Hence, horrible shadow! The Magic of Macbeth

In a day and age when we expect cutting-edge computer-generated imagery in our entertainment, it’s hard to imagine the theaters Giuseppe Verdi knew, illuminated by gas lamps instead of electricity, with scenery operated by ropes and pulleys instead of motorized winches. Verdi’s stage crafters relied on smoke and mirrors, lanterns, fine silk scrims, and meticulously engineered effects using flammable powders to bring the apparitions in Macbeth alive. The creation of magical specters was an essential part of producing theater, and an untold number of wooden theaters met their demise in the interest of wowing audiences. Nevertheless, Verdi knew he was the first Italian to stumble into the new genre of fantastical opera, and took every effort to ensure that the special effects required of Shakespeare’s Macbeth were astonishingly and mysteriously produced.

Act III of Verdi’s Macbeth, set in the witches’ cave, is littered with “fantastic” elements and stage directions: the disappearance of the cauldron, the procession of eight dead kings, a ballet of aerial spirits, and the three apparitions that prophesy Macbeth’s end. In 1799, the Belgian physicist Ètienne-Gaspard Robertson patented the technology that made these apparitions possible: the “Fantascope.” One such device, consisting of a series of mirrors, painted lenses, and multiples light sources, was diligently copied for the premiere of Macbeth in 1847, though authorities inevitably prohibited its use. But the new machine and its transparent phantoms captured the audience’s imagination. Even in the first publicity for the opera, the poster artist Roberto Focosi featured a scene with a floating armored head, which bids Macbeth beware Macduff.

We’ve come a long way with special effects since that time, yet the innovations of Verdi and his team in the areas of magic lanterns and phantasmagoria paved the way for modern moving projections and the special effects we have come to love today.