Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

The Incomplete and Utter History of Pagan Opera Part Three: Arias in Avalon

The first Glastonbury Festival was a bit of shock for the sleepy Somerset market town. Suddenly the conservative townsfolk were confronted with the whole panoply of counter-culture alternative types. There were long haired bohemians, advocates of free love, spiritualists and vegetarians. Even worse, many were rumoured to visit the Tor after dark, get their kit off, and engage in idolatrous pagan rituals. It was all rather too much for them all, especially as it was 1914.

Ninety five years later, despite rumours of it selling out and becoming middle aged and middle class, the spirit of Gwyn Ap Nudd, Lord of the Otherworld, still rules the Glastonbury Festival. In 1914 the tickets may have been a bit cheaper and the security less intrusive, but the same rebellious subculture would appear to be at world. However whilst todays festival goers came to hear up-tempo beat-combos, those first festival goers actually came to see an opera.

It’s difficult to associate the world of British classical music with the neo-pagan hedonism of the Glastonbury Festival. However, over the last hundred years or so, there has been a seam of paganism running through British classical music, and every now and again it broke the surface. Even our most revered composer, the stately figure of Sir Edward Elgar, whose whiskers adorn the Twenty Pound note, turns out to have dabbled with non-Christian deities.

Whilst Elgar never actually composed an opera, he did write choral works, which I suppose are operas with no costumes or scenery (or acting - but then there’s often little enough of that in a real opera). His foray into pagan territory was Caractacus, the story of the Celtic anti-Romanisation protestor. This being Elgar there is lots of pomp and patriotism, but there are also tender, melodic moments celebrating the beauty of the Malvern hills. The pagan highlight of the piece is Lord of Dread, sung as Caractacus visits the temple of Taranis to ask for some divine help in smiting Romans.

Written in 1898, a time when Elgar was approaching, but had not yet reached, his peak, Caractacus is a little bit forgotten nowadays. However it is the sort of piece that local choral societies like to put on, so you may be lucky enough to catch a local performance in your neck of the woods. Choral societies being what they are though, you might have to live with balding ‘Celtic Warriors’ and greying ‘Druid maidens’.

Elgar went on to greater works, and was soon performing in London, then the beating heart of a great industrial empire. The dawning of the twentieth century though, saw many British composers turning their backs on the metropolis to seek their inspiration in the countryside. Men like Ralph Vaughan Williams were raiding the repertoire of folk musicians for tunes, whilst others like Gustav Holst, whose Planets Suite is more about pagan gods than astronomy, were discovering spirituality, in his case Hinduism.

To the high brow music snobs this has become known as the ‘cowpat school’ of music. Some of these cowpat composers weren’t afraid to use the P word in public. Granville Bantock (1868 - 1946) wrote something he called a Pagan Symphony. This was inspired by Classical Greece but for his later and better works he was inspired by Scotland.

Sir Arnold Bax (1883 - 1953) went even further, openly called himself a pagan - although he probably didn’t mean it in quite the same way as me. The titles of some of Bax’s works give you an idea of what he was into: Tintagel, The Garden of Fand, In The Faery Hills, Nympholept - although this last one was actually about woodland spirits, not what you may be thinking.

This was the time of the literary movement called the Celtic Twilight, after W.B. Yeats’ book of the same name, and being a Celt was suddenly cool. So with music and literature both becoming all Celticy and Otherworldly, it was only a matter of time before someone put them both together and made an opera.

The man who did the surgery was a grocer’s son from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, one Rutland Boughton. His influences were Marxism and the music of Richard Wagner.

Since his death in 1883 Wagner’s memory and his music had been kept going at the annual Bayreuth festival. Boughton, a self taught musician and card carrying communist, wanted to create an English Bayreuth, where the legends of England could be set to music and Glastonbury was the perfect spot.

The result was the first Glastonbury festival, which kicked off at 8PM on 5th August 1914 in the Glastonbury Assembly Rooms. Not put off by the fact that Britain had declared war on Germany the previous day, the audience watched dances and listened to a few songs and a spot of Wagner. The grand finale of the festival though was Boughton’s Celtic masterpiece, the opera The Immortal Hour.

The Immortal Hour now has it’s place in the history books as when it eventually moved to London it was performed for a record breaking 216 consecutive nights. By then it had a full orchestral score and scenery. In 1914 the vanguard party of Boughton’s musical revolution consisted of a handful of friends, some local amateurs, a costume designer he later married and a single piano for accompaniment. The original idea though was that it should be performed out of doors, with the chorus that starst the second act sung by a party of druids as they made their way through the trees towards the stage.

The story had come from the poem of the same name by Fiona McLeod, who was one of the more interesting Celtic Twilight writers. She was actually a bloke from Scotland called William Sharp, a moderately successful writer who suddenly found the need to write in a completely different style under a completely different name. Sharp always maintained that McLeod really existed, and in a sense she did. Sharp paid a high price for living this dual life, but as McLeod he produced some inspiring, and very pagan, poetry. As well as bringing back to life the Old Gods, McLeod added a few new ones for good measure, and such was her mastery of the myths that you can’t really spot the join.

Boughton was the sort of naive communist who continued to believe in Potempkin Villages long after everyone else had read Animal Farm and realised Stalin was a mass murdering psychopath. Working away in his cottage in the woods at Grayshott, Hampshire, Boughton appeasr to have been rather more influenced by the gentle, rustic English socialism of William Morris.

He tidied up McLeod’s poem dramatically, and the result is the story of Etain, a lady of the Sidhe, who is found wandering in a daze by Eochaidh, King of Ireland, who marries her. But after a year and a day of wedded bliss she is claimed back by Midir, a Prince of the Sidhe. Etain can’t resist his faery charms and returns to the Land of the Ever Young. Eochaidh, overcome with grief, loses his life to Dalua, the Fairy Fool and Lord of shadow whose machinations have brought all this about.

Musically, although there are influences of Wagner, the opera is very English. Compared with the full-on assault on the senses that is a Wagnerian opera, Boughton tells his story by means of folksy songs and choruses. The most popular of these is the Faery Chorus, the haunting tune that follows Etain from the land of the Sidhe and then lures her back. Over the course of the opera practically ever major Celtic deities gets a name check in one song or another.

The proletariat liked it and the festival was a success. Rather to Boughton's annoyance the aritocracy liked it too, although they generally got completely the wrong idea of what it was about. Boughton, it seems, felt rather sorry for poor old Eochaidh, dumped for no better reason other than his parents weren't immortals, but opera loving ladies generally preferred Etain, perhaps in the hope that they too would hear a fairy chorus summoning them back to the Otherworld.

After a break for the Great War the festival was back in 1920. This time Boughton unveiled The Birth of Arthur, the first of what he hoped would be his ‘Ring Cycle’; a series of five linked Arthurian operas. As the 1920s went, on some serious high-brow names started to show up, including George Bernard Shaw, D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. Another regular was a devout Christian mystic from London who had a second home in Glastonbury.

This was Dion Fortune who, once she had put the false-consciousness of a moralising Christianity behind her, was to do more than anybody else to restore the Old Gods to Glastonbury. Hitherto Glastonbury had only attracted Christian mystics, who came to encounter ghostly monks in the Abbey or to pray at the Chalice Well, but from Boughton’s time onwards we start to hear of pagan rites being performed at Glastonbury.

In her book Avalon of the Heart it is Dion Fortune who gives us the most evocative description of a performance of The Immortal Hour “The first scene started with broad daylight shining in through the uncurtained windows of the Assembly Rooms. But as it progressed the dusk drew on, till only phantom figures could be seen moving on the stage and the hooting laughter of the shadowy figures in the magic wood rang out in complete darkness, lit only by the stars that shone strangely brilliant through the skylights of the hall."

The festivals continued three times a year until 1926, when it all went horribly wrong. Ironically, given the patronage of CND and Greenpeace that the current festival enjoys, it was radical politics that did for them. This being the year of the General Strike, Boughton decided on a gesture of solidarity with the workers. Bethlehem, his take on the nativity, was performed in modern dress with Jesus being born in a miner’s cottage and being hunted down by a top-hatted, capitalist Herod.

The festival audience were now fairly bourgeois, so after the socialists on the stage had finished complaining about the capitalists, the capitalists in the audience complained so loudly about the socialists that the whole thing was wound up. Boughton tried to revive the festival at Stroud and Bath, but neither town had the magic of Glastonbury and nothing took root.

But whilst he may have failed to make his Avalonian Bayreuth, Boughton did inspire a brief fashion for Celtic operas. Joseph Holbrook (1878-1958), the 'Cockney Wagner', produced a series of three linked operas, The Cauldron of Annwn, which were as dark and sinister as you’d expect from someone who’s chief influence was Edgar Allen Poe, whilst Iernin was a hit in 1935 for the young George Lloyd (1913-1998). Lloyd was from Cornwall and once said that such an opera could only be written by someone who at least half believed in fairies, piskies and ‘knockers’.

Apart from Sir Michael Tippett’s enigmatic and very Jungian Midsummer Marriage in 1955, this brief fashion though had long come to an end by the time Rutland Boughton died, on 25th January 1960. He had enjoyed in his lifetime popular success and critical acclaim.

Despite this, or more likely because of this, his work was soon forgotten.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

The Incomplete and Utter History of Pagan Opera Part Two: Wagner

Don’t mention the war.

By 1837, Bellini had put northern European Paganism on the stage and given the opera world a Moon Goddess and a sassy High Priestess. One of his biggest fans was the new conductor at the Riga theatre, who just about manage to put on a performance of Norma before he had to flee to Russia to escape his debtors. On the way, the ship ran into a storm and had to shelter in a Norwegian fjord. This gave the conductor an idea for an opera of his own, and by splicing in a Scottish ghost story he came up with a hit. The opera was called The Flying Dutchman, and its composer was Wilhelm Richard Wagner.

To say that Wagner’s reputation today is a little tarnished is to put it mildly and for many he is still the man who provided the theme tune for the Third Reich. Whilst having Hitler as your number one fan would be a handicap to the reputation of any artist, Wagner didn’t exactly help himself either. Not only was he a pioneer of the sort of nationalism that would mutate into the Nazis, but his views on the Jews wouldn’t have been out of place at a Nuremberg rally either.

It is possible to mount a liberal defence of Wagner. Some of his best friends really were Jewish, he worked extensively with Jewish musicians and he refused to sign an anti-Jewish petition to the Reichstag. From a psychoanalytical perspective we can say that his racism was the result of doubts about his own parentage and his own need to feel persecuted. In his own opinion the inflammatory pamphlets that he wrote were a ‘poison’ he had to get out of his system. It may even be that the root of it all was the jealousy of a man unable to hand onto his money towards a group stereotyped as thrifty with theirs.

All this though only goes so far and doesn’t stack up too well against the offensiveness of his racist ravings. Neither can we defend Wagner on the grounds of being a really nice guy in private: he spent his life cheating on his wives, neglecting his children and bullying his friends.

Perhaps the best that can be said of Wagner is that whilst he was a racist, he was one of a rather different calibre to Hitler. Wagner wasn’t bothered about the Jews corrupting the racial purity of Germany, but he did think they were destroying its cultural ‘purity’. Wagner didn’t want to see Jews murdered, but he did want to see them ‘redeemed’ through art.

Providing that art was the task he set himself. Opera would never be the same again after Wagner, and German Jews flocked to see his performances just like everyone else.

Forging the Ring

The young Wagner was a radical socialist who in 1848 was to be found in Dresden making hand-grenades for anti-monarchist rebels. When the revolt failed he had to flee the country once again. His first operas bombed too and his early life was mainly spent gambling, being imprisoned for bankruptcy, divorcing, and hanging around in bars getting ‘Brahms and Liszt’.

The middle aged Wagner was by contrast more than happy to hang around in the court of the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria. This Ludwig was a curious kind of fellow. Never happier than when wandering around the Bavarian countryside talking to peasant, he aided the local economy (and the future German tourist board) by financing a series of fairytale castles form his own pocket. He doesn’t seem to have been interested in girls, but appears to have had a bit of a crush on Wagner. In the homophobic Bavaria of the late nineteenth century, Ludwig was under considerable pressure to get himself a token Queen, but he refused and never gave up hope of getting it together with Wagner. Wagner, very much a ladies man (involved with at least eight that we know about - although he did also spend a suspiciously large amount of money in his local dress shop) was quite happy to string the young King along if it meant he could plunder the royal treasury.

Relatively financially secure, he was now able to let rip on his greatest works, although Wagner and financial security never really went together - the only thing he spent faster than his own money was other people’s. What Wagner was writing now was his ‘new music’ that would transform opera and, he hoped, the people who listened to it.

The Flying Dutchman had showed him the way to go. His first commercial success had a come a few years earlier with Rienzi, but whilst Rienzi was in the style of French Grand Opera, the style of The Flying Dutchman was all Wagner’s own: it was loud, it was supernatural, it was about the redemptive power of love and the heroine died tragically.

He next turned his hand to medieval romance with Tannhauser, about a knightly minstrel who, shagged out after a year in the Otherworld with a mountain full of nymphs, enters an early version of the Eurovision Song contest. Early audiences gave it Nul Points, but after a minor rewrite it eventually became one of his most popular works. The Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley was so moved by a performance that he to turned it into a play - supposedly in a mammoth 67 hour long drug induced writing binge.

Wagner stayed in the Middle Ages for Lohengrin, a tale of a knight of the Holy Grail, an evil sorceress and a Swan-Prince. It features Wagner’s most well known piece of music, The Wedding March, which showed he could do quiet and romantic as well as loud and dramatic. Needless to say though that Lohengrin and his bride do not live happily ever after.

Wagner was now on top form and for his next work he tackled the Matter of Britain with Tristan and Isolde, possibly his finest musical accomplishment. It features some of his most heart-rendingly tragic music, elements of which have since been extensively borrowed by Hollywood. Those violins that play during on screen clinches are generally doing a version of the ‘Tristan cord’. The climax of the opera really is a climax as Isolde, holding the body of her dead departed lover in her arms, manages to sing herself to orgasm - a neat trick if you can do it.

Six Nights at the Opera

However these operas, good though they were, were just a distraction from Wagner’s great work, which he started whilst plotting the revolution in Dresden, and continued to work on for the next 27 years. This was The Ring of the Nibelungs, four linked operas weighing in at 16 hours all told - nearly twice the length of The Lords of the Rings trilogy. These days the last two are normally each played over two nights, so watching the whole thing takes nearly a week.

It was s serious bit of work for a serious purpose. His aim was to combine sound and spectacle, drama and dialogue, to create a work of ‘total art’. this in turn would be the start of a new religion. Wagner, who had little time for a Church he saw as clapped out and past its sell-by date, wanted a new nationalistic religion of art, and for his inspiration for this ‘art of the future’ he looked to the myths of pre-Christian Germany.

In writing The Ring Wagner, rather like George Lucas, started with part four and then wrote three ‘prequels’. He was characteristically modest about the scope of the story ‘it holds the world’s beginning , and its destruction’, he wrote to his friend Liszt. Chronologically The Rhinegold is first, which tells of how Alberich, one of the dwarvish Nibelung race, steals the Rhinegold from the mermaid-like Rhinemaidens, having been warned by them that to do so is to renounce love forever. From this gold he forges the magic Ring.

Meanwhile Wotan, Chief God, has had Fafner and Fasolt, a couple of Giants, in to build his fortress of Valhalla. As is ever the way with builders the bill is somewhat steeper than he expected and the Giants carry off the Goddess Freia as payment. Wotan steals the Ring from Alberich and swaps it, along with a heap of gold, for Freia. The two Giants fall out and Fafner murders his partner and takes all the loot for himself. Part one ends with Wotan in Valhalla, Fafner sitting on his gold, and both of them cursed by the Ring.

Part two, The Valkyrie, is about the brother-sister lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde. Wotan, their Dad, is told by his wife Fricka that this sort of thing shouldn’t be tolerated and so the titular Valkyrie, Brünnhilde, is sent to ensure Siegmund looses the upcoming fight with Siegelinde’s outraged hubbie. Brünnhilde refuses, and so Wotan has to do the dirty work himself, shattering Siegmund’s magic sword with his spear. Brünnhilde, for her disobedience, is imprisoned on a mountain top in a wall of elemental fire.

Next up is Siegfried. Fafner, we learn, has turned into a dragon but nearby is Siegfried, Siegmund and Sieglinde’s son, who has been brought up by Mime, Alberich’s brother. He re-forges his dad’s sword and uses it to kill Fafner and take the Ring. For good measure he does in his foster dad too, and goes in search of Brünnhilde. Wotan tries to stop him, but this time the sword breaks the spear, leaving Wotan powerless. Proving that although he may have a short temper he is not easily enflamed, Siegfried crosses the magic fire and rescues Brünnhilde who, now mortal, falls in love with him.

Finally in the Twilight of the Gods we are back in traditional opera territory with bodies littering the stage. Siegfried gives the Ring to Brünnhilde whilst he goes off adventuring, but he falls in with Alberich’s son Hagen. He is tricked into betraying Brünnhilde, and in return she helps Hagen treacherously murder him. As his body is consumed by the funeral pyre, Brünnhilde throws herself onto the flames. The Rhinemaidens retrieve the Ring, Hagen’s drowns trying to grab it and Valhalla is consumed in flames and the earth by a flood.

Waltzing Brünnhilde

Wagner’s source for the story is usually given as the Niebelungenleid, normally by people who’ve never read it. A much stronger case can be made for the Icelandic Völsunga Saga. Whilst the two books have common roots and were written down in the same century, the German book has clearly had a Christian gloss put on it whilst the Icelandic work is still discernibly Pagan. This is particularly evident in the character of Brünnhilde, who in the Niebelungenleid is converted from a Pagan warrior queen to a submissive Christian wife by, basically, being raped on her wedding night. Wagner’s Brünnhilde by contrast is the star of the show and not subservient to anyone, man or God.

Whereas Bellini just used myth and legend as a convenient backdrop on which to hang a conventional romantic tale, Wagner revelled in the allegorical power of myths. The result is a story that exists on many levels. To the socialist George Bernard Shaw, The Ring was a lesson on the evils of capitalism, whilst to the ex-politician Michael Portillo it is about the incompatibility of love and power. There is also the theme of civilisation in conflict with Nature, but that is not the end of it by any means.

Wagner saw the role of the artist as ‘to bring the unconscious part of human nature into consciousness’. Wagner’s tale of Dwarves, Giants and Gods seems to be demanding to be read on a psychological level, whilst the incestuous lovers (as the daughter of Wotan and Erda, the earth Goddess, Brünnhilde is Siegfried’s aunt!) and the final conflagration seem to imply magical change. Wagner was certainly aware of the potency of the symbolism he was working with. The opening scene of The Rhinegold actually came to him in a dream, and he seems to have believed that the themes of The Ring were working through him on a subconscious level.

Working out what exactly these themes are is something of a challenge. What, for example, actually is the Ring’s power and is its ‘curse’ actually a curse at all? Is Alberich a villain or a Promethean hero? Is Wotan aware that he is working towards the destruction of himself and the Gods? Pagans have a rare chance to get one over on the opera-snobs here as this sort of thing is meat and drink to us.

Perhaps the most difficult character in The Ring to explain is Siegfried. Blond, violent and stupid, it’s easy to see why the Nazis admired him, but harder to see why Brünnhilde bothers with him. As an orphaned, inbred, bastards brought up by a dwarf, Siegfried could be forgiven for having a few ‘issues’. In Wagner’s own view he was ‘not even half a man’ and it took Brünnhilde to make him whole; he is an animus in search of an anima.

Ironically, given Hitler’s admiration, the probable inspiration for Siegfried was the lefty anarchist Michael Bakunin, hero of the barricades in Dresden in 1848, and the sort of person who, had he lived a century later, would have found himself in a concentration camp.

The real hero though is Wotan, the flawed God. Literally spell bound by the runes on his spear, which are the bargains he has made for his power, his plan to beget a hero who can bail him out fails spectacularly, and he is forced to spend the last part of the story hiding in Valhalla, powerless to avert his fate. With rebellious offspring and a nagging wife, tied up with red tape and his career heading for the rocks, Wotan’s midlife crisis is the backbone of the story. Tolkien, who was mining the same seam of material as Wagner, took the ‘good’ aspects of Wotan to make Gandalf. Wagner, by contracts, gives us the God warts and all.

But if The Ring’s male heroes are flawed, the women are archetypal., and the men go to pieces when they’re not around. The cerebrally challenged Siegfried is lost without his Brünnhilde, and Wotan has to turn to Erda for advice in times of crisis. Whether she is really helping him, or whether she wishes the fall of Valhalla, is a question left enigmatically open.

Musically a feature of Wagner’s opera’s is what he called ‘infinite melody’. What had impressed Wagner about Norma was how the long flowing arias accompanied the drama rather than interrupting it. Most operas consisted of spoken dialogue interrupted by short songs, after which the cast paused to acknowledge the audience’s applause and adjust their corsets before carrying on with the story. Wagner would have none of this. Instead his operas are long, continuous pieces of music.

Another trademark is the use of leitmotifs, which translates as ‘leading-motives’. These are short musical calling cards that announce the arrival of characters or themes, rather like the way John Barry’s James Bond theme was used to accompany Sean Connery’s appearance on screen. With The Ring though, Wagner takes this idea to another level and combines them like runes, to create a complex subtext to the main score. The final Immolation Scene is made up almost entirely by these leitmotifs, all battling it out with one another, until finally ‘redemption through love’ ends the performance.

Wagner’s reputation as the ‘heavy metal’ of classical music is well deserved. To get the sound he wanted Wagner took an already bloated nineteenth century symphony orchestra and beefed it up with a few extra instruments. Finding singers, especially female singers, who can compete with the resulting noise has always been a bit of a challenge, and as people with large voices often aren’t small themselves, Wagner could well be responsible for the oldest cliché about opera singers.

Fortunately it’s what the performers sound like that is more important than what they look like. From the Rhinemaidens happy frolicking at the start of The Rhinegold, to Siegfried’s magnificent Funeral March and the final transformation scene, The Ring sounds fantastic. It can certainly be loud when the occasion demands, such as the famous Ride of the Valkyries. But The Ring also has its tender moments too, such as the budding romance between Siegmund and Sieglinde in part two, one of the most beautiful acts in all opera, and Forest Murmurs, in Siegfried, where the hero takes some time off from killing things to appreciate the beauty of the trees.

Twilight of the Gods

Having completed his work of ‘total art’ Wagner next needed a theatre big enough to put it on. Not finding one he leant on Ludwig for some money so he could build his own, the festival theatre in Bayreuth. There in 1876 was held the first Bayreuth Festival when the four parts of The Ring were finally performed together.

Compared with the party atmosphere at most operas of the day - the opening night of Norma had been ruined by the childish antics of the aristocratic audience, - opera at Bayreuth was serious stuff. Silence was demanded and late comers were not allowed in. The house lights were dimmed so that only the rectangular stage was visible and then the orchestra, hidden out of sight of the audience, started to play. Not only are all operas now like this, but what Wagner could be said to have invented the modern cinematic experience.

Wagner's influence on cinema music is almost as great as his effect on opera itself. Samuel Goldwyn, commissioning a score, once asked for 'music like Wagner only louder'. The music for the film King Kong has been called a Wagnerian opera with a film attached.

Wagner had one more opera in him before he was carried off to Valhalla, the six hour epic of the Holy Grail Parsifal. Wagner died the next year. His benefactor, Ludwig, followed him shortly afterwards. Stripped of his crown due to his failing mental health, he and his psychiatrist drowned in mysterious circumstances.

Wagner’s family ensured that the festivals would go on although, partly due to the titanic cost of putting on such elaborate shows, not to mention the stamina required by the audience to endure them, Wagner’s music never acquired the mass appeal he wished for. Tolkien brought a modified version of Heathenism to a mass audience, but Wagner is still for the elite.

Modern productions of The Ring generally remove the story from its mythological home and disguise its origin, which is a pity. Wagner has been rescued from the Nazis; perhaps it’s time to reclaim him for the Pagans.

Part Three: Arias in Avalon

Sunday, 1 March 2009

The Incomplete and Utter History of Pagan Opera: Part One

What type of music is most typically pagan?

Not something you get asked every day, but I would guess that, Inkubbus Sukkubus fans aside, most of you would go for folk music. With its associations with camp fires, smoky pubs and the film The Wicker Man, its bawdiness, hints of ancient wisdom and tales of merry happenings all-in-a-month-of-May, it probably represents where most Pagans are coming from.

However, if you were to trot down to your local HMV and look for myth and magic amongst the CDs there, you’d probably have the most success in the classical music section. If you’ve heard the music from the films The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, then you’ll know that sword and sorcery is something that classical composers know how to do.

But could opera be considered pagan? Normally associated with overweight, overwrought and overpaid performers, opera doesn’t have a great image outside of the cultural elite. But all opera really is is telling stories in music and song, which is a tradition that goes back to the days when our pagan ancestors were in short trousers. What’s more, some of the greatest composers in the history of opera used pagan themes for their works, so even if Pagan music lovers aren’t listening to opera, millions of opera fans are listening to pagan music. So here I go with the pagan highlights from the history of opera, starting with someone I’m sure you’ve all heard of.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)

Opera was invented by the Italians, and at first things were fairly light hearted. However by the late eighteenth century the Germans had moved in on the act, and they took things a little more seriously. Up until this point opera had been ‘pagan’ only in so far as it extolled the virtues of wine, women and song, and occasionally ventured into Greek myth. However a certain Austrian child prodigy was to change that.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is the big name in late eighteenth century music. His first mention in our story comes in 1787 when he unveiled his womanising anti-hero Don Giovanni, who after racking up two thousand and sixty five notches in the bedpost, eventually gets his comeuppance when he goes for one virgin too many. Cloaked, nocturnal, lecherous and ultimately hell-bound, he may well have been the inspiration for Dracula and all those other charming blood-suckers up to and including Buffy’s friend, Angel.

However Mozart’s main pagan credentials come from his last opera The Magic Flute, first performed in1791. A story of bizarre initiation rituals set in a Temple of Isis and Osiris, Mozart cobbled together the plot from Masonic ritual and a set of tarot cards. But the best song he gives to the Queen of the Night, Isis herself, whose main contribution to the show is her frenetic Revenge Aria. Female opera singers had always been known as divas, which is Latin for Goddess, but in the Queen of the Night The Goddess had finally arrived on stage in person, sadly just as Mozart himself shuffled off it.

Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)

This was all very well as far as it went, but it wasn’t what most of us would consider real paganism. Come the early nineteenth century though there was something of a Celtic revival going. Men in Egyptian style robes started to appear at Stonehenge for the Solstice, and some poets started churning out passable imitations of Bardic verse.

Meanwhile in rural Sicily, a lad called Vincenzo Bellini had developed a crush on a posh bird who lived near him. Unfortunately he was too poor for her father to allow her to marry him, so he went off to the big city to write operas. They turned out to be smash hits and he became so rich and famous that the lady’s father eventually consented to their marriage.

Unfortunately by this time Bellini had got a taste for the limelight and he completely forgot about his childhood sweetheart. The smart set of Milan and Paris always considered him something of a country bumpkin though, partly because of his habit of intoning spells to ward off the evil eye as he wandered about, but they certainly liked his music. “Opera should make you weep and die,” he would cheerfully say. In true romantic tradition Bellini went around being miserable, breaking hearts (male as well as female - allegedly) and knocking out hit operas.

In 1831 he decided to jump on the pagan revival bandwagon for his third opera, Norma. Norma is the chief Druid in a part of Gaul where the locals have decided that they don’t really want an aqueduct and are starting to ask “what have the Romans ever done for us?” This being opera, though, Norma’s domestic life is anything but straightforward. She is secretly married to the Roman governor Pollione, who is in turn secretly knocking off Adalgisa, one of the younger priestesses. When she finds out Norma is a little cross, to put it mildly. First she considers killing her children, and then Adalgisa, before finally offering herself as a sacrifice to their God, Irminsul.

Irminsul is a rather odd name for a Celtic God. The word is Anglo-Saxon for ‘great pillar’ and usually refers to the great World Tree of Northern Mythology. Bellini would appear to have had a slight problem with Celtic names. Norma, a Druid Priestess? And what are we supposed to make of Adalgisa? Is she named after a type of pain killer?

Bellini’s words were actually written by fellow Italian Felice Romani. His influences can be traced back to Tacitus’ story of the German priestess Velléda who led a revolt against the Romans, and the Greek myth of Medea, a priestess of the moon-goddess who betrayed her people to help Jason get the Golden Fleece. The portrayal of the Druids in the opera, as bloodthirsty but enlightened, owes much to the concept of the Noble Savage which was then popular thanks to the writing of Rousseau and others. Contemporary politics may also have come into the plot. The Gauls’ simmering resentment against the Roman occupation could be a reference to the then state of Italy, occupied by the Austrian and French armies, and not yet an independent country.

But back to the music. Bellini wrote his music slowly, and this shows in the long flowing songs of the opera. His style was known as bel canto, which directly translates as ‘beautiful singing’. This means that Bellini keeps the instrumentals to a minimum and makes the singers do all the hard work, labouring over every word to make their point. Apparently it’s all quite poetic too, but as I can’t speak a word of Italian I’ll have to take that on trust. It does sound good though, especially the aria Casta Diva (‘pure goddess’), Norma’s song for peace, sung to the moon as she cuts the Golden Bough. You’ve probably already heard it, as it’s been used in the films The Bridges of Madison County and the recent A Midsummer Night’s Dream, amongst others.

True to form as a Romantic, Bellini died young, at the age of 33. Norma though has given him a measure of immortality, and has never ceased to be performed from then on. Despite being a challenging part for even the most talented singer, the role of Norma has always been popular as it provides a welcome break from the usual tragic-heroine-done-in-by-her-no-good-lover roles. Fittingly then for the most famous pagan priestess in opera history, it was the greatest soprano of the twentieth century, Maria Callas, who made the role her own. She put in over forty performances on stage, was recorded twice, and came to be regarded as the definitive Norma.

Modern Pagans owe something of a debt to Bellini and Romani. Not only did Marion Zimmer Bradley use the plot of Norma as the basis of the first of her Avalon series of books, but, as no less a personage than Professor Ronald Hutton has pointed out, the opera also marks something of a watershed in the history of the neo-pagan revival. Whilst the contemporary Druids of the time were male sun worshippers, Bellini and Romani had their Druidic grove led by a priestess and meeting at night to worship the Moon. It was to be over a century before Gerald Gardner was to popularise the same idea.

Part Two: Wagner