Sunday, May 15, 2011

Wagner, The Ring, All Things Norse

Yesterday I went to the Met's "Live in HD" broadcast of Wagner's Die Walküre. For six hours. It's the second opera in his four-opera Ring cycle. (A brief aside: when the American remake of the Japanese horror movie The Ring came out, all I knew was "Japanese" and "remake." So I naturally thought it was a Japanese modernization of Wagner's The Ring. Boy was I unprepared that evening.) There are two things you should know about me to put my viewing of Die Walküre in context. 1) I love opera. I'm still in my twenties, but I've gone to well over a dozen operas of my own volition. I've seen The Magic Flute live five times, and only two of those were the same production. 2) I'm such a huge nerd for all things Norse Mythology. I actually enjoyed Thor almost exclusively because I got to see Anthony Hopkins as Odin descend in a cloud of fury onto Jothenheim. (Also I love a good mythology that also defies spell checkers.)

Now when I was watching Thor last weekend, I thought how cool it would be to write a series of operas about the Norse gods. But I felt that I would be encroaching on Wagner's well-marked territory. I had never seen one of his operas before, but I knew his Ring cycle was all about Odin, and of course I had heard "The Ride of the Valkyries." I didn't think I could top that.

But then I saw Die Walküre. Now I don't think I could write a piece better than "The Ride of the Valkyries" per se, but I'm positive that I could write a much more engaging opera as a whole than Die Walküre. Holy crap, that opera is so tedious. And once again, this is coming from someone who 1) loves opera and 2) loves Norse myths. And this tediousness was not for want of talent from the performers. My favorite baritone in the world, Bryn Terfel, was singing Odin's part, James Levine was conducting, and this is the Met we're talking about. But even they couldn't sell me on Wagner.

If the only Wagner you're familiar with is "The Ride of the Valkyries" and the overture to Die Walküre (both below), you undoubtedly have a higher estimation of Wagner's catchiness than what he deserves.

The rest of his music is so non-melodic and overly serious. What Bruce Wayne's father said in Batman Begins is especially true of Wagner, "A little opera goes a long way." I was astonished at how little action took place over the course of six hours. Other operas, like The Magic Flute, have sprawling, almost incomprehensible plots. Die Walküre barely had one at all. Also, this is the best thing that's ever been done with Wagner.

Also, I felt like the Norse gods were way too Hellenized. Odin or "Wotan" was much more like Zeus than the Odin I know. And Frigga or "Fricka" was essentially Hera with an unfortunate name change. Odin is a morally superior and much wiser god than Zeus, but Odin is mortal. Wagner's "Wotan" had all the debauchery of Zeus but none of the wisdom of Odin, but he was still mortal. So he's essentially an emasculated Zeus. That's not fun for anybody. Also, to me the real appeal of Norse mythology is Loki and everything that comes with him. He is impossibly hilarious, shockingly clever, and painfully tragic. But Loki doesn't even show up in Wagner's Ring.

Also, I really had a hard time getting behind and sympathizing with the Twincest. Gross. Just gross.

THEREFORE, I hereby announce my intention of writing an opera cycle that takes us from the founding to Asgard to the last days of Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods. I'm thinking Heimdall will serve as a chorus, and we'll have three operas: Odin, Loki, and Ragnarok (and roll).

Odin will show us the god's wandering among mortals and all he learns from them. In between scenes of him wandering, we'll get Heimdall explaining to Hnossa about how Asgard came to be, how Odin lost his eye, gained his spear, etc.

Loki will be largely a comic opera full of cross dressing, mistaken identity, trickery, and all those things that make Loki great. It will have a turn towards the end, though, which will show Loki's madness. The final scene will be when Loki eats the burning heart of the witch and seals his fate.

Ragnarok will be about the downfall of the gods. Lots of fighting. Lots of death. Lots of opera. It will end with Vidar and Vali talking about how the world is reborn and how the Dawn of Men came to be.

But before I do any of that, I need to man up and finish my Inferno Symphony. Ugh. Just seven more movements to go....

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