LORD OF THE RING

LORD OF THE RING

Atom EgoyarVs Die Walküre will be post-apocalyptic

BRIAN D. JOHNSON April 5 2004
LORD OF THE RING

LORD OF THE RING

Atom EgoyarVs Die Walküre will be post-apocalyptic

BRIAN D. JOHNSON April 5 2004

LORD OF THE RING

Opera

Atom EgoyarVs Die Walküre will be post-apocalyptic

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

IT’S ONE OF the giddier moments in Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, the second opera in his monumental Ring Cycle. As the Valkyrie daughters of the Norse god Wotan bear slain heroes to Valhalla on horseback, they laugh like schoolgirls, literally horsing around as they dispatch the dead. And they do it to a piece of music that’s as familiar as a pop song. Even if you’ve never seen an opera, you’ve heard The Ride of the Valkyries, that soaring, hot-blooded soundtrack for the helicopter bombing raid in Apocalypse Now. When Wagner composed it, he could never have imagined that it would become synonymous with “the smell of napalm in the morning” in a place called Vietnam—or how radically his opera would be reimagined by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto 121 years after his death.

There are dead bodies in the air. Above the stage at Toronto’s Hummingbird Centre, dummy corpses wrapped in white shrouds are being lowered on cables from a zigzag jumble of girders and catwalks—which represent a collapsing, post-industrial Valhalla. Singing while they work, eight Valkyries sling dead heroes around and stack them like cordwood in a great heap. One woman heaves a body at another, who collapses giggling under the weight. It’s all part of the choreography. But suddenly the director halts the rehearsal. “It’s looking way too casual,” he tells the singers. “It’s really important that you have a reverential attitude toward these bodies. You can still have fun with them but you have to respect them.”

The director is Toronto filmmaker Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Ararat), taking on his second opera for the COC (after Salome in 1996). With another hometown star, visionary production designer Michael Levine, Egoyan is reinterpreting Wagner for a new generation—in a post-apocalyptic vein. Over lunch, looking positively boyish in a baby-blue Hockey Night in Canada jersey, the 43-year-old director discussed the work with unbridled enthusiasm: “Everyone knows Ride of the Valkyries is associated with war lust and that pumped-up adrenaline state. So why not show the flip side— what war actually produces—which is horror? Why not show the reality of the war, the dehumanization and the body bags? The purists may be upset, but you can’t mount Wagner without offending somebody.”

Wagner’s Ring Cycle—the original blockbuster about a magic ring—is considered the Everest of opera. Spanning more than 17 hours, it’s the largest work in the history of Western music. Over the next three years, with conductor Richard Bradshaw, the Canadian Opera Company is staging all four operas in the cycle, a project that could vault the COC into the major league of world opera. Egoyan’s Die Walküre launches the series on April 4, featuring baritone Peteris Eglitis as Wotan and soprano Frances Ginzer as his daughter Brünnhilde. Next winter another filmmaker, Quebec’s François Girard (The Red Violin), directs Siegfried. In 2006, Britain’s Tim Albery takes on Götterdämmerung. And, leaving the first instalment until last, Levine—who’s designing all four shows—makes his directorial debut with Das Rheingold, which will inaugurate the COC’s new opera house later in 2006.

‘EVERYONE knows Ride of the Valkyries is associated with war lust. So why not show the horror of war?’

The challenge of tackling Wagner goes beyond issues of scale. Because the composer was a known anti-Semite, and the Teutonic grandeur of his music was embraced by Hitler, interpreting his work opens a Pandora’s box of controversy. “If you go with a really traditional production,” says Egoyan, “people will be bored, and it becomes almost laughable. If you set it in some sci-fi Star Wars setting, that will offend people as well.” He says he and Levine wanted “to address the themes in the context of the world we’re living in—to give it an urgency and a timelessness, which is a difficult balance. It’s about the struggle between the power of love and the love of power.”

The Ring Cycle has acquired a pop apocalyptic resonance that goes beyond Apocalypse Now. It is, after all, the saga of a magic ring that’s the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. J.R.R. Tolkien denied he owed anything to Wagner, but it’s hard to believe The Lord of the Rings author didn’t swipe his ring from the composer. Although Wagner drew on Germanic, Norse and Icelandic mythology, the idea of an omnipotent band of gold was his invention. In the Cycle, Alberich, the Nibelung dwarf, forges the ring from magic Rhine gold. Wotan, ruler of the gods, steals the trinket and gives it up as a down payment to build Valhalla. Then Alberich puts a curse on it, branding “the lord of the ring as the slave of the ring.”

In a New Yorker essay, Alex Ross suggested that, after the Nazis’ corruption of Nordic mythology, The Lord of the Rings can be seen as “a kind of rescue operation, saving the Nordic myths from misuse, perhaps even saving Wagner from himself. Tolkien tried, it seems, to create a kinder, gentler ‘Ring,’ a mythology without malice.” In contrast to Tolkien’s harmonious vision, the Ring Cycle is a tale of emerging chaos, culminating in the destruction of Valhalla. Wotan sires twins, Sieglinde and Siegmund, and hopes Siegmund will eventually recover the ring. But the twins fall in love with each other. By the end of Die Walküre, the distraught Wotan has smashed Siegmund’s sword, causing his death, and banished daughter Brünnhilde for trying to save her brother.

For Egoyan, whose films are full of incest and grief, this is a familiar landscape. “Walküre is tailor-made for Atom,” says Levine. “He brings a wonderful psychological analysis to the piece.” With images of destruction and rebirth and mined ambition, Egoyan and Levine are dragging Wagner into the 21st century. Where he seems strangely at home. I?]