Melbourne’s Princess Theatre has been host to many fine performers over the years, but the most famous performance of all belongs to its ghost, Federici.

Princess Theatre at night

Princess Theatre Melbourne Victoria; H94.90/1

In 1887, British opera singer Frederick Baker (Signor ‘Federici’) arrived in Australia to perform with Messrs. Williamson, Garner and Musgrove’s Opera Company. He was to play in several operas, culminating with a star turn as Mephistopheles (the devil) in Gounod’s famous opera, ‘Faust’.

The opening night of Faust at the Princess Theatre was keenly anticipated.  The Argus reported that: ‘There was a very large house, and “Faust” was given with unexpected success … Mr Federici shared with his fellow artists the applause of the audience’.

interior of princess' theatre

The interior of the Princess Theatre, Melbourne; IMP25/11/65/168

It was in the final scene that tragedy struck. Federici, as Satan, was to spirit Faust down to hell. Standing over the stage trapdoor in a mirage of smoke and fire, Federici wrapped his scarlet cloak around his victim. He spoke his character’s final lines: ‘It might be’. They were the final lines he would ever deliver. [1]

Federici

The late Mr. F. Baker (Federici); A/S22/03/88/44 

Federici and his fellow actor began to disappear from the stage through the trapdoor, but ‘just as their shoulders were on a level with the stage, Mr Federici was seen to put out his hands and clutch the boards’ [2].  Federici fell down the trapdoor, taking his fellow performer with him. He died in the green room forty minutes later. The cause of death was a heart attack.

Faust

Scene from the opera of “Faust,” at the Haymarket Theatre; IMP18/05/64/8

Meanwhile, the audience had no idea that anything was amiss. It was not until the following Monday that Melburnians awoke to the news in The Argus newspaper. ‘Shocking occurrence at the Princess Theatre. Tragic death of Mr Federici.’

The theatrical world was in uproar. ‘Nothing more weird and melancholy than this unlooked for and highly sensational occurrence has been recorded in connection with the stage … [T]he crimson hood, the pointed shoes and cap lying near him on the floor, could only seem a grim and ghastly mockery’ The Illustrated Australian News lamented.

 

Tragic Death

 The Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil, 22 March 1888, p. 38

In true theatrical style, even Federici’s funeral was dramatic. He was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery on Monday 6 March. The coffin was ‘literally smothered’ in wreaths and flowers (Table Talk). Reverend E.H. Goodwin was so affected by the tragedy that as the coffin was lowered into the ground, he ‘sank on to a mound in a fainting fit’ and ‘was unable to complete the service’.

In the years that followed, actors, stagehands and even patrons began reporting strange happenings at the Princess Theatre. Audience members reported odd lights flashing on and off during theatre performances. Stagehands and artists described feeling something brushing past them in empty corridors. Strangest of all were the reported sightings of Federici. Witnesses said that his ghost appeared as ‘a tall figure of a good-looking man, in full evening dress, hair slightly greying at the temple, and of stylish appearance’. [3]

Princess Theatre

Princess Theatre. Photograph by Rennie Ellis; H2011.150/2668

It is said that Federici appears at night. Usually, he sits around the centre of the second or third row of the theatre’s dress circle. Sometimes he changes seats to watch the faces of the critics. Some say they have observed the Italian ‘frowning at the weak performances of inferior actors’, taking notes, and brushing his hair back ‘with impatient gestures’ when he is displeased. [4] Eventually the ghost glides off through the boxes, disappearing down the stairs behind the Royal Box.

Every opening night, a seat in the Dress Circle at the Princess Theatre is left empty for Federici. It is a good luck sign if his ghost appears. [5]

 

References

[1] Pinkney, J., 2005, Haunted. The book of Australia’s ghosts. Five Mile Press, Rowville, Vic

[2] ‘Shocking Occurrence at the Princess’ Theatre. Tragic Death of Mr Federici’, The Argus,  5 March 1888, p. 8

[3] McKenzie, V. & T., 1984, A Glimpse of Ghosts. Mysterious Places and Haunted Houses of Early Australia, Centennial Publications, Chatswood, NSW, p. 54

[4] The Argus, 1 June 1946, p. 17

[5] City of Melbourne website
www.thatsmelbourne.com.au
The City of Melbourne’s ‘That’s Melbourne’ website provides information about things to do in Melbourne, including places to go, things to see and do, and places to eat & drink.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This article has 1 comment

  1. Susan Nicholas

    Loved this dramatic story and the accompanying pictures and information, particularly The Argus report of the death – so much information was given in those days, even to the use of the ‘galvanic battery’ by his doctor in an attempt to save him. It never ceases to amaze me when I read of medical procedures in those days – quite remarkable!
    Thank you for a fascinating blog

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