Tuesday, 17 September 2013

"Homeland" as grand, even Wagnerian, Opera

"Homeland" starts a third series on September 29th.  Ever late to the party, I've just caught up with Season 2 and watched the finale last night.  I wept during the immensely moving final moments, as Brody walked off into the dark woods alone. Then, I got to thinking how closely some scenes in this 21st century tv drama resemble Wagnerian opera.

Towards the begining of this last episode, "Homeland" took our fated lovers, Brody,  the prisoner of war who was 'turned' by his Al Qaeda captors, and Carrie, the CIA agent who routed him, back to the cabin in the woods where they first consummated their decidedly twisted and complex love.  Carrie is bi-polar, functioning on meds but prone to wild flights of intuition and impulse, that have helped bring her and her blighted lover through torture, terrorist plots and betrayal to this moment of stillness and  serenity in the cabin on the  golden, autumnal lake.

I loved those scenes in the cabin where they dare to hope for some sort of peaceful, 'ordinary' future for their love. As in so many great love stories since the beginning of time, these lovers have no logical chance of a happy outcome. Brody is a damaged, marked man - both the CIA and Al Qaeda will want him dead when he has served their purpose.  And yet, they, and we persist in hoping against hope for  a happy  future.  Like the doomed twins Siegmund and Sieglinde in Wagner's sublime "Walküre", Brody and Carrie snatch a moment of joy before the real world intervenes.

I was  reminded again of Die Walküre as they made their escape towards the dark woods between the US and Canada. In Wagner's opera, Siegmund, a very Brody-esque character who has suffered and suffered and is a lone, sometimes violent man as a result, finds love with Sieglinde. (She is, in fact, his long-lost twin sister but that is a whole other story.) Her husband and his men have vowed to kill him and in the throes of immense, overwhelming passion, the two lovers escape into the forest. Ah, the forest! What a leitmotif it has been in this series - just as it always was for Wagner and in so many great myths.

I read recently  that "Homeland" show-runner, Alex Gansa, believes that  the love story is the heart of "Homeland" so he confirms what I feel and what has touched me so deeply in this show. As the story has developed from a straightforward "is he/isn't he?" to the much more complex and human questions of love, trust, betrayal, Carrie and Brody have come to reside in the same place as another pair of legendary Wagnerian lovers,  "Tristan and Isolde".  In the original vinyl box-set of the 1966 Karl Böhm recording of Tristan, there were some extraordinary sleeve notes that expressed in words what Wagner's opera was trying to do in words and music. It talked of how the lovers longed for night, oblivion, the eternal because their impossible desire could not exist in the light of day and reality and the real world's practical concerns.    So much of the Carrie/Brody love story has taken place in dark places, in a dark, dark world of prison cells, interrogation rooms, bars. Their brief respite in the sunlit cabin can only foreshadow more darkness. Or perhaps not?

Hollywood  "Story" guru Robert McKee's  describes the basis of story as being drawn from the  eternal conflict in human beings, of the fight between "being" and "becoming".  As McKee explains, we all exist on at least two planes. Philosophers sometimes divide them into 'being' and 'becoming'.

"Being" translates into private experience where time doesn't exist, where true feelings lie. Being is heart, mind, love, soul, taste, desire...Being is all we'd like to keep stable in a constantly changing world. Being is our ability to love absolutely in spite of distance and the passing of time. Being is what makes us what we are.

"Becoming" is the public realm. The necessary structures, rules, limits imposed on us in order for society to function.  Institutions must change to adapt. Time hurtles along. Nothing is constant. So the human dilemma is: "How do you keep what you value permanently in your heart while you are constantly being forced to change and adapt?"  This is the dilemma that faces Carrie as she leaves Brody to make his way alone through the dark woods.  Will she be able to keep Brody in her heart when everything in her life, her ambition, her dearest friend, her love for her country, her moral compass and the separation of time and distance all militate against him?


I also believed in and was moved by Peter, the CIA hitman's refusal to kill Brody - at the time. Afterwards, I asked myself questions  and I may well be proved wrong. As I watched,  however, I was reminded of another great scene in  "Die Walküre" where Brunnhilde, the warrior goddess, comes to offer Siegmund a home in Valhalla with other fallen warriors provided he renounces love. But Siegmund refuses because his love for Sieglinde transcends everything else.  Brunnhilde is dismayed but forced to examine everything she believes and values. By the end of the opera she renounces her warrior status for the chance of love. When Peter told Estes that Brody's death would kill Carrie, I thought of that. Oh and isn't the superb Claire Danes as Carrie, the personification of what Wagner really intended his Valkyries to be - not fat, foghorns in horned helmets but brave, beautiful, driven warrior women.

The comparisons could go on: Saul as the bass-baritone (even though he's a tenor in real life) - the father figure - sometimes Wotan, the Walküre's troubled god watching his turbulent Valkyrie/Carrie take action where he cannot.  Sometimes Tristan's King Marke,  stepping into the lovers' night world to remind them of the real world and their duties in it.


Yes, "Homeland" has a few audacious plotlines that many of us don't buy but anyone who has ever set foot in an opera house is used to that.  And yes, some  fans are crying foul and don't want a love story in the midst of all the intrigue and deception. I am the first to be annoyed when love stories are tacked on to movies just to thicken the plot but I think the clever writers here have moved Carrie and Brody beyond avatars in a video game to a superior status as mythic lovers. And why shouldn't our  contemporary culture produce its own figures of myth? Why do they always have to come from the past? I think these lovers are the quintessential expression of a mythical love in the early 21st century - in a world riven by terrorism, fanaticism and violence a love  between flawed, broken people that transcends betrayal, fear, separation. My but it would make a great opera.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

"Winter Music"

I recently relaunched my 1990s opera novel, "The Singing House" in an interactive Kindle 
edition.  A reader can now click on links in the ebook and be taken to performances of the great Wagner and Verdi operas that drive the narrative. And the book has recently been adapted as a screenplay, "Winter Music." The story opens as Rose rushes through a rare London snow to purchase a wedding dress. It is the night before her wedding and she forgot this little detail....As she passes in front of the Royal Opera House, an eccentric stranger steps out and offers her a ticket to "Tristan und Isolde". She accepts and her life changes forever. Here is my amateur video of what that moment might have looked like to Rose. With thanks to the Columbia University Orchestra for the soundtrack.