In Act II of Francesca Zambello’s production of Die Walküre, Wotan instructs Brünnhilde concerning Siegmund’s selection to Valhalla by referring to a square of cardboard, about 2 x 2, bearing his photograph. Later, as the Walküres assemble in Act III, each is bearing a similar photograph, black-and-white, closely cropped and resembling the photos of “this week’s dead” that appear in American newspapers. They hang them on stands for honorable display.
Indeed, the program notes confirm that these are “actual images of American soldiers who have died in the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan” (the latter used with permission of the families). The pictures remain displayed throughout the act, the young faces seeming to observe Wotan’s sacrifice of yet another of his own children.
Many directors have reminded audiences that Valhalla is a place for people to die in war. Gotz Friedrich at Covent Garden in 1974 showed actual battles, and many modern stagings have bestrewn corpses about the area. But none before has seemed as heartbreaking, as personal, as immediate and as wasteful as these photos of very young men — teenagers, it would seem — killed by order of their elders, who then in turn purport to venerate their own loss.
None of the “heros called to Valhalla” in other productions has seemed more like my kids. None has seemed so American.
Wagner wasn’t wrong when he insisted that the German volk would be inspired by mythic evocations of their own past. I imagine he would look blankly at someone proposing that German myths would equally evoke the intended response before an Argentine or Japanese or South African audience. Zambello’s use of American mythology (not American history or American sociology — its mythology) infused a particular emotional resonance in Wagner’s story when told before American audiences, proving Wagner right once again.
So the story is this: The continent was the natural home to richness, beauty and undisturbed forests and streams until people began digging and cutting and cheating and stealing it all for their own use. Simple pioneer homes weren’t enough; they had to be decorated with heads of dead animals. Indeed, homes weren’t enough; skyscrapers were built in one’s image. The railroad, that iconic engine of American expansion, took felled forests to distant mills. Men in jeeps killed game for sport, their hunting fields lit by headlights.
And all this wealth and progress was based, one way or the other, on deceit. Contracts were breached; wealth was stolen; lies supported lies until one couldn’t bear the weight of all the layers of it. And we (yes, we) grew more and more distant from the air, the water, the earth and the fire that was the source of it all. It came to a point that the natural denizens of the water were lost, directionless, amid the used tires and discarded water bottles that had transformed our rivers into hopeless squalor, reflecting the dessication of our own pioneer hopes. The men did this, and the women watched them do it, preparing their meals and their cocktails.
And so when the fates had wound their tale to the crisis point, the death of a heroic but deluded natural force — untamed, a son of the forest who could not survive the machinations of the truly evil — prompted the end to it all. Away went the malicious, the conniving, the avaricious, the exploitative, the spineless. The women brought to the precipice every bag of every piece of crap that every one of us had thoughtlessly dumped in every forest and every stream in the continent, and brought forth the apocalypse.
Images of American mythology had infused this production to this point: The Martha Graham-like simple clapboard home; the majesty of the undisturbed sequoia; the astonishing spirituality of the wind-formed red rocks of the desert, home to the gods. Even some projections of fire seemed to have been animated by Georgia O’Keefe. But it was at this moment of apocalypse that a final, recent iconic image was presented.
For dropping from the heavens at the fall of Valhalla were all of those dead boys, scores of those handsome faces falling from the skies like the clouds of papers that fell from the World Trade Center all over my city, New York, that awful morning. All those old men who had killed their own children in order to protect their Valhallas, all those children and all their interrupted youth, all of the pride and the power and the lies, they all were released and fluttered to the ground in testimony to so many ways in which we have lost our own way.
This was a world that needed ending, and Brünnhilde ended it so we could start anew, with no predispositions, with a sapling redwood and the pure optimism and self-reliance that is truly American.