The afternoon was cold and windy, and La Professoressa was too deep in her work to want to honor the two tickets we had to see the New York Metropolitan's production of Wagner's "Die Walkure," as big as life but so much further away on our Nova cinema screen. I tried to find other friends who wanted to share the 4 hour event with me but no one accepted the invitation, so there I was sitting on Sunday afternoon, an empty seat next to me, sobbing into my faithful old friend, a cheerful Paris scarf brought home for me by a friend so many years ago. I, like so many people around the world, have benefited from these broadcasts of an opera season from a famed hall--I have been educated and moved and sometimes touched beyond words by old repertories re imagined--as when a sightless but all yearning puppet child replaced the often frozen child actor in latest Met version of "Madama Butterfly." Wagner was a different story. Growing up amidst working class Jews in the Bronx in the 1940s, German products were verboten. Later in life I learned about a German nationalist composer called Wagner and how his music played Jews on their way to death in the gas chambers. In my family's history, all things German included my mother's father. German culture was part of Jewish life, but in an unreconcilable way--I imagine that even from my childhood I could distinguish the comforting vowels of Yiddish from the harshness of German. I imagined this because I was creating a history of places bigger then the Bronx for myself.
What I found that afternoon as I took on the Wagnerian leit motifs, the specially created brass instruments, the Germanic gods at play, all the trappings of a high Met production with movable parts so huge new underpinnings had to be build so they would not collapse the Met's well-worn stage floor was a story of a tomboy daughter and her doting father, so contained by convention--represented by the eternal Wife, Fricka, sung by the indomitable Stephanie Blyth--that he must destroy all that he loves. Early in the performance, I realized the Valkuries were those often pilloried women, large, blond, wearing hats with horns, that I had so laughed at in the faux opera skits of Sid Ceaser in the 1950s. Very soon, as the unallowable love between Siegmund and Sieglinde, is sung out across the stage, I was moved to a diffferent place. When Brunhilde appears and offers Siegmund his triumphant ride to Valhalla where he will find pleasure with the gods--while demanding that he not look upon her so he can keep his humanity a little longer, heart break came to me. This impossible love, all of them, caught up in longings to protect, to be loyal, to love, to defy--all at the mercy of the great god who is himself a slave to his own power. Woltan, sung and lived by Bryn Terfel, caught me in his arms, as he tries so desperately to find the power to do the 'wrong' thing--keep alive his incestuous human son and daughter borne out of his own adulterous longings. Fricka warns all the gods will fall if such unconventional passions go unpunished. How did Wagner make me weep for the plight of a Germanic god--but he did. How did Wagner and Terfel make me weep for what Woltan must lose when he plunges into a deathlike sleep his beloved Brunhilde who rides like the wind. Terfel, his one eye rolling like a storm tossed world, would not let me go--this is what it feels like to love so deeply, to cherish a spirit, to say good-bye to a child who only wanted to help. As Brunhilde, sung by Deborah Voight, clung to her father's armor covered chest, appealing her fate and accepting it at the same time, knowing she would be forever another kind of being then this huge man, this huge heart of a father, all else fell away--the over produced stage manipulations, the history I brought with me into the darkness, and I was leaning against the chest of a father I had never known, his lesbian daughter, foreign to the gods, a rider in her own way, now closer to the end of her story, readying for sleep, all clinging to the gentle vowels of this sweet song, so hard, so loving, the music remembering its fire and then its pain--no coward shall have you, Woltan repents. And all the stage turns to the redness of fake fire.
Even as I write this I wonder at my sentimentality, at my tears even now, at this whole mixture of artifact, history and personal longing, but one afternoon in my life, transformed by a German artist I had been brought up to hate, I wept for all too human gods.