Features

Comic Books and… Opera?

 

By Andrew Curtis

 

Comic Books and Opera
Bruce Wayne conquers his fear of bats in Batman Begins

Batman’s origin story is one that most of us, if not all of us, know quite well. It is the story of young Bruce and his parents, traversing the dark streets of the city after having spent an evening at the movies. A man with a gun steps out of the shadows. Words are exchanged, tensions rise, shots are fired. The man leaves Bruce alive but orphaned and traumatized for life. Over the years, this iconic story has been told, retold, tweaked, skipped, changed all together, and then returned to its original state as it passes from one artist to another. Christopher Nolan’s reimagining of Batman’s origin in his Dark Knight Trilogy leaves this basic tragedy intact, but instead of returning from the movies, the Waynes are murdered during a night at Arrigo Boito’s opera Mefistofele. The bat-influenced staging of the Witches’ Sabbath from Act 2, Scene 2 triggers Bruce’s newly acquired chiroptophobia (fear of bats) which ultimately causes his family to exit the theatre and cross paths with their fate. So, in an indirect way, opera gave rise to the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy.

Although this observation is an interesting piece of trivia, I must admit it is hardly a substantial connection between the world of opera and the world of comics. Opera, in this instance, only plays a tangential role in this version of Batman’s origin story as imagined by the film director Christopher Nolan. So then why go to the trouble to write a full article about the common ground between opera and comic books? The answer is simple: there really is no difference between the world of opera and the world of comic books. The main difference that exists between us is how the public perceives our fan bases. When the average person thinks of opera and its audience, their mind immediately flashes to the typical Wagnerian soprano dressed as a historically inaccurate
Viking, singing to a gathering of the elderly and the one percent. I’m sure comic book enthusiasts feel the same outrage when confronted with their own personal stereotype of the immature, adult outcast living in their parents’ basement. That’s not who we are! You know as well as I do that the comic book community is a diverse network of individuals who share a common passion for the sophisticated artistry and intricate storytelling found in comic books. The opera community is no different. We are not simply rich, elderly, Caucasian individuals gathered to watch overplayed, over-complicated spectacles. We are a varied collection of people who know that opera is a constantly evolving genre that should be made available to everyone, regardless of age, gender, nationality, socioeconomic status, or singing ability. If one were to transcend the stereotypes we’ve both been assigned by popular culture, one would be surprised to learn about just how
much we have in common.

Believe it or not, comic books provide one of the most accessible pathways to understanding opera. Operas in general are not too complicated to comprehend; however attending one cold can be a jarring experience. Many operas are written in foreign languages, utilize several interwoven storylines in a single work, and can be performed in thousands of different ways, leaving very few landmarks for the audience to identify. These factors can easily render the unprepared spectator confused and intimidated. Thankfully, the easy-to-follow format and clear discourse of a comic book allows the reader to grasp the story much more effectively, which in turn removes the daunting task of deciphering dialogue and action during a performance. For those of you interested in
exploring these graphic opera synopsis for yourselves, the website www.sinfinimusic.com features a small collection of the most popular opera plots. And while you’re looking those up, you may be interested in checking out an article featured in the April 11, 2010 issue of the LA Times that sheds light on an interesting genealogical connection between the Marvel Universe
and Wagner.

Comic Books and Opera
Brunnhilde the Valkyrie

David Ng, writer of the aforementioned article, argues that the superheroes of today can trace their origins back to operatic influence, specifically the influence of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Der Ring des Nibelungen, otherwise known as the Ring Cycle, is a series of four gargantuan operas that interlace the characters Norse mythology and the Nibelungenlied into one of the most epic fan fictions ever conceived. These characters still stand as the pattern used to design the heroes and villains of countless fantasy adventures, including the caped crusaders found in comic books. X-Men Jean Gray and Storm, Elektra, Captain Marvel – all of these strong, super-powered heroines are based on the template provided by the Valkyries. In fact, in December of
1970, Marvel Comics decided to add one of the Ring Cycle’s Valkyries, Brunnhilde, directly to their pantheon of superheroes. She exhibits the same powers, the same personality, and even embarks on some of the same adventures as she does in the operas. Although her essence remains largely in tact, certain artistic licenses had to be taken in order to effectively incorporate her into the Marvel Universe. American comic book writer and illustrator P. Craig Russell produced a far more accurate portrayal of Brunnhilde in his comic book adaptation the Ring Cycle, which was published by Dark Horse Comics in 2002.

 

The four operas in the Ring Cycle would not be the only ones Russell would transmogrify into graphic novels. He has also successfully brought Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, and several lesser-known operas from the realm of the theatre to the realm of the printed panel. On October 8th and 10th of 2014, Russell’s adaptation of Salome was returned to the stage with the help of a projector and a collection of musicians from Table Top Opera, who describe themselves, according to their website, as “an anarcho-sydicalist artistic collective dedicated to eradicating pretentiousness and bad rhythm from classical music.”. The performance featured a chamber jazz ensemble playing a reorchestrated version of Richard Strauss’s opera music below a projected slideshow of Russell’s comic book, and on top of all that, no singers were used. Many people would argue that such dramatic alterations would disqualify the performance from being defined as an opera, however as our art form continues to evolve, perhaps these “orchestrated graphic novels” will become a normal occurrence in the world of opera and may someday include voice parts as well. As an opera singer and a fan of superheroes, I sincerely hope so.

 

In summation, opera and comic books share a special connection with one another. This connection, unfortunately, is often overlooked, and as a result, we are limited to the stereotypes to which we have been reduced. However, for the brave, intrepid few who continue to explore this connection, the possibilities are endless. Cosplay at operas, a Krypton themed art song cycle, fully orchestrated live action roleplaying battles – only a few potential opportunities of a world in which opera and comic books team up. And who knows, maybe one day we might see Batman take center stage at the Met.


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