Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Princess Theatre Ghost

March 3, 1888: A production of the opera Faust opens at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne, with tenor Federici playing the Devil, Mephistopheles. At the dramatic conclusion to the piece, Federici is lowered through a trapdoor in the floor, symbolising his decent to hell, accompanied by thunderous applause from the sold out house. As he is lowered into the cellar, the actor suffers a heart attack and dies shortly thereafter. The Princess Theatre Ghost is born.


The Princess Theatre on Spring Street is one of Melbourne's most iconic buildings. It was built in 1854 and then extensively renovated in 1885-6 to the design of famed local architect William Pitt. When completed, the remodeled theatre featured an elaborate facade, electric lighting and a retractable, domed roof.

The redesigned Princess Theatre, in a
sketch by the architect, William Pitt.

The theatre as it appears today.

The Princess opened with a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado in 1886. Among the cast was Federici.

Federici, born Frederick Baker, had Italian heritage but had grown up in London. He had been a trainee diplomat before he turned to the stage in his early twenties. Federici found success as a bass tenor and  performed around the world (he played the lead in The Mikado on Broadway) as well as in a number of local productions.

But it was the dramatic events of March 1888 that would immortalise his name in the history of the Australian stage:

More drama ensued when Federici was buried the following week. The attending priest dramatically fainted during the service, which then had to be completed by one of the pallbearers. Federici's grave is located in Melbourne's General Cemetery:

There is no clear evidence to indicate when the sightings of Federici's ghost began (some stories indicate they began the night Federici died, when he was seen taking his bows on stage, but this appears apocryphal), but they have become legion as the years have passed. Some witnesses report seeing a well dressed man seated in the dress circle, or on stage, while some report less well defined mysterious lights, or the sensation of something invisible touching them, or brushing passed them in the corridors.

Federici's ghost has such renown that Princess Theatre management have taken to leaving a seat vacant in the Dress Circle when new productions start, in case he wishes to attend. Some have described him as the most famous theatre ghost in the world.

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