In the early 1990s, I visited the Princess Theatre in Melbourne for a performance of Phantom of the Opera. It was a memorable evening, and the theatre itself is a magnificent building, but behind the glamour lies a different story. The theatre’s history has a tragic past, one that has its very own ‘phantom of the opera.’
Federici was the stage name of English baritone Frederick Baker, who enjoyed success in musicals such as The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. In June 1887, Federici arrived in Melbourne, with his wife and children, to give a series of performances.
In March 1888, the production of the opera, Faust, premiered at the Princess Theatre, where Federici was to play the role of Mephistopheles. During the final act, Mephistopheles wrapped Faust in his scarlet cloak, surrounded by smoke, dragging him into the fiery depths of hell. A trapdoor had been created on stage for the dramatic effect, but as the trap was reaching the cellar floor, Federici collapsed and died of a heart attack. Despite efforts from a doctor, and yes, even the use of galvanic batteries, he could not be revived.
Shortly after he was buried, stories began to circulate of cold spots on and beneath the stage, and people being touched by invisible hands. Over the years, there had been numerous reported sightings of a man’s dark figure within the theatre, either on stage or seated in the dress circle.
One sighting was by a wardrobe mistress and a fireman who was patrolling the theatre in 1917. At 2.30am, they saw a man in evening dress sitting in the middle of the second row of the dress circle, staring at the stage. He sat motionless, his white shirt glowing. They watched him for some minutes before returning to work. About an hour later, the wardrobe mistress returned to the dress circle to find the man still sitting there.
Throughout the years, numerous staff and performers have had encounters, leaving some investigators to believe there may be more than one ghost.
In the early 1980s, The Princess Theatre closed and was eventually bought and restored to its former glory. Despite continued incidents, the owner is happy for Federici to stay, believing he’s a friendly ghost and is considered part of the family.
These days, for every opening night performance, a third-row seat of the dress circle is left empty for Federici, as a sign of respect.