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A woman is tightly wrapped in gauze. She is screaming.

Cheat Sheet: Ghost Sonata

Aribert Reimann’s 1984 opera is a haunting and evocative chamber work, exploring Strindberg’s moody text with complex rhythms and other-worldly tones.


Who was the composer?

Aribert Reimann (Wikipedia). The German composer and concert pianist was born in 1936. His most famous operas are Lear and Medea. He also writes orchestral works and vocal music.

Ghost Sonata (Die Gespenstersonate) premiered at the Hebbel-Theater in Berlin with the Deutsche Oper in 1984.

Reimann based the opera on August Strindberg's (Wikipedia) play by the same name. It was one of Strindberg's last works, and its depressing subject made it unpopular at its premiere. However, revivals by acclaimed directors including Max Reinhardt and Ingmar Bergman ensured the play's long-term success.

A photograph of composer Aribert Reimann

Aribert Reimann, pictured in 2010. Photo by Aldus Rietveld. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


What happens in the story?

A young student, who can see ghosts, is drawn into a frightening house where nothing is as it seems. At a dinner party known as The Ghost's Supper, secrets unravel and everything horrible is made plain.

costume sketches for Ghost Sonata

Costume designs for Opera Australia's 2019 production of Ghost Sonata by Emma Kingsbury.


Who are the main characters?

The Old Man — Hummel, who invites the student into the house

The Student — Arkenholz, a young man

The Colonel — a former Colonel

The Mummy — the Colonel’s wife

The Young Woman — the Colonel’s daughter


Something to listen out for

Reimann puts you on edge by using dissonance, which means combining musical notes that clash with each other.

He also uses instruments in unusual ways to evoke discomfort.

For example, you can hear the double bass playing high notes at the top of its range, which sounds uncomfortable.

costume sketches for Ghost Sonata

Costume designs for Opera Australia's 2019 production of Ghost Sonata by Emma Kingsbury.

Aribert Reimann believed every character in an opera should have a distinct sound and characterisation in music. See if you can hear some of the music profiles he sets up for his characters:

  • The Old Man is a strong and bombastic personality. He’s often accompanied by bass instruments: the bassoon, bass clarinet or double bass.
  • The Mummy is brittle and weak. Her vocal line is often fragmented.
  • The young woman is innocent and fragile. You often hear the flute in accompaniment.
  • The Colonel pretends to have a military background, and you often hear the trumpet in accompaniment.

Did you know?

costume sketches for Ghost Sonata

Costume designs for Opera Australia's 2019 production of Ghost Sonata by Emma Kingsbury.

  • Reimann wasn’t the first to see an opera in August Strindberg’s play. Julius Weismann wrote an opera based on the play in 1930.
  • Strindberg took inspiration from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 17, commonly known as ‘The Storm’ but sometimes thought of as the 'Ghost Sonata' and Beethoven’s Piano Trio No 4 in D Major, known as the 'Ghost Trio'.
  • Reimann is most famous for his opera Lear, which uses a full orchestra with dramatic impact. After that success, Reimann wanted to strip things back and see if he could achieve similar dramatic impact with a chamber orchestra.
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