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Sunday, 3 February 2013

Fortean Opera

I recently came across this gothically surreal image, which illustrates an early 19th century opera called Der Freischütz. Reading up about this, it turns out to be quite a Fortean opera, which started me thinking. A Google search for “Fortean opera” turns up nothing of relevance, so I decided it was time to rectify the situation. Two or three titles sprang to mind, in addition to Der Freischütz, and some further research turned up a few others. In the end I came up with the following list (in chronological order of composition):

Il Mondo della Luna (The World of the Moon) by Haydn (1777). As the title suggests, this opera features a trip to the Moon and an encounter with its inhabitants. That wouldn’t be particularly Fortean... except that the “aliens” are fakes and the journey to the Moon is all a big hoax. As such, Il Mondo della Luna is probably the first opera ever written about a fake Moon landing – all the way back in 1777! It isn’t a well-known work (Haydn is more famous for his symphonies than his operas), but I found this clip on YouTube from a recent performance in New York. It looks quite jolly!

Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) by Mozart (1791). This is a famously nutty opera that turns fairy tale conventions on their head. It begins with the hero, Prince Tamino, running away from a giant snake and fainting with fright. He is saved by three young women, followers of the Queen of the Night, who give him a magic flute and a mission to rescue the Queen’s daughter Pamina from a man named Sarastro. And why is this Fortean? Because it’s all a lie! When Tamino eventually catches up with Sarastro, it turns out he isn’t a villain at all, but a wise priest of Isis and Osiris (I should have mentioned this takes place in ancient Egypt). It’s true that Sarastro abducted Pamina, but only to free her from her mother’s clutches. He was keeping her safe so she could marry Tamino... but only after the latter has proved himself worthy by undergoing an arcane, Masonic-style initiation ritual. Strange as it may seem, he is assisted in this task by his magic flute, which was given to him by the evil Queen of the Night... who incidentally also steals the show.

Der Freischütz (The Freeshooter) by Weber (1821). This is a Pact with the Devil story.... the specific pact in this instance relating to the manufacture of magic bullets which always hit their target. The catch is that the seventh and last bullet does what the Devil—or rather the demon Samiel—wants it to... after which he takes your soul as per the standard agreement. The picture above illustrates the Wolf’s Glen scene, in which the magic bullets are forged while various spirits and demons look on. The whole scene is viewable on YouTube in two parts, here and here.

Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) by Wagner (1843). The tale of the Flying Dutchman is a distinctly Fortean piece of folklore, about an old, ghostly ship that is occasionally glimpsed by sailors, its captain having been cursed to sail the seas forever. The original legend dates from the 17th century, but the opera turns it into a characteristically 19th century gothic romance. This is very early Wagner, and he went on to bigger and better things. It’s always struck me that, if the only thing that was known about Wagner was his operatic subject-matter, he would be considered an archetypal New Ager! You’ve got Celtic legends in Tristan und Isolde, the Holy Grail in Parsifal and paganism in the Ring – including this awesome invocation of the Earth Goddess!

La Nonne Sanglante (The Bleeding Nun) by Gounod (1854). Writing about Matthew Lewis’s novel The Monk (1796), H. P. Lovecraft wrote “In the sub-plot where the Marquis de las Cisternas meets the spectre of his erring ancestress, The Bleeding Nun, there are many enormously potent strokes; notably the visit of the animated corpse to the Marquis's bedside, and the cabalistic ritual whereby the Wandering Jew helps him to fathom and banish his dead tormentor.” This sounds like a great idea for an opera, but unfortunately Gounod’s attempt at it was a complete flop. Interestingly, the libretto was also offered to Gounod’s great contemporary Verdi, but he turned it down. If he hadn’t, The Bleeding Nun might have been up there with Rigoletto, Aida and La Traviata!

The Makropulos Case by Janáček (1926). I watched a production of this on a portable black and white TV when I was a student more than 30 years ago, and even then it occurred to me that it’s one of the few operas where the plot actually makes sense. The central character is a young woman named Emilia Marty, who takes an interest in a legal case that has been running for a century – and who talks about events of the 1820s as if she had been there. It gradually emerges that she’s lived for hundreds of years, using various different names all having the initials EM. But there’s an explanation for this which makes perfect sense. Anyone who is familiar with the story of John Dee and Edward Kelley will know that the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552 – 1612) was obsessed with alchemy and the search for eternal life. Rudolf was based in Prague, which is where The Makropulos Case is set (Janáček was a Czech composer). When an alchemist named Hieronymus Makropulos offered Rudolf a life-extending potion, the Emperor asked him to test it on the alchemist’s daughter, Elina Makropulos, first. This caused her to fall into a coma, and the Emperor changed his mind about using the potion... but when Elina woke up a week later she discovered she had stopped aging! Hence her survival into the 20th century.

Wagner Dream by Jonathan Harvey (2007). Richard Wagner died of a heart attack in February 1883, at the age of 69. But, according to this opera, he didn’t give up without a Tibetan Book of the Dead style struggle. He was just embarking on his last opera, Die Sieger, and he argues with his spirit guide Vairochana that he ought to be allowed to go back and finish it. Wagner Dream is an opera within an opera (Wagner’s opera Die Sieger, as imagined by Harvey, framed inside Harvey’s own opera about Wagner’s battle against death). Die Sieger is set in ancient India, where the Buddha is busy setting up his community of monks. The hero is a young monk named Ananda who is trying to persuade the Buddha to allow women to join the monastic order. But isn’t that a bit far-fetched? Wagner may have been into a few New Age beliefs like Paganism and Celtic mythology, but surely not Buddhism? And feminist Buddhism at that? But it’s all true. Back in the 1850s, Wagner really did write a synopsis of Die Sieger along exactly these lines, and he really did return to the idea shortly before his death. I was aware of that (it’s mentioned by Philip K. Dick in VALIS, and in turn I referred to it in my Worldcon talk about Parsifal as Proto-SF)... but I’ve only just found out about Wagner Dream. Now I’m kicking myself that I missed its London performance last year – although there is a short clip of an earlier Dutch production on YouTube.