Monday, July 9, 2012

And of course I got distracted and decided Germanic/ Norse Mythology by way of Opera is Really, Really Important

Back in college my pal Bryan Manzo was a music major, and one night (I cannot remember why), he started telling me about Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle of operas.  Based on Germanic and Norse mythos, the 4 operas (usually performed over four separate nights) trace the fate of gods and mortals in pursuit of a ring that will lead to obtaining untold riches (enough to rule them all).   There are dwarves who live beneath the Earth, broken swords in need of reforging, dragons, etc...

Sound familiar?

It's no secret Tolkein was riffing on these ideas when he set out to build his own complete mythology in Lord of the Rings.  It's for someone else to say whether he expected audiences to understand his references when the book saw publication.

Characters in the opera include Wotan (Odin), Loge (Loki), Donner (Thor), Valkyries, dwarfs, dragons, nymphs and other magical and mystical folks you hear referenced in everything from Thor comics to album covers.

Thanks to Bryan, I've known about the idea of the operas and how Tolkein's work reflected mythic elements since, say, 1997.  But I'm also a pretty lazy fellow, so I kept a few facts in my back pocket, including the names of the operas and that they were a bit of a Rosetta Stone for a lot of modern mythology and cultural touchstones, be it pop-culture or otherwise.  It was always one of those "well, maybe one day I'll look into it" sort of things.

About two months ago, somehow, in a single day, The Ring Cycle was referenced multiple times in print and online.  I saw the trailer for an upcoming comic, I saw stills from a 1920's film about hero Siegfried (directed by Fritz Lang), and it popped up a few other places including Twitter and a conversation at work.

I am not one to ignore cosmic coincidence, and so I finally took a few steps.

1.  I have now borrowed from the UT Library (and watched) the first opera in the cycle on DVD.
2.  I've picked up a Gil Kane drawn and Roy Thomas written issue of DC Comics' brave attempt to take on the opera itself.
3.  I picked up the recent release from Archaia Comics, Siegfried, which tells the story beginning with, I believe, the third of the operas.

One of the things which crossed my line of vision was the trailer put together for Siegfried by Alex Alice, a French cartoonist and animator.  Alice is working to develop an animated feature film of his Siegfried story (which borrows from the opera but which does not mirror the opera), and the book is the first of three, I believe.  What it lacks for in a completed story, it makes up for in the concept art and other features it includes as back-up material, taking up nearly half the page count.

Honestly, this trailer pretty well knocked my socks off.

I'm curious about the feature film, the future of the story as a series of graphic novels and whether this singular comic will be the end of the effort if it doesn't sell terribly well.  Alice has a lot of spirit, I'd think, and I hope he can realize his vision.

The Ring Cycle opera I'm going to watch was recorded at The Met in 1990, so I'm lucky to be able to see it on video that was good enough to make it to DVD.  Interestingly, the opera cycle is coming back to The Met in NYC in 2013.  Sadly, it looks like I'd need to move to New York for about three and a half weeks if I wanted to see it in it's entirety.

There's also a P. Craig Russell created comic book version I may be looking into, and I'll be actually digging up a few books to make a bit more sense of the actual myths once I've finished the operas.  Which could take a while.

You've heard the music here and there, lifted for film scores, often for fantasy films, but not always.   Anyone who has heard Wagner's "Flight of the Valkyries" has heard a bit of Wagner's opera.

I'm curious.  Of course I know absolutely nothing about opera and have seen in the neighborhood of zero operas performed in my life.  But we've so long co-opted the music of the opera, the meaning of the stories and characters... and while Wagner debuted the operas on the 19th century, it's still closer to the 7th or 11th century roots of the stories than, say, a Thor comic.  These days it's possible we believe the music is part of a feature's score, or is just some bombastic classical riff, but these songs have narrative.

There's something amazing about a story so large to tell it will take 4 operas, so epic it stars the gods as characters, with fantasy creatures stripped of the middle-school student's trappings and on the field where they were imagined by living men as deities controlling the world and destiny.  I'm curious about learning a bit about the oldest stories that seem familiar at once, practically written into the DNA of our culture if not our own DNA as we refuse to let the ideas die and we etch them not just in runes but in the cultural lexicon.

Maybe this is my desire to see the ur-stories, see where they came from and how far back you can trace the threads, all taken to a logical extreme.  We'll see.  But it's been out there for a while, and somehow, of late, it sparked my interest enough.  And having had now read the comics and watched the first opera, there's something visceral o primal about the stories, perhaps in how they've been refined over the centuries, the way myth works and sounds on the ear, like things that make sense even as they sound a bit crazy broken down into components.

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