Paraphrasing Wagner: Greek National Opera’s Twilight of the Debts

Anna Papaeti

The Greek National Opera’s production of Twilight of the Debts, which inaugurated the Alternative Stage of the Greek National Opera (GNO), stirred a debate about the use of (contemporary) politics and stereotypes. Controversy is not new to opera and certainly not to Richard Wagner whose works have always stirred debate. Notable example is the now celebrated production of Der Ring des Nibelungen by Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez for the centenary of the Bayreuth Festival (1976). Renowned for its political reading, it was not only booed and hated by audiences on its first run, but almost provoked a riot. It was, however, later loved by audiences and is now considered a landmark production of Wagner’s Ring. The debates surrounding the GNO’s production did not concern a deviation from the letter of Wagner’s meticulous directions. A paraphrasis of Götterdämmerung for a small orchestra, the work has an entirely new plot in Greek and additional music. The meddling with Wagner’s story and characters – replaced here with a Greek storyline and heroes – was at the heart of the critique. That this radically different storyline is in a sense profoundly Wagnerian has gone essentially unnoticed. 

Indeed Twilight of the Debts is based on core elements of the Ring – a reflection on the machinations of power, history, and the nation. It also shares the composer’s profound disappointment with political parties in 1848 at the time when he started writing Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death) probably in 1850, essentially an early version of Götterdämmerung and the starting point of the Ring cycle. Telling is this passage from Wagner’s essay A Communication to my Friends: ‘I now returned to “Siegfried” – at the selfsame time as, disgusted with the empty formalist tendency of the doings of our political parties, I withdrew from contact with our public life.’(1) The Ring reflects this discontent, featuring the fall and death of the hero who was to forge a new path for the nation amidst the machinations for power. Its end brings to flames the optimism inherent in the character of Siegfried, the free and fearless hero who would redeem the world and the gods. This article discusses the negative criticism mounted against the opera in press and social media in defence of the work, arguing that it stays close to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, offering a fresh meditation on its core elements.

Twilight of the Debts is the third instalment of the imaginative, critical, and creative encounter between opera director (and newly appointed director of the GNO’s Alternative Stage) Alexandros Efklidis, composer Kharálampos Goyós, and writer/actor/stand-up comedian Dimitris Dimopoulos; the production’s dramaturg was Eleni Triantafyllopoulou. The first two works were the result of a fruitful Greek-German collaboration between The Beggars’ Operas, Athens, and Neuköllner Oper, Berlin: Yasou Aida! (2012)(2) and AiRossini (2013) were commissioned by Neuköllner Oper  and performed in Berlin. The first and last work were originally conceived by Efklidis, but worked through collaboratively with the team, creating operas that approached politics through the relentless use of satire, stereotypes, and musical irony. Using certain core elements of the old works, each one features a new contemporary story for a small stage and orchestra. 

Critically acclaimed Yasou Aida!, drew on Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida (and the opera’s colonial discourse) to tell the story about the economic neo-colonializing policies in crisis-ridden Europe and the crude national stereotypes (with particular focus on Greece and Germany) in the era of austerity.(3) AiRossini (subtitled Opéra oligarchique zu einer Flughafeneröffnung, Oligarchic Opera for an Airport Opening) was based on Rossini’s one-act scenic cantata Il viaggio a Reims.(4) It consisted of a number of ironic episodes about the troubles of the ‘elite’ 1%, trapped in a new German airport; the opera drew on the fiasco surrounding Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport whose opening has been delayed due to poor management and corruption. This last instalment – the most grand and ambitious in terms of scale – is based on Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Drawing on the romanticism of Wagner’s tone poem Siegried Idyll for chamber orchestra, the orchestra consisted of nine players. Phonetically playing with the word debts/gods (chreón/theón), it is a meditation on national fantasies from the formation of the Greek state to today, in which the debt attains a mythological status. The disturbance of nature’s balance and its violation in order to secure power is here substituted by the loans granted by Western countries since the formation of the Modern Greek state. The opera tells the story of disillusionment with political parties and leaders, with a political system that is eventually brought down by Brünnhilde’s self-immolation. 

Historical figures, myths, and stereotypes are beautifully weaved, creating a new mythological universe that is rooted in a thorough knowledge of Wagner’s Göttedämmerung. Deeply ironic, Twilight of the Debts draws on Greek history, stereotypes, cultural and musical references that can be recognized primarily by Greeks – what the creative team has ironically called ‘Wagner just for Greeks’. According to Kharálampos Goyós, the opera

places itself at the eternal present of Modern Greece. It seeks to negotiate a long series of mythical modern Greek archetypes: the instrumentalization of ancient symbols (remember the slogan of the Ministry of Tourism’s campaign ‘Live your Myth in Greece’), the timeless figure of the Ethnarch (whose more recent example is perhaps Andreas Papandreou), the eternal fantasy of the envious foreigner who schemes against us (Metternich’s ‘hooked nails’ described in the history book for the Lyceum’s Third Grade, and the conspiracy theories surrounding Max Merten’s treasure stolen from the Jews), the perennial ingratitude of the voter towards the self-sacrificing leader, the messianic destiny of the Modern Greek state as reflected in apocalyptic prophecies and oracles (by Paisios the Elder, Constantine Karamanlis), the question ‘where do we belong to’ and the constantly insecure place of Greece in the West, with all the ensuing guilt complexes, and finally the spectre of the accursed political compromises.(5)  

The fusion of history and myth is very much in line with Wagner’s contemplation of history and the preoccupation with Friedrich I (a subject he wanted to turn into an opera) and Jesus of Nazareth, before opting for myth and the character of Siegfried. The Ring presents us with a synthesis of both history and myth, rather than the triumph of the former. As musicologist John Deathridge notes, this fusion is evident in Wagner’s essays of 1848 and 1849: ‘socialist ideas about love, power and property wandered from one subject to the next almost oblivious of their historical or mythical context. Wibelungs are Nibelungs. The Grail is the Hoard. Friedrich I is Siegfried.’(6) In this, Efklidis, Dimopoulos and Goyós remain profoundly Wagnerian so-to-speak, creating a mythic universe in which history, myths, conflicting national imaginaries and fantasies are skilfully weaved in the text, the dramaturgy, and the music. 

 

The Story in Brief

At the Acropolis Rock (the Greek version of Valhalla), Brünnhilde awaits the newly elected hero; she stands for public will expressed through voting. The latest hero is Sotiris, determined to act upon the people’s will and disenchantment with the European management of the Greek debt. The choice of the name ironically hints on Wagner’s obsessive preoccupation with redemption (sotiría in Greek means redemption). Brünnhilde and Sotiris voice their critique to European measures vis-à-vis the Greek debt and financial crisis. After all Europe is indebted to them too, they say, echoing a poster that emerged during the Greek crisis: ‘We gave you democracy, we gave you theatre, now it’s payback time.’(7) They demand more humane and radical solutions that break the debt cycle, abide to the will of the people (echoing debates surrounding the 2015 referendum), and to European values rooted – as they say – in classical Greece. 

Wagner’s Hagen is replaced by Dr Max Merten. Wishing to keep Greece in the European family, he tricks Sotiris by giving him champagne instead of Greek wine retsina to marry Reason, while Brünnhilde is given to Modernization. As in Wagner, Merten’s true motive is a treasure hidden at the Acropolis rock. The team is hinting here on the mythic treasure of Wehrmacht officer Max Merten, who was stationed in Thessaloniki during the World War II and was responsible for the extermination of Greek Jews of Thessaloniki. Merten was thought to have hidden treasures he stole from Greek Jews, a story that attained almost mythic status. In 2000, an international team of divers ventured to unearth Merten’s treasure in Greece.(8) Alberich is replaced by Metternich who appears as Merten’s symbolic father. He is hostile to the Greek War of Independence and the emerging national narratives (that saw Modern Greeks as the heirs of classical Greece) at the time of the formation of the Modern Greek State:

Such heat, such humidity! What do they want with the West?
Why does Europe have to walk along with the Greeks
Some Romantics are to blame. 
They came to find the Arcadians 
When they didn’t find them, they created them 
They told them that they are the true heirs 
Of those ancient people who lived here centuries ago!
It doesn’t take much to think high of oneself.(9) 

The work concludes with the destruction of the political system by Brünnhilde. Cheated by Sotiris, who wishes to implement new austerity measures, and by all his heroic predecessors she decides to break up the vicious circle: she lights up explosives and destroys the rock. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras may be the most recent and notable example of a politician adopting policies he fervently criticized during his election campaign (even though Tsipras received a clear mandate for this shift in the elections following the July 2015 referendum). However, Tsipras is by no means alone here. The creative team has insisted on distancing itself from a mere reflection of the Syriza years. Their Brünnhilde in the end is hinting at a systemic failure and disillusionment with political life, echoing the utopian undertones of Wagner’s Ring.

Indeed this profound disappointment with parties and the political system was shared by Wagner and is reflected in the Ring. It is well known that Wagner conceived the Ring from its end and then started working backwards for musical and dramaturgical reasons. The cycle tells the story of the destructive struggle for knowledge, property, and power between gods, Nibelungs, giants, and people, which destroys nature and human relations, and to which everyone is implicated. That is why in the end even the Gods have to perish. The Ring’s ending was arduously rewritten by Wagner many times, each time reflecting the change of his political and philosophical visions during the two decades it took him to finish the cycle; it was quite a journey from the revolutionary politics of the late 1840s and his participation in the Dresden Revolution to the Pan-Germanism of the 1870s which he embraced. In the first version, completed on 28 November 1848, all ends well and Wotan continues to rule, as the sacrifices of Brünnhilde and Siegfried purge him of his guilt and put an end to the ring’s curse. Wotan’s reinstated rule ends the work on a political paradox which seems close to Wagner’s convictions at the time. Telling is the pamphlet he published on 14 July 1848 entitled What Relation do Republican Endeavours Bear to the Monarchy?: ‘All that we can ask is that the king should be the first and most authentic of republicans. Is there anyone with a better calling to be the truest, loyalest republican than the prince himself?’(10) Wagner’s second attempt to end his work is radically different since the gods will now have to perish, even though their guilt has been atoned for by Siegfried’s deeds.(11)  In the third version of Brünnhilde’s speech (often labelled as the Feuerbachian ending; 1852), Brünnhilde and Siegfried sacrifice themselves, the ring is returned to the Rhine, the gods perish, and a utopian world without rulers emerges instead. Brünnhilde addresses the people around her and ‘turns their attention away from the reprehensibility of ownership to the love which alone brings happiness’,(12) echoing Feuerbach’s philosophy on love. Again not satisfied, Wagner changed the ending, this time drawing heavily on the philosophy of Schopenhauer. The so-called Schopenhauerian ending (1856) talks about the end of Valhalla. Redeemed from reincarnation, an enlightened woman now, Brünnhilde embraces the end of all things and the nothingness of the world. In the end, Wagner decided to omit Brünnhilde’s Schopenhauerian monologue but keep its dramaturgical essence. It is left open whether humankind will forge a different path, or merely reproduce the old structures of power.

Staying close to its main source, Twilight of the Debts shares this bleakness, which is, nevertheless, presented here in a satirical manner. The work also ends with the same openness, as people are rid of the debt and are free to create their own political future. This openness was however missed by some, who did not see beyond the work’s bleakness. Indicative is the Facebook post by university professor and Syriza member, to whom I will refer as ‘S’ for reasons of private data protection (since his profile is not open to the public). ‘S’ argues that the work ends on a total negation, with no hope of escape from the polarized diptych of ‘treachery/betrayal (Sotiris) and heroic defence of redemption (Brünnhilde). A similar critique was articulated by Eftyhios Choriatakis in his review for Athinorama magazine.(13) Though Choriatakis sees the positive undertones of Wagner’s ending he fails to recognize them in the Greek rendition. Both of them accuse the team of trying to forge a political manifesto. On the contrary, Efklidis, Goyós, and Dimopoulos are careful not to take a position. They go to great lengths to keep equal distances between left and right, leaving leftists, conservatives, and liberals dissatisfied. Their main focus is to undermine national imageries (left or right) through relentless satire, without the wish to create an intervention that has a clear political agenda.

 

Highbrow versus Lowbrow Art

Τhe work received mixed reviews by critics of opera and culture of Greek media. Many were rather critical of its plot and text, and the fact that it deviated from Wagner, stripping the original work of its essence. Some strongly supported the work,(14) while others were caught up somewhere in the middle. The music adaptation was generally well received. Here I will draw on reviews in newspapers, popular online websites featuring news and culture, and a Facebook post by written by a social-media commentator (with an open Facebook profile), whose daily posts have a large following and produce online discussions. 

The most common critique against the work involved the crude use of satire and stereotypes. It is perhaps more vividly expressed in the opinion article titled ‘All the clichés for the Greek Debt in an Opera’ by Katerina Anesti who writes on culture for the website protagon.gr. Anesti characteristically writes: 

I admit I was entirely unprepared to listen for three hours remarkable performers sing a libretto full of clichés, stereotypes, and constructs about national supremacy that rid us of our responsibilities. Little jokes, easily made associations, melodramatic expressions of emotions forced a naïve identification and oversimplification. It was as if I was watching the panel of Giorgos Aftias fighting as to why we ended up here, each politician talking from his own perspective. The text is devoid of a position, of a stance, a mere scanning of populist tensions from all political spectrums. Without a wink, or any nuances […].(15)

Such comments show a lack of engagement with opera itself, a genre deeply rooted in stereotypes, clichés, melodramatic expressions of emotions and plots that often borderline on the ridiculous, or are thin compared to the theatre. Even though opera has occasionally touched on political issues, it is not a genre that is historically known for its political interventions with notable exceptions. Although political operas are mushrooming, works like John Adam’s Death of Klinghoffer have carefully tried to keep equal distances between the political subject to which they refer; whether they succeed is another story. This cautiousness is telling of the conservatism of opera in general, but also of the reluctance of composers and directors to be seen as politically controversial given the difficulty of having (contemporary) opera staged partly due to the immense expenses it involves. 

Opera’s association with light-heartedness and entertainment was voiced by Bertolt Brecht in his critique of opera and Wagner’s fused spectacle (Gesamtkunstwerk) in particular. Brecht saw opera as an ‘apparatus’ that aimed on sheer entertainment instead of fostering critical thinking and reflection.(16) The latter were to be achieved through his epic theatre and estrangement techniques (that included a separation of elements as opposed to Wagner), aiming to open critical discursive spaces and turn audiences into active participants. Efklidis uses a few elements that undermine the immersion to the spectacle. Before the dimming of lights, the three Melinas (alluding to Greek actress and politician Melina Merkouri) interact with the audience, giving them ballot papers and asking them to vote for Sotiris. A text complementary to the libretto is also projected at the surtitles space. It acts as a commentary (e.g. biographical information on Max Merten); it also complements the narrative presented on stage, though in an ironic manner. For many critics, the texts were viewed as pedantic and ideological. Their irony was missed, perhaps due to the interchange between real facts and a narrative rooted in the storyline that can be confusing. 

Irony, satire, and humour are the work’s main tools of critical distancing, aiming at a more subtle critique rather than a clear and ideologically pronounced political intervention. In its critique of populism, the creative team has tried to keep equal distances between right and left, which is, I would argue, the work’s main point of contention. Can one take equal distance from Golden Dawn’s and Syriza’s populism? Does equal distance imply equal dangers harboured by each phenomenon? Delving into these questions and the aesthetic means used for this critique are issues that were missed by critics, which would have led to a much more productive and needed discussion about contemporary opera and politics.

While Anesti sought more politics, others wished for less, disturbed by what they saw as the didactic and ideological aspects of the plot.(17) Critics found it difficult to deal with two aspects of the opera: its use of humour and irony, and its use of contemporary politics. Staging the debt crisis was considered ideological, noting how the contemporaneity of political events was a problem, underlining the need for historical distance. According to music critic Yannis Svolos, creating a story that unfolded with ‘zero distance from the current political and financial situation’ ignored that ‘history, and indeed one just born from the womb of the present, is particularly unstable and volatile’.(18) That Svolos had previously exalted the creative team’s Yasou Aida! (an opera entirely rooted in the current financial crisis and the tension between Greece and Germany),(19) shows that it was not just the contemporaneity of events that  made critics uncomfortable, but the particular issues raised by Twilight of the Debts

Such critiques essentially depict opera as a genre unfit to voice political and social criticism, or act as a political intervention. They also seem to ignore the historical crux on which the production bases its mythological saga: the country’s debt is not a recent phenomenon but as old as the history of the Modern Greek state. Their reactions underline how opera remains a conservative milieu not only in terms of its audiences but also its critics, despite the many changes introduced with regietheater but also the more political operas composed in the last decades. They also point to how humour, satire, and irony are not considered highbrow or serious enough for Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, thus failing to recognize their potential for critical distancing. This approach is not only a Greek phenomenon. Telling is the reaction of Berlin critics to the team’s second collaboration AirRossini. Though they enthusiastically embraced the political critique of Yasou Aida!,  they were more sceptical with AirRossini precisely because it dealt with a wide-range of political issues, some of which were closer to home, proving more than what Berlin opera critics could take.(20) 

 

Holocaust Trivialization and Conflicting National Imaginaries 

The opera provoked a strong reaction from communication consultant and social-media commentator Vivian Efthymiopoulou on her Facebook page (currently holding 4189 friends); her comments were based on online articles about the production, which she did not see. Efthymiopoulou was the one to introduce to the debate the issue of trivializing the Holocaust by putting on stage the Nazi officer Dr Max Merten (in the place of Hagen). Merten was responsible for the transfer of Greek Jews to extermination camps, in which most of them perished. Efthymiopoulou’s first comment appeared in a damning post on 6 October 2017, the day of the work’s premiere; it has so far received 199 likes, 23 shares and 23 comments. She returned to the opera with another post on 11 October, again referring to ‘parodying the drama of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki’. The post has received 137 likes and 19 comments, some of which defended the opera and produced an interesting debate on the Nazi argument but also the work in general. Efthymiopoulou also finds problematic the association of Merten with reason and modernization, which stand for Western economic values. Her discontent with attributing capitalism Nazi undertones provocatively aligning it with fascism ignores the well-known associations of fascism with late capitalism,(21) even though such critique does not seem to be the intention of the creative team, as the Nazi motive is not part of the dramaturgy.

In the opera the choice of Merten is primarily indebted to the mythic status of his treasure, but also his national identity. Being German does not only connect him with the unfolding stereotypes emerging from the Greek financial crisis. It also connects him with Otto, the first King of the Modern Greek state, a point made by Goyós in his programme note, but also by Efklidis in interviews. The argument of trivializing the Nazis through satire has been extensively discussed in the postwar period in Germany with regard to Bertolt Brecht’s and Hanns Eisler’s Schweyk im zweiten Weltkrieg (Schweyk in the Second World War), which put Hitler and his generals on stage.(22) It was the subject of a heated discussion following Schweyk’s West-German premiere in Frankfurt am Main in 1959. The use of satire was fiercely defended by Brecht’s widow Helene Weigel and composer Hans Eisler as a way of critique.(23) For instance, Eisler’s musical irony complementing the Nazi parodies with operatic ones that allude to the musical influence of Wagner (and include a reprise of the opening of the Tristan und Isolde prelude), acts as a commentary but also as a means of critical distance. This is a strategy also used by Goyós in Twilight of Debts. Indeed Twilight of the Debts is much closer than it seems at first glance to Schweyk and Brecht’s dialectical theatre. Here too critical distancing is achieved through an interchange between comic and serious, which for Brecht was an important technique of estrangement, ‘that aimed to show that the nature of human society is not all that natural.’(24) In light of the financial crisis, the political and economic dilemmas and the dire side effects, the words mouthed by the characters have a different resonance, just like the humour in Schweyk does not cover up the catastrophic and tragic effects of the Nazis. Notable is Eisler’s statement, noting how the jokes in Schweyk are not harmless, given their nightmarish background: ‘This play is not harmless for Germany, it is very tragic.’(25) 

Perhaps the most telling comment by Efthymiopoulou is her discontent with the name of Sotiris, which she considers as unsophisticated and an unworthy substitute for Wagner’s Siegfried, indicative of the work’s lowbrow quality. Missing the irony of the name ‘Sotiris’ (i.e. redeemer in the context of the Wagnerian cosmos), she writes: ‘Sotiris, Sotiris. Plot and name for stupid villagers that used to watch Karagiozis’; Karagiozis is the Greek version of Ottoman shadow theatre Karagöz. Efthimiopoulou’s comment shows how the conflicting national imaginaries portrayed on stage are still pertinent. Opera as a genre (perceived as high art, associated with Western civilization and Hellenic identity) is juxtaposed with shadow puppet theatre, whose fictional character comes from Greek folklore and its Balkan/Ottoman associations; it is thus considered as backwards, Eastern, and lowbrow. Her comment brings to mind the two conflicting models of the nation in folklore studies surrounding the notion of Greekness at the time of the War of Independence. As Michael Herzfeld has shown, there is on the one hand the ‘extrovert model of nationalism’, emphasizing the connection with classical Greek civilization as the foundation of European civilization (ignoring the Ottoman years).(26) On the other, there is the ‘introvert’ model or the Romeic thesis, focusing on more Eastern features, Turkish traces in everyday life originating in the Ottoman years, including Karagiozis. Efthymiopoulou’s discontent betrays how such so-called Eastern traits are seen as a provincial past that is not intelligent but backwards. Her reaction is important as it shows how the anxiety to which Goyós refers in his programme note – the anxiety of ‘where do we belong to’ and of Greece’s insecure position in the West – is not a thing of the past.

 

Götterdämmerung as a chamber opera

Most critics praised the music adaptation of composer and music director Kharálampos Goyós, whose masterful treatment of the score requires a separate article. Despite the general consensus, almost no critic delved into the most radical and bold part of Goyós’ adaptation: the replacement of 11 Wagnerian motives with ‘Greek’ ones; he also uses the rhythm of the folk dance tsamiko in one occasion. The new additions come from songs associated with Greekness, such as the fragment of the national hymn, a military march, folk music, the children’s song ‘Where is the ring’ (substituting the ring motive), and popular music by Mikis Theodorakis, Manos Hadjidakis, Manos Loizos, and Vangelis. These new motives are treated in the style of Wagner’s leitmotivs and are weaved with their Wagnerian counterparts, adding layers of meaning to the unfolding narratives. Profoundly ironic, these motives strongly complement the on-stage humour and irony. 

A good example is the use of a motive from the Greek national hymn ‘Ode to Liberty’. Goyós extends Siegfried’s sword motive with a fragment from the national hymn referring to the ‘fearful sharpness of the sword’ from which liberty emerges. This is heard at the very beginning of the work when one of the three Melinas refers to the formation of the nation (‘suddenly a nation grew in a tiny piece of land’), or shortly after with such phrases as ‘blessed land’. It is also heard at the conclusion of the national heroes call during Siegfried’s funeral march; the call includes emblematic figures from the left and (far) right, politicians, artists, writers and philosophers. Probably the most identifiable motive is taken from the march ‘Greece never dies’, replacing the motive of Siegfried’s horn. A military march that talks about the indestructibility of Greece with regard to World-War-II resistance, it was also used widely by right-wing regimes in Greece, the military Junta (1967–1974), and is still played in military parades to this day. This motive is heard throughout the opera adding to the on-stage irony; for instance, when Sotiris makes his first appearance hailing the ‘sovereign people’; when Merten notes how civilization is rooted in the Acropolis rock; but also during the national heroes call. Also worthy of mention is the use of a fragment from Vangelis’ theme song for Chariots of Fire (1981). This motive replaces the Valhalla motive, a clever substitution, which works particularly well at the end when the Acropolis Rock goes down in flames. 

 

The Damnation of the Librettist

The harsher critique was launched against the librettist Dimitris Dimopoulos. Dimopoulos was criticized for the crude use of satire and of a language fitting for stand-up comedy rather than opera. The language and style he uses here is not new; the colloquial tone of the characters’ language and the satirical use of stereotypes also characterize the team’s two previous operas. What was missed though is the above-mentioned interchange between serious and comic as a strategy of critical distancing and estrangement. This personalized attack is also unfair in light of the collective process of working through and developing the characters and main themes of the work. Trapped in the lowbrow and highbrow art debate, the critique of the text has missed the way it empowers Wagner’s characters, making them more self-reflective and independent than their Wagnerian counterparts. By giving them more agency, Twilight of the Debts solves key issues with Wagner’s main characters whose actions firmly adhere to the desire of the Other; it also deals with the issue of translating the magic potion into a more contemporary storyline. Here I will refer briefly to Sotiris, Max Merten, and Brünnhilde. 

Like Siegfried, Sotiris betrays Brünnhilde after being given the wrong drink. Wagner’s potion is replaced by champagne instead of Greek retsina; it is referred to as the ‘potion of the West’ in the libretto. Openly offered to Sotiris, the champagne acts as a catalyst depicting his intoxication with policies and politics of the European Union. Eradicating the potion’s magical properties is important, as it underlines how the drink merely sets in motion thoughts and traits that already exist in Sotiris. This is underlined in the end, when he is given retsina in order to break the spell as it were: he is thus able to see clearly his treachery to Brünnhilde and the people. Contrary to Siegfried, Sotiris stands firm by his actions, like a true politician. To Brünnhilde, he says that only history will be the one to judge him and the compromises he made.

Another interesting change is the way Merten’s actions are freed from the nightmarish presence of the father, witnessed in Götterdämmerung in the encounter between Alberich and Hagen; like an undead creature, Alberich comes back to haunt Hagen, demanding that he gets back the ring so that he can symbolically die. In Twilight of the Debts Alberich is replaced by Metternich – Merten’s symbolic father (and superego). Even though Merten does seek, to an extent, the approving gaze of the father, the dynamics are entirely changed. The plot is based on Merten’s plan. It is he who decides to wake up Metternich from his eternal slumber and give him a role in his plan by offering him as a wedding gift to Sotiris and Reason. Metternich seems constantly out of place, repeating the question ‘what am I doing here’ contrary to the omnipresent and omnipotent properties of Alberich’s ‘ghost’.

Probably the most important character development is encountered in Brünnhilde. Twilight of the Debts does justice to Brünnhilde and her self-immolation, freeing her act from the entrapment to the desire of the Other.(27) Despite her defiant character, Wagner’s Brünnhilde sees herself as the expression of her father’s – Wotan’s – innermost desire; this is something she explicitly refers to in Götterdämmerung as well as Die Walküre. Her decision to burn Valhalla adheres to Wotan’s ultimate desire for the gods to perish, something also conveyed by the music: the Valhalla motive is heard by the orchestra when Brünnhilde tells Wotan to rest, as she finally knows what to do (i.e. burn down Valhalla and the gods); this is a moment that underlines the interconnection of Brünnhilde’s sacrifice with Wotan’s desire. Sacrifice, for Lacan, is an attempt to conceal the fact that the Other is lacking. Or as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj žižek writes, ‘sacrifice is a guarantee that “the Other exists”: that there is an Other who can be appeased by means of the sacrifice’.(28) Brünnhilde’s sacrifice points to Wotan’s desire. It also points to her love for Siegfried, as her final monologue constantly refers to her final reunion with Siegfried in a rather passive language. Like so many Wagnerian heroines, Brünnhilde is domesticated through love, overshadowing the fact that she is the ultimate redeemer that synthesizes knowledge and brings the cycle of the curse to an end.(29) Even though the entire cycle ends with the motive Wagner described as ‘glorification to Brünnhilde’ (heard once before in Die Walküre and often referred to as ‘redemption through love’), I would argue that the powerful nature of Brünnhilde’s act is compromised by her passive language, the fact that her deed adheres to the desire of the Other (which gives meaning to it), but also by the fact that the orchestra takes over her voice (and her motive) bringing the work to its conclusion. 

Brünnhilde of Twilight of the Debts is a different story. Her act is self-generated and much more subversive. It is an abandonment of desire, stemming from the knowledge that all future heroes will only betray and disappoint her. The moment of realization of what needs to be done is accompanied by the ‘chariots of fire’ motive in the orchestra with which the work ends, solely pointing to Brünnhilde and her deed. Her self-immolation questions the heroes system that has run the country including her beloved Sotiris, contrary to Wagner’s Brünnhilde who evokes the fantasy of being one with Siegfried to the end. The Greek Brünnhilde is in fact closer to the Norse myths rather than the German romantic version used by Wagner.(30) According to the former, Brynhild triumphantly laughs with Siegfried’s death that avenges her honour and does not commit suicide despite her grief. It is to this laughing avenger that the closing monologue in Twilight of the Debts points rather than her German counterpart, clearly underlining her empowerment.

I recognize my misgivings. I assume responsibility of my debt
Now I know, I have learned
I will become my own redeemer
The Rock will breed no more generation of heroes. 
I become the rock; I will become the hero; I become everything.
Oil, wick, and flame, I light a new fire.
The circle is broken. Everything is annihilated 
The beginning of the end. 
Let the Rock be destroyed! And all of us with it. 
Set everything ablaze!
My voice will now be heard. 
I turn into fire.
Do you hear me? I am no longer silent!
Are you afraid? Why? Rejoice!
You should know I am making you a favour! 
I release you from your bonds. 
Live free!
I blow up the myth of the debt 
Let it be forgotten, let it perish forever.(31)  

In conclusion, Efklidis, Goyós, and Dimopoulos have created a remarkable paraphrasis of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung that carefully deals with its core elements and preoccupations through the medium of satire and irony. A risky endeavour, the opera works in terms of music, text, and dramaturgy. Like any work, it has flaws and points of contention. However, solely focusing on the highbrow and lowbrow binary and the inappropriate use of satire for a Wagner opera, the reviews did not allow for more productive discussion with regard to the challenges posed by the work aesthetically but also in terms of political critique. They did not also engage with the bigger question vis-à-vis opera and politics: that is, whether (comic) opera and entertainment can provoke critical thinking and stir debate in the public sphere.

The success of any new work in the context of an alternative stage is not solely measured by the applause of critics but by the ways through which it manages to introduce opera to new audiences, to take risks, and to stretch the genre’s boundaries. In this, Twilight of the Debts was successful. During the performances I attended, the public laughed unashamedly at most of the cues of the libretto, the dramaturgy, and the music. Telling was the reaction of the lady sitting next to me, who had come to the opera for the first time with her teenage son. ‘I will be coming here from now on’, she said enthusiastically, making me wonder whether she would have had the same reaction to a faithful rendition of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung for smaller orchestra. That Twilight of the Debts managed to enthuse newcomers underlines the success of the creative team. It also shows how the Alternative Stage of the Greek National Opera is fulfilling its set goal for more provocative and complex works as well as reaching out to new audiences.

 

 

NOTES:

1. Richard Wagner, ‘A Communication to My Friends’, in The Art-Work of the Future and Other Works, trans. W.A. Ellis (Lincoln and London: Nebraska UP, 1993), 360.

2. Yasou Aida! was also performed in Greece at the Thessaloniki Concert Hall and the Athens Festival in 2012, eventually winning the prestigious Karolos Koun honourable mention from the Greek Association of Music and Theatre Critics.

3. Yasou Aida! received both box-office and critical acclaim in Germany and Greece, also making its way to international media (e.g. BBC News).

4.  For more on AirRossini see, Anna Papaeti and Áine Sheil, ‘AiRossini: Opera as Critical Entertainment’, Chronos (August 2013), http://www.chronosmag.eu/index.php/a-papaeti-a-sheil-airossini-opera-as-critical-entertainment.html

5.  Kharálampos Goyós, ‘Ο κύκλος του χρέους’, Twilight of the Debts GNO Programme (October 2017). My translation.

6. John Deathridge, ‘Verdi, Wagner, and Walter Benjamin’s Concept of Trauerspiel’, in ‘Schlagen Sie die Kraft der Reflexion nicht zu gering an’: Beiträge zu Richard Wagner Denken, Werk und Wirken, eds K. Döge, C. Jost and P. Jost (Mainz: Schott, 2002), 205.

7. Quoted by Mladen Dolar in his talk Philosophy and Theatre (2017), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPsoqKiR1i0.

8. ‘Divers Seek Nazi Loot on Sea Bed’, The Guardian (06 August 200).

9. Dimitris Dimopoulos, Το λυκόφως των χρεών (Greek National Opera, 2017). My translation.

10. Richard Wagner cited in Carl Dahlhaus, Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas, trans. M. Whittall (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979), 94.

11. This is a version whose date of conception is not known.

12. Richard Wagner, Selected Letters, trans. S. Spencer, eds S. Spencer and B. Millington (London: J.M. Dent, 1987), 358.

13. Eftyhios Choratakis, ‘Ερεθιστικό το “Λυκόφως των Χρεών” στην Εναλλακτική Σκηνή ΕΛΣ: Όταν η ευφυία (δεν) έχει όρια’, Athinorama (13 October 2017), http://www.athinorama.gr/music/article/erethistiko_lukofos_ton_xreon_stin_enallaktiki_skini_els_otan_i_eufu%ce%90a_den_exei_oria_-2524299.html

14. See George Leontsakos, ‘Γωγιού Δημόπουλου, Ευκλίδη “Το λυκόφως των Θεών”: όπερα-παράφραση σε μουσική Βάγκνερ’, Critic’s Point (20 October 2017), http://critics-point.gr/%ce%b3%cf%89%ce%b3%ce%b9%ce%bf%e1%bf%a6-%ce%b4%ce%b7%ce%bc%cf%8c%cf%80%ce%bf%cf%85%ce%bb%ce%bf%cf%85-%ce%b5%e1%bd%90%ce%ba%ce%bb%ce%b5%ce%af%ce%b4%ce%b7-%cf%84%e1%bd%b8-%ce%bb%cf%85%ce%ba%cf%8c/; Thanos Mantzanas, ‘Το λυκαυγές των αξιών’, Music P@per (28 November 2917), http://www.musicpaper.gr/articles/item/9266-to-lykavges-ton-aksion; Luis Gago, ‘Sófocles y Strauss, al rescate de Grecia’, El País (17 October 2017).

15. Anestis’ text received 572 Facebook likes. Katerina Anesti, ‘Όλα τα κλισέ για το ελληνικό χρέος σε μια όπερα’, protagon.gr (7 October 2017), http://www.protagon.gr/epikairotita/ola-ta-klise-gia-to-elliniko-xreos-se-mia-opera-44341491268. See also, Dimitris Doulgeridis, ‘Το “Λυκόφως” των κλισέ’.

16. Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre. The Development of an Aesthetic, trans. and ed. John Willett (London: Methuen Drama, 1990), 34–41.

17. See Yannis Svolos, ‘Μουσική άριστη, λιμπρέττο για επιθεώρηση’, EFSYN newspaper (10.10.2017); Eftyhios Choratakis, ‘Ερεθιστικό το “Λυκόφως”’.

18. Ibid.

19. Yannis Svolos, ‘Yasou Aida!: Κριτικάροντας την κρίση με όχημα τον Βέρντι’, classicalmusic.gr (24 June 2012).

20. However, it should be noted that AiRossini was a box-office hit leading to and was staged for a second year. For more on the critics’ reactions, see Anna Papaeti and Áine Sheil, ‘AiRossini’.

21. Adorno most notably located the social conditions of fascism in two tendencies of late capitalism – ‘integration’ and ‘administration’. In its absolutized form, integration becomes genocidal. For Adorno, this was demonstrated in Auschwitz. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 362.

22. Hitler is also central in Brecht’s Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui.

23. Drawing on this debate, Theodor W. Adorno elaborated the trivialization argument in his essay ‘Is Art Lighthearted’ (1967) but also ‘Commitment’ (1962). Over the decades scholars have defended the Brecht’s satirical representations of the Nazis. Seeing them as political interventions aimed at the struggle against neofascism, they argued that Adorno missed the contextual specificity of the work, contrary to his own dialectical methodology. See, Gene Ray, ‘Dialectical Realism and Radical Commitments: Brecht and Adorno on representing Capitalism’, Historical Materialism, No. 18 (2010), 3–24; Anna Papaeti, ‘Humour and the Representation of Fascism in Schweyk im zweiten Weltkrieg: Adorno Contra Brecht and Hanns Eisler’, New Theatre Quarterly 30 (October 2014), 318–332.

24. Bertolt Brecht, ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’, in Brecht on Theatre, 179–205.

25. Hanns Eisler cited in ‘Keineswegs harmlos. Eine Brecht-Diskussion’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (9 June 1959), Hanns-Eisler-Archiv 2742, Akademie der Künste, Berlin. My translation.

26. Michael Herzfeld, Ours ONCE More: Folklore, Ideology and the Making of Modern Greece (New York: Pella, 1986).

27. For a reading of female representation in Richard Wagner’s music dramas, see Anna Papaeti, ‘Rethinking Redemption: Woman and Sacrificial Love in Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas’ (PhD thesis: King’s College London, 2007).

28. Slavoj Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom (New York and London: Routledge, 2001), 59.

29. A different reading of Brünnhilde’s deed is given by Slavo Žižek in his article ‘Brünnhilde’s Act’, The Opera Quarterly, vol. 23 no. 2-3 (Spring-Summer 2007), 199-216.

30. For a thorough account of the Brynhild legend, the poems and their reconstructions seeTheodore M. Andersson, The Legend of Brynhild (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1980). See also, Carolyn Abbate, Unsung Voices (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991).

31. Dimitris Dimopoulos, Το Λυκόφως των χρεών. My translation.


[First published in CHRONOS, January 2018]

 

photo: A. Dimopoulos
http://www.nationalopera.gr/en/event/to-lukofos-ton-hreon-2017/

ΧΡΟΝΟΣ #56-57, 6 Ιανουαρίου 2018

Anna Papaeti holds a PhD from King’s College London. Her thesis examined female representation and sacrificial love in Richard Wagner’s music dramas. She writes about opera, the intersections of music, politics, and trauma, and about the uses of music in situations of detention. She received postdoctoral fellowships by Onassis Foundation, Research Centre for the Humanities, and DAAD (UK). Currently she is a Marie-Curie Intra-European Fellow at Panteion University.

A paraphrasis of Götterdämmerung for a small orchestra, the work has an entirely new plot in Greek and additional music. The meddling with Wagner’s story and characters – replaced here with a Greek storyline and heroes – was at the heart of the critique. That this radically different storyline is in a sense profoundly Wagnerian has gone essentially unnoticed.

Drawing on the romanticism of Wagner’s tone poem Siegried Idyll for chamber orchestra, the orchestra consisted of nine players. Phonetically playing with the word debts/gods (chreón/theón), it is a meditation on national fantasies from the formation of the Greek state to today, in which the debt attains a mythological status. The disturbance of nature’s balance and its violation in order to secure power is here substituted by the loans granted by Western countries since the formation of the Modern Greek state. The opera tells the story of disillusionment with political parties and leaders, with a political system that is eventually brought down by Brünnhilde’s self-immolation.

Irony, satire, and humour are the work’s main tools of critical distancing, aiming at a more subtle critique rather than a clear and ideologically pronounced political intervention. In its critique of populism, the creative team has tried to keep equal distances between right and left, which is, I would argue, the work’s main point of contention. Can one take equal distance from Golden Dawn’s and Syriza’s populism? Does equal distance imply equal dangers harboured by each phenomenon? Delving into these questions and the aesthetic means used for this critique are issues that were missed by critics, which would have led to a much more productive and needed discussion about contemporary opera and politics.

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