Love the art, if not the artist, Egoyan says of Wagner opera

National Post (Canada)
March 27, 2004 Saturday Toronto Edition

Love the art, if not the artist, Egoyan says of Wagner opera

by Gord McLaughlin

Wagner’s Ring cycle of four operas, clocking in at 18 hours, is among
the truly monumental achievements of Western culture — and even
shares something with Apocalypse Now! and Bugs Bunny. Those are just
two of the shows that have purloined the 19th-century composer’s
best-known piece of music, the rousing and violent Ride of the

“It has become a cliche,” admits filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who is
directing the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Die Walkure, the
Ring cycle’s second instalment. It runs for six performances at the
Hummingbird Centre beginning April 4, and will be remounted in 2006
when the COC takes up residence in the Four Seasons Opera House, now
under construction, and stages the entire cycle.

“It’s important to say that this is the first [production],” says
Egoyan, who suggests some directors have made a career of “instilling
their audience with the idea that this is just the first shot at it.
That is very much the spirit of this production.” The COC’s Ring
cycle was even designed for the new space, not the Hummingbird, and
refinements will come in ’06.

But the cliches stop right now. You’ll find no horns or wings on
these Valkyries, the immortal maids of Norse myth who spirit the most
valiant slain warriors to Valhalla. Michael Levine, the Toronto-bred,
internationally renowned designer, has dressed them in black corseted
gowns, with underwear showing through threadbare rips and holes.
“It’s sort of like moving nine women off the runway of Gaultier and
on to the Hummingbird stage,” Egoyan says.

Even though Ride of the Valkyries embodies some of the opera’s
intricate themes — the lust for power as well as the erosion of
power structures — Egoyan notes it hardly represents what you’ll
actually hear for the rest of this four-hour production.

“People who think it’s going to be this overpowering bombast should
know that 85% of the opera is two or three people onstage having
discussions,” he says. “It’s really intimate. The whole first act is
basically a very simple love triangle.” Of course, simple is defined
here as a brother and sister falling for each other.

Their father, Wotan (Odin), king of the gods, sired them with a
mortal woman. Some of Wagner’s most compelling libretto-writing,
Egoyan says, occurs when the goddess Fricka confronts her husband
about his betrayals, as well as the self-delusion he employs to
rationalize them.

Immersing himself in the composer’s era, Egoyan discerned the
parallels between Fricka’s insights and those of Wagner’s
contemporary, Immanuel Kant, who shook intellectual Europe with his
belief that reality existed on levels beyond what we perceive and
what we like to project as real. (Incidentally, the Valkyries’
peek-a-boo gowns are inspired by social-industrial trends of the same
era.) Egoyan riffles through a sturdy notebook jammed with quotations
and guiding thoughts gleaned from his research. “This is full of
these ideas that I then pretend to have as original thoughts,” he
jokes, “and [the cast] kind of nod their heads.”

Egoyan’s thirst for psychological motives helped to shape a previous
production of the opera Salome, which drew fire from Post critic
Tamara Bernstein when the COC remounted it in 2002. She accused him
of “pumping up” anti-Semitic and misogynist elements in the Strauss
opera based on Oscar Wilde’s play. Egoyan, who normally doesn’t
respond to reviews, gave as good as he got with an article in which
he demanded an apology, and their shots were heard round the opera

Wagner’s deeply held, freely expressed anti-Semitism has made his
work ripe for examination by those looking for allegorical racism.
The most frequent suspect is the dwarf Alberich, who kicks off the
Ring cycle by fashioning a cursed ring that promises power but
ensures doom. (Think of him as Gollum from Tolkien’s Wagner-inspired
Lord of the Rings.) Armchair academics, as well as the other kind,
have pointed to the dwarf’s greed and stature as manifestations of
old stereotypes, though others have pointed out Alberich is one of
the few characters to survive the cycle’s end-of-the-world finale.

Egoyan sees other reasons to dismiss a race-based interpretation.
“For someone who wrote specifically about every decision he made
rationally, and for someone who wrote one of the most extraordinarily
anti-Semitic texts — Jewishness and Music is just horrifying to read
— I’m quite convinced that if he had intended any of these
characters to represent [Jews], he would have said it.”

Even so, Wagner’s reticence may have been uglier still. “He was so
anti-Semitic that he didn’t believe Jews were worthy of
representation on stage.”

Egoyan, of Armenian descent, cites his own experience of loving an
artist’s art but hating his politics. He can still visualize the very
page in George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London where he
read this heartfelt old saying: “Trust a snake before a Jew, a Jew
before a Greek, but don’t trust an Armenian.”

“It just hit me,” he says. “I thought, ‘This person would have had an
attitude about me if I’d met him.’ ”

Ever the intellectual, Egoyan finds it difficult to stop analyzing
the libretto’s psychodramas, “I think because it’s the easiest thing
to explain to people.” But he sounds genuine and not at all cliched
when he says, “The actual things that make the hair on your neck
stand up — the way a certain chord sounds, the way a light falls on
an actor — are inexpressible.”

– For tickets call 416-872-2262.

GRAPHIC: Color Photo: Dean Bicknell, National Post; Not all of
Wagner’s Ring cycle is bombastic, says director Atom Egoyan: “It’s
really intimate.”