Wagner: Death of the Hero

A year ago I was here at Covent Garden watching Strauss’ Salome for the first time. A few minutes from the end I realised I had no idea how the opera finishes. After doing this job for twenty years you just assume you’ve seen everything somewhere before, and this is the story of John the Baptist after all – what surprises could it possibly hold? But then it struck me that I wasn’t familiar with Strauss’ (nor Oscar Wilde’s) version, and so the ending – I won’t spoil it for you in case you’re in the same boat as I was – came as a genuine shock.

You see, I hadn’t done my homework.

That’s what they tell us, the opera people, isn’t it? “Of course it’s accessible to everyone, you just need to do your homework beforehand.” Because naturally if the audience can’t follow what’s going on then it must be their fault.

Elsewhere in the dramatic arts, committed fans are increasingly obsessed with avoiding spoilers, in this age of inescapable social media. In other words, they are doing all they can to avoid “doing their homework”. By contrast, in the opera business we actively encourage our followers to seek out the spoilers, not for the first time swimming directly against the tide of the rest of modern existence.

Also around this time last year, a load of middle-aged men were up in arms at the revelation in Star Wars: The Last Jedi that Rey, the new trilogy’s protagonist, was nobody in particular at all – a girl from nowhere, as opposed to the heiress or even reincarnation of a major character from the previous trilogies, as the pre-release betting would have had us believe. (When they’re not going to great lengths to avoid spoilers, movie fans spend a lot of time speculating about what surprises forthcoming releases might contain, and then being disappointed when they turn out to be wrong.) In fairness, the trailer for The Force Awakens had told us this very thing: “Who are you?” a voice asks; “I’m no-one”, Rey answers.

In fact a lot of Star Wars’ most ardent fans found a lot more than that with which to take issue in The Last Jedi. What was the point, they asked, of long sections of the movie where our heroes set off an a quest which didn’t end up in a plucky triumph achieved by a combination of shooting things and the absence of detailed planning?

We’re not used to stories about failure, and they’re hard for us to understand.

A commentator recently described the effect of the Trump presidency on the US political system as being akin to releasing a horse in a hospital. The same analogy could be used to describe Siegfried’s impact on the Gibichung household in Götterdämmerung. He is, quite literally, a character from a different opera, and his very existence radically alters the balance of power in this time and place, just as can be said of the Ring itself during the events of Das Rheingold.

But Siegfried in the real world of politics, power and intrigue is a man way out of his depth. In Siegfried, Wagner sets up the eponymous hero as an essentially infallible protagonist, untroubled by setbacks or fear. He sweeps all before him. In the sequel he is as hapless and error-strewn as he was flawless before. “How is this man a hero”, many quite reasonably ask, “when he behaves so badly – bigamy, treachery, arrogance, rape, deceit?” His fall from grace is hard, fast and goes right down to the bottom.

If we approach Götterdämmerung with the open mind which Wagner requested of his audience, surely the answer is clear: his heroism evaporates almost instantaneously upon contact with the real world. Or to put it another way, the value of a monomythical hero, even one as all-conquering and indestructible as Siegfried, to us as real humans is precisely zero.

The Ring is a story of failures – Siegfried, Siegmund, Sieglinde, Mime, Alberich, Fasolt, Fafner, Fricka, Erda, Loge, the Woodbird, Sintolt and Wittig, even – and especially – Wotan himself: failures every single one. Siegfried dies alone in a forest, and his funeral march is not so much for him as for what we had hoped he might have been.

And Brünnhilde? Well, she succeeds in reclaiming the Ring, returning it to the Rhinemaidens, and wiping the slate clean. But she leaves us with little to go on as to what happens after that.

Keith Warner’s current production of Götterdämmerung ends with a figure standing on a giant metal ring, similar in style to the coils we have seen entwined around the set at various points over the course of the cycle, but now reforged into a clean, unsullied circle. Who is this figure? It looks like no-one we’ve met in any of the four operas.

The Ring is far more about questions than answers, and one big question overrides all others at the end, the question which all theatre as art should leave us with: what next?

Since everyone in the Ring, be they human or immortal, a god or a hero, has failed, who is going to come and save us, to solve all our problems and clean up our mess? Warner’s answer seems to be the same one we find in The Last Jedi: No-one.

And quite possibly Wagner’s too. Bear in mind that the Ring began in conception as a single opera about Siegfried’s death, and so everything before Götterdämmerung might well be viewed as the set-up for the pay-off – not so much about the death of a hero, but the death, the total demolition beyond any possible hope of a rematch, of the idea of the hero at all.

No-one’s coming to fix this for us, not at this stage of the game. Not at five minutes to midnight. Not at the end of the third act of Götterdämmerung. We asked for free will, to be masters of our own destiny, and we got it.

And the upshot of that is that either we learn that we’re going to have to solve our problems ourselves, or we’re done for.

About Paul Carey Jones

Paul Carey Jones is a Welsh opera singer. He should be writing about the current state of the classical music business but might well digress into science, politics, football or cheese. You can contact him via comments here or at: paulcareyjones@gmail.com
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