I've only been to see live opera a few times. On each of those occasions I happened to notice that Atom Egoyan the Canadian filmmaker was in attendance. I assume he must be at every high-brow cultural event in Toronto because I've also seen him at most of the live theatre shows I've been to. Given his creative output he's clearly a tasteful and intelligent man with whom I think I would have much in common. A love of opera wouldn't be one of those commonalities.
Last week I was invited to watch the opening night performance of Wagner's Die Walküre by The Canadian Opera Company. This iteration happened to be directed by that very same Atom Egoyan so I could not refuse the opportunity. I've seen many clips of opera on TV and I've often been impressed and moved but I've always had difficulty understanding how such an art form has survived and maintained such a level of respect. Is it an example of an emperor having no clothes?
I went into the performance with an open and tolerant approach. I admit that I've always been known to value the intellectual over the emotional, Apollo over Dionysus, Spock over McCoy. With some effort of my own and through the influence of the women in my life I've made great strides in this regard. I no longer prejudicially consider the emotional to be a failing of the intellectual, a sort of desperate cognitive response to stimulus that cannot be encapsulated within a satisfying intellectual enframing. Having achieved such recent personal evolutions I've noticed that I now enjoy films that I used to consider maudlin and over the top (Carlito's Way popped for me on a recent re-viewing). Wagner seemed to be as overripe and sentimental as anything from Hollywood so I wondered if I might be able to see it now with fresh eyes.
We had excellent seats, a few rows behind the conductor's head, so I was able to see his flamboyant gesticulations and some of the movements of the musicians in the back row of the orchestra. The show started with the curtain down. I was immediately enthralled by the conductor's movements and quickly began to appreciate the music for what it was, a bold and aggressive sonic creation. I closed my eyes and let my synesthesia have its way, seeing the sounds represented by the colours and shapes that ran multi-dimensionally through my mind's eye. The music is pretty impressive. I get how people can find art in the music.
I opened my eyes to see that the curtain had risen and an unexpected set was in my view. An interesting array of beams, girders, and light standards running in jagged and jarring directions. This seemed apt for the music I was hearing. So far so good. Set design, lighting and direction can be sources of artful creation that enhance the music.
Then a few of the singers started belting out the impressive and expressive sounds that can surprisingly come from the modest primate body of a human. It's hard not to be moved by the masterful reflections of human emotions that ride on the waves of air as they move from the midsection of a diva to the ears, mind and body of the listener. So far so good. The singing can be home to art.
This opera is a product of mid-1800's Germany. It is temporally, culturally and linguistically foreign to me. It may as well be traditional Indonesian puppet theatre. I've come across some completely foreign cultural performances, whether they were from Asia or Africa or the Amazon, and I've freely given respect and admiration to such things for their tasteful or moving arrangement of sights and sounds. A Wagnerian opera was such a thing for me. I wasn't sure what they were doing or saying but I dug their talent and commitment.
Here's where it takes a wrong turn. Opera performances have surtitles running above the stage so you can read the translations of what they are singing. Holy cow! That is some fucked up shit! The narrative contents are chock full of bizarre, misogynistic, incestuous nuttiness. One could perhaps chalk it up to cultural relativity given that it's even further alienated from my experience being based on old Norse mythology.
But it's more than that. One quickly realises that the heartfelt ecstatic singing coming from the diva is often just some dull expository dialogue. A good filmmaker like Egoyan knows how to show rather than tell. So-called high-brow culture is very good at that. This is often what keeps it from attaining mass appeal. Opera seems to be curiously opposite. Wagner's Die Walküre displays what may ungenerously be described as amateurish, on-the-nose storytelling that hits the viewer over the head with broad preposterous over-seriousness. It seems like the fruit of an over-excited 14 year-old virgin boy who spends far too much time playing myth-based role-playing games. The weakest part of the art is at the heart of this art. It's all beautifully composed and executed music, singing, direction and set design but it's all done in the service of a ridiculous and overwrought core of a narrative.
From what I can gather it would be best to watch and listen to a Wagner opera without paying any attention to what it's all about. Perhaps the tragedy of all of this is that Wagner didn't have a writing partner who could match his musical skills with his sorely lacking storytelling skills. I can put up with a lot of silliness and even ugliness in art if it is in the service of a profound message, idea or feeling. I admit it's very likely that I haven't put in enough effort to fully glean the valuable subtext of this work, but it shouldn't be this unnatural and distracting to do so. Perhaps Atom and I could have a drink and chat one day. I'm still hoping that I'm missing something.