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An Opera About A Phantom Train, Set In Abandoned Rail Stations

Oakland composer Paul Crabtree has started a Kickstarter campaign to fund an operatic adaptation of “The Ghost Train” in the perfect–and perfectly spooky–setting.

An Opera About A Phantom Train, Set In Abandoned Rail Stations

The Ghost Train was a 1923 play, and later a horror film, about passengers stranded in an isolated rail station rumored to be haunted by a phantom train that kills anybody who dares look at it. With its sensational, vaguely campy plot, it was practically begging to get turned into an opera. Enter Oakland composer Paul Crabtree, who hopes to raise $15,000 through Kickstarter to adapt The Ghost Train to a “one-act comedy-thriller for a small opera ensemble.” The coolest part: He plans to stage the show in abandoned rail stations.

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“I have been thinking about The Ghost Train since I was about 10 years old, when I first saw the movie (originally made in 1941),” Crabtree tells Co.Design. “I also saw the stage play when I was a teenager, and local amateur dramatic societies still perform it quite regularly in the U.K. because it is funny, easy to stage, and extremely entertaining.”

Crabtree is writing the score for six singers and 12 chamber musicians, who’ll serenade audiences in disused train stations around the country, amplified by nothing but the stations’ dusty architecture. “Each station will have its own distinct personality,” Crabtree says. “We hope to use what is there, not to use any amplification, and to bring in only lighting. The biggest challenge will be acoustical issues that come with spaces that were not designed with concert projection in mind.”

The first performance is expected to take place next year in New Bern, North Carolina, as part of the Carolina Chamber Music Festival. The following year, Crabtree wants to take the show on a tour of old depots around New England.

Staging the opera in deserted buildings is, of course, a great way to enhance the spookiness of the plot. In a larger sense, it’s also about broadening opera’s appeal to the masses. Existing opera houses reinforce the anachronistic class structures of 18th- and 19th-century Europe, with gilded box seats for top-paying patrons and cramped, standing room zones–cattle pens, really–for the rest of us culture-starved plebes. As Crabtree tells it, these setups make little sense in 21st-century America. “This is not democratic architecture,” he says. “It is hardly a surprise that concerts are mainly undersubscribed and expensive, and are attended by a narrow slice of society that identifies with a 19th-century model.” Especially in today’s jittery economic climate. Old buildings, on the other hand, are an inexpensive way to bring live music to people who typically can’t afford it. (Crabtree plans to charge a modest single price without reserved seating.) With The Ghost Train, he’s calling to would-be opera patrons everywhere: All aboard.

Donate to Crabtree’s Kickstarter campaign here.

[Top image by Matthias Rhomberg. It depicts a so-called “ghost station” in East Berlin, a stop along West Berlin’s north/south metro line which happened to fall in East Berlin–thus meaning that for 30 years, no one entered the station, and no trains stopped there.]

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About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D

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