When the Sydney Opera House stages went dark, a spark ignited in the mind of Ange Sullivan. The harbour icon's head of lighting decided to reinstate the venerable theatrical tradition of ghost lights, until such time as the curtains rise once more.
Unused in the venue since the '70s, ghost lights were once commonplace. "As a demographic, we are quite superstitious," Sullivan tells us. "A lot of people believe that every theatre has ghosts that come out and play at night. If we leave a light on for them, then they won't bump into the scenery or our props and move them around."
Ghost lights served a dual function. They were every bit as important as a safety precaution as they were for supernatural crowd control. "The idea is that the last person out and the first person in could see the edge of the stage and not fall into the orchestra pit," she laughs. "Which is really good, really safety conscious. We like that."
Traditionally, a ghost light would see a single bulb held aloft on a pole, but Sullivan decided to give them something of a 21st-century glow up. "We didn't have any lying around, so my team made us new ones and we've gone a bit safer and a bit greener," she says. "We opted for pendant lights, so someone can't just accidentally kick it off the stage. I've also gone with an LED bulb that looks like a vintage incandescent one, but it's drawing very little energy."
The lights are on each dormant stage, as well as the north foyer of the Joan Sutherland theatre, and Sullivan says the beacons now have a third benefit. "They're less of a safety feature now and more a symbol of hope," she says. "We're coming back, and we're leaving a single light on just to show people that we aren't gone for good."
It just seemed a very natural thing to do, Sullivan adds. "It's been part of theatre tradition for decades, and I know it sounds a bit trite, but it's given so many people comfort."
And the Opera House is not alone, with Art Centre Melbourne reviving the tradition, too. "We all had the same idea at the same time," Sullivan offers in the diplomatic spirit of unity. "As soon as we all started closing our doors, we broke out the ghost lights."
It should keep Australia's phantoms of the Opera House on their very best behaviour too.
Want to know more the Opera House's secrets? Explore its lesser-known corners care of the Nooks and Crannies musical series.
This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.