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Everyone Dies Singing: The Fantasy and Horror of Opera

April is switcheroo month at the Cultural Gutter, and this year we are once again turning our eyes upwards from our beloved gutter roots to gaze into the distance for a glimpse of art that is widely considered reputable. What I’ve noticed though, as I adjust my binoculars for a closer look, is that many reputable things look a bit scruffy themselves when viewed close up. Take western opera, for instance. It hardly gets more reputable that that – opera is virtually synonymous with high art – and yet beyond the musical virtuosity and high ticket prices, it is so packed with stock characters and plots, gods, sorcerers, melodrama, madness, and ghosts that it might take just one especially exuberant tubercular cough to topple it into the gutter.  

When I started as an editor here many years ago, I don’t recall having a hard time deciding whether what I wanted to write about belonged in the Gutter. I compared early punk movements with Jackass , explored catharsis in an all-puppet version of The Hobbit, and examined the concept of mindset through the lens of 1980s Atari games. Now, so many things that would formerly have made their home in our domain are gaining wide audiences and critical acclaim that I find it harder to determine where the line is. It seems like genre art itself has remained fairly disreputable, while specific genre works that achieve wider appeal are assigned to overarching and highly reputable categories such as literary fiction, award-winners, or classics, despite their genre roots and composite parts. It’s a different way of hanging the same painting.

Western opera has a very classy reputation, and while the technical skill involved in the composition and performance is very impressive, the actual storylines and tropes are often no less fantastical and absurd than a soap opera, sit com, or horror flick. The history of opera spans serious art and popular entertainment, melodrama and farce, and extends into silent film, musicals, and horror. What many people likely imagine when they think of opera is the great serious works of Romantic era composers like Verdi and Puccini, with their tales of tragic heroines, star-crossed lovers, scoundrels, and kings. Or perhaps Wagner’s famous 15-hour long epic Ring cycle, which produced what might be the most iconic stereotype of an opera singer of all time: the Valkyrie Brünnhilde in a Viking helmet, which stemmed from the winged helmets created by German painter and costume designer Carl Emil Doepler for the premiere performance in 1876.

That style of opera basically descends from the opera seria of the Baroque and Classical eras, which focused on serious themes with noble characters and were often based on historical or literary sources. As opera became more popular entertainment in Italy in the later 1700s though, they began to introduce comic sections called “intermezzi”, which were thematically related to the main opera but featured stock characters drawn from the improvisational Italian comic theatre tradition of Commedia dell’Arte. For example, the clownish servant who’s always getting into trouble, the mischievous and flirtatious maid, the rich old miser, or the vain and boastful soldier. These sections spawned opera buffa, which featured simpler music, clear local language, common people and common problems, depicted in a comedic fashion that appealed to the fast growing middle class audiences of the 18th century Enlightenment era. While they were much less serious in theme, many are still regarded as high art, for example Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro¸ which has always reminded me of Shakespeare’s style of comedy of errors in plays like The Taming of the Shrew. Opera buffa was also the beginning of a divide between high art and popular entertainment in opera which ultimately branched off into the musical genre. Two of the most famous composers of musicals, Gilbert and Sullivan, considered their works to be comic operas at the time.  

From The Magic Flute (Trollflöjten), dir. Ingmar Bergman (1975)

Serious or comic, the storylines and characters in operas are often almost indistinguishable from genre fiction and films. To illustrate my point, let’s play a game. I’ll describe several plots and you guess whether it’s a fantasy/sci-fi/horror movie or an opera (answers at the end of the article):

  1. A dwarf forges a magic ring that grants the power to rule the world using gold stolen from nymphs who live in a river. A god steals the ring from him, but ends up giving it as ransom to two giants named Fafner and Fasolt, who have been building his castle, when they kidnap his wife’s sister, who supplies the golden apples that keep the gods from aging. The rest of the series spans many generations and revolves around his attempts to find the ring and take it back.

  2. A halfling from a pastoral village joins a wizard and a group of dwarves on a quest to reclaim their home. The wizard saves them from a group of trolls, then they travel into the mountains where the halfling gets captured by goblins and finds a magic ring that grants the power to rule the world. The ring was stolen by a power-hungry king and lost in a river for many generations. The rest of the series revolves around the evil godlike king who forged the ring trying to find it and take it back.

  3. A girl gets lost in her imagination at night and travels to a magical land where she meets a prince who is being chased by a monstrous serpent. Three mysterious women slay the snake and ask him to rescue their mistress’ daughter, who has been captured by an evil king and taken far across the land. They give him a magic instrument that turns sorrow into joy and makes animals dance. He meets a man dressed as a bird and they go on an epic quest to find her and free her from her prison, only to discover that she is hiding from her mother and doesn’t need rescuing. The king sets them a series of tasks to prove themselves worthy to be together.

  4. After he thinks the woman he loves has stood him up, a guy gets drunk and tells his friend the stories of all his ex-girlfriends. One of them is a life-sized doll created by a mad scientist who gives him magic glasses that make him see her as human, but when he doesn’t pay for the doll, her scientist father breaks her. Another is a working girl who steals his shadow and gives it to a magician in exchange for a diamond.

  5. A girl who daydreams about a world full of magic and fairy princesses has to rescue her baby brother, who has been kidnapped by the king and is being held captive in his castle. The king sets her the task of finding her way through a massive labyrinth and surviving the trials within before midnight, otherwise he will turn her brother into a goblin and he’ll have to live in the magic land forever.

  6. A knight who is preparing to enter a tournament gambles with a friend and loses his suit of armor, then ends up getting disqualified and losing his chance to marry the woman he loves. To keep her love, his friend convinces him to steal a magical branch from a tomb in an abandoned church, where the spirits of nymphomaniac nuns rise from the grave and dance maniacally around him. He is arrested for being a sorcerer, and his friend offers to save him for the price of his immortal soul.  

  7. A scientist who suspects his lover of infidelity gets drunk and decides to test the teleportation device he has invented on himself. Initially it appears to have worked, but he gradually transforms into a monstrous creature and ultimately tries to fuse himself with his lover and their unborn child so they will never be parted.

You see what I mean? The Lord of the Rings…er…Ring Cycle (#1) is pure high fantasy, and Tales of Hoffman (#4) could easily be a surrealist cult horror film. If it weren’t for the singing, these would be firmly genre art. Is the consumptive heroine singing her heart out as she dies in a way that no one with tuberculosis would have the breath left to do really any less genre a character than the final girl who survives the terror of a slasher movie? And just look at all of the ways that opera has been reworked and woven into film. Thomas Edison saw opera as a prime focus for silent pictures, and the Phantom of the Opera (1925), which starred Lon Chaney, helped prime audiences for the famous horror movies of the 1930s like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. Dario Argento’s film, Opera, merges the musical aesthetic and melodrama of opera with the intense scoring and drawn out stylized death scenes of the Giallo genre. Baz Luhrmann’s musical, Moulin Rouge!, was based on Verdi’s La Traviata, which was in turn based on Alexandre Dumas’ novel Camille.

Just to bring things full circle, there are also now movies that have been turned into operas, including The Fly (2008) by Canadian composer Howard Shore with a libretto by David Henry Hwang based on David Cronenberg’s 1986 film, and Lost Highway (2003) by Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth with a libretto by Nobel prize winner Elfriede Jelinek based on the David Lynch film from 1997, as well as versions of Hitchcock’s Notorious, Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, and Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

From The Fly, Théâtre du Châtelet (2008)

Given how often the central theme of serious opera is the melodramatic battle between good and evil, I feel like Star Wars: The Space Opera would be an excellent addition to that list. Leia could sing a tragic soprano lament about the fate of Alderaan, then Luke would enter with some plaintive countertenor recitative whining about doing his chores with a background theme that is echoed later in his most famous aria, “No! You’re Not My Father!”. Darth Vader would have an early pro-Empire basso solo with plenty of brass and timpani, followed by a conflicted duet with Emperor Palpatine as he weighs his responsibility as a father against the charms of the dark side of the force, and finally a touching deathbed aria with percussive heavy breathing. Then Han and Leia could finish it off with a love duet backed by a chorus of Ewoks. If anyone ever writes this opera, please put me in the credits and send me two complimentary tickets. It’s the least you can do.

Answers to the quiz:

  1. Opera: The Ring of the Nibelung cycle (Wagner, 1848-1874)
  2. Movie: The Hobbit (2012) and The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) Movies directed by Peter Jackson based on the books by J.R.R. Tolkien.
  3. Opera: The Magic Flute (Mozart, 1791) There is also a very entertaining movie version by Ingmar Bergman (1975) that involves a backstage intermission scene where the Queen of the Night takes a smoke break and the hero plays cards with the folks in the animal costumes.
  4. Opera: Tales of Hoffman (Offenbach, 1880)
  5. Movie: Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986)
  6. Opera: Robert le Diable (Meyerbeer, 1831) Based on a legend about a Duke of Normandy who was said to be the son of the devil, this was a hit and was praised by composer Frederic Chopin as “a masterpiece…Meyerbeer has made himself immortal.” But did he ever rise from his grave to dance with satanic nuns?
  7. Trick question, both! The Fly This is a movie (David Cronenberg, 1986) that was later made into an opera (Howard Shore and David Henry Hwang, 2008).

~~~

Alex MacFadyen is horrified by Leoncavello’s opera, Pagliacci, which is about a jealous clown who murders his wife and her lover, but for some reason he always imagines Pagliacci’s aria when he sees one of these giant inflatable Halloween ghosts in someone’s yard

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