Viewpoint: Hero Worship
It's curious how many standard-repertory operas lack genuinely heroic male protagonists; despite their myriad charms, one certainly wouldn't label Rodolfo or Alfredo Germont or Don José or Faust a "hero." Don Giovanni as a hero? I think not. B. F. Pinkerton? Ditto. Radamès? Perhaps, but something tells me that Aida would be a better bet to win medals for bravery and cunning. Looking for a hero in Verdi's Don Carlo? Skip the king and the prince and adjust your focus slightly to the left of center, where Posa stands — and where he will cash in his chips, long before the final curtain. One could admit Cavaradossi to the pantheon, I suppose, but how much of a hero would Tosca's beloved Mario be had he chosen to do his morning painting in a different church — one without a revolutionary hidden in the chapel?
The operas offered in November as part of The Met: Live in HD series present a pair of genuine heroes, albeit two very different ones — the fictional Siegfried, center stage in the third opera of Wagner's Ring, and M. K. Gandhi, the real-life protagonist of Philip Glass's Satyagraha. Broadly speaking, both works are operatic bildungsromans — stories of a character's education and moral development. Satyagraha looks at the years during which Gandhi, born in India and educated there and in London, lived as an expatriate in South Africa, where he was involved in the struggle for social justice. Siegfried is about a young hero's call to his destiny — forging a sword, killing a dragon, finding true love — and the natural and unnatural forces unleashed by his progress through life.
Both Siegfried and Satyagraha entered the Met repertory as relatively new works. The company gave the U.S. premiere of Siegfried in 1887, only eleven years after the opera's world premiere, at Bayreuth. Satyagraha arrived at the Met in 2008, some twenty-eight years after its first performance, in Rotterdam. Despite almost a century's difference in age, Siegfried and Satyagraha both hold powerful appeal for contemporary audiences. The completion of the Met's new Robert Lepage production of Wagner's Ring is one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the upcoming season, as is the return of the spectacular Phelim McDermott–Julian Crouch staging of Satyagraha, a surprise smash in its first Met season.
One might make a case for the partly divine Siegfried as a prototype for the comic-book and action-film superheroes of the twentieth century; the mythologies of Krypton and Gotham City surely owe something to the world of Valhalla and the young Siegfried's rather tangled family situation. Like many heroes, Siegfried is too busy living in the moment to dwell much on the past, although I'm not complaining: his need to have things explained to him is a blessing to those of us who need a bit of a plot refresher halfway through the Ring. Wagner's bouncy, Nothung-wielding boy-man, who brings the tetralogy a shot of optimistic energy just when it is most needed, is a more conventional hero figure than the sober, relentlessly prudent Gandhi, who used neither sword nor swagger to best his opponents. Gandhi's is the type of heroism that will always endure, because it is available to those of us who — unlike Siegfried — are wholly mortal.
F. PAUL DRISCOLL
The opinions expressed in OPERA NEWS do not necessarily represent the views of The Metropolitan Opera Guild or The Metropolitan Opera.