to use. Not anymore. An empty seat means money. Some traditions must move over for modern business."