Keeping the ghost lights shining
“It’s about saying: we haven’t gone forever, we’re coming back and we’re going to leave the lights on to show you that.”
As the Sydney Opera House’s theatres close their doors, a solitary light casts a warm glow across each empty stage.
‘Ghost lights’ have been installed in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Drama Theatre, Playhouse and Studio, reviving an age-old theatre tradition steeped in superstition.
Are the lights there as a safety precaution for busy stagehands, or perhaps a courtesy for the playful ghosts who sneak onstage to tread the boards after dark?
Ange Sullivan, Head of Lighting at the Sydney Opera House, describes the tradition of ghost lights and how they can send a message of comfort and hope in this time of uncertainty.
Has the Opera House put up ghost lights before?
My understanding is that back in the 1970s there were traditional ghost lights but we haven’t seen them for many, many years.
Where did the idea come from?
It’s an old theatre tradition. It’s something that’s been done around the world for decades, if not hundreds of years.
What are the lights meant to do?
They have two main functions. There’s a very practical reason first and foremost: The last person to leave the theatre and the first person to return can see the edge of the stage so they don’t fall into the orchestra pit.
The second is more of a romantic idea, and one I like a lot more: Every theatre has at least one ghost, and when they come out at night we don’t want them bumping into scenery or disturbing props. If we leave a light for them, they can play on stage without disturbing any of our gear.
Are you aware of a Sydney Opera House ghost?
A few of us have claimed to see what we think is a ghost in the Joan Sutherland Theatre. I believe I’ve seen it a couple of times after an opera set changeover; it would have been about one in the morning.
What I think I saw was an older gentleman hanging around the back of the theatre. He was quite benevolent, just watching what we were doing. I know others who’ve claimed to see ghosts up in the loges (private boxes) as well.
When did you put up the lights?
When we temporarily closed the venues last week, it was the last thing we did—though I’ve brought the tradition into the 21st century, if you like.
Traditionally the ghost light is an incandescent light globe on a stick at the front of the stage. For safety purposes, and to be a lot greener, I decided to hang a single bulb on a pendant drop, and instead of an incandescent bulb we’ve used low energy 4 watt LED fixtures.
What does putting up the lights mean to you?
It seemed like a really natural time to bring this tradition back. With so much chaos going on in the world and so much uncertainty it’s just a small measure of comfort we can offer.
We decided that the entire House needed something to look forward to. A beacon, if you like. It’s about us saying, ‘We haven’t gone forever, we’re coming back and we’re going to leave the lights on to show you that.’