Even though there are signs here and there that audiences are getting fatigued with the oversaturation of superhero adaptations for the big and small screens, there still doesn’t seem to be any end in sight.
What better time for an OPERA version of Philip Wylie’s science fiction novel Gladiator, from 1930? Wylie’s work is often credited with inspiring the creation of Superman and every other superhero that followed.
Long before the overrated and overpraised Alan Moore wrote The Watchmen, this very first look at a superhero presented the figure struggling with the moral issues regarding the use of his superior abilities.
The central character uses his powers in World War One but afterward must cope with the limits of “super-powers” when it comes to dealing with political corruption and other problems that can’t be solved with violence. Or in which flexing his super-muscles would be counter-productive, maybe even ushering in a dictatorship.
In other words, the same type of stories which today are praised as “innovative” for “deconstructing the superhero mythos” WERE ALREADY EXPLORED IN THIS NOVEL EIGHTY-NINE YEARS AGO!
As a break from movie and television superhero tales I think an Opera format would be an intriguing and unexpected way of adapting Gladiator. Let’s face it – if it was done for television or movies today it would be criticized as “derivative” (irony of ironies) and “talky.”
That talkyness would slide nicely into a staged opera since, as I often point out in my examinations of 1970s Marvel stories, operas – like many comic books – are filled with lengthy expository monologues, but in song form. (There are countless “senses-shattering” origin stories and villain rants that are sung in operas.)
Think of this piece as a way of using the familiar superhero formula to encourage more people to “give opera a chance.” I love sharing my enthusiasms and I was very happy with the reception of those blog posts where I wrote about Ancient Greek Comedies to make them seem relevant. I want to try doing the same with operas.
Many people may disagree, but operas and superheroics are made for each other. Look at all the operas adapted from tales of ancient gods or other mythical supernatural figures. When you get right down to it, every larger-than life hero or heroine in any given story can be interpreted from a superhero angle.
Audiences for ANY form of story-telling have never been interested in bland, boring characters doing bland, boring things. Like it or not the conflicts which are the essence of drama can’t help but elevate certain figures to greater-than-normal status. Even more “realistic” fictional figures like Thelma & Louise or the ones based on real people, like Norma Rae or Gandhi, take on super-heroic airs because of the way those characters’ stories are cherry-picked for the few grand moments, while ordinary moments are ignored.
In short, people who get THAT upset about superhero stories are basically saying they’re upset about storytelling in general and the way that the most popular tales in any art form emphasize the extraordinary over the ordinary.
LANGUAGE: French. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that most of my fellow English-speakers find English-language operas to be silly. The prosaic nature of the forced rhymes in a language we are well-versed in does seem to rob opera of its mystique and its grandeur. For many Western audiences it’s as cringe-worthy as it would be if ballet dancers talked (and addressed each other as “dude,” “girlfriend” or “bruh”).
I fall into that trap myself. I’ve noticed I can never lose myself in a Gilbert & Sullivan work like I can with La Forza del Destino or Tales of Hoffmann or any other opera sung in a less familiar language. Anyway, I chose French for this opera because I’m having the story begin with Hugo’s service in the French Foreign Legion during World War One.
SINGERS: Two Baritones, a Tenor, Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano and Bass. Aside from the Lead they would sing multiple roles, one in each act.
ACT ONE: FRANCE: THE WESTERN FRONT DURING WORLD WAR ONE. At a tavern/ bordello some soldiers and prostitutes ponder the imminent arrival of HUGO DANNER, our main character. Tall tales (Or ARE they?) are sung about his battlefield heroics with a counterpoint of lurid tales regarding his sexual stamina being sung by the prostitutes he frequents.
Hugo, a member of the French Foreign Legion, arrives and while at first seeming bemused and gracious about the near-reverence shown for his martial and boudoir escapades, he becomes more and more sardonic and distant the more deference is shown to him.
After a wild night of drinking everyone else under the table and exhausting a trio of ladies in the best Babe Ruth tradition, Hugo’s feelings of isolation become even more apparent. In a mock display of “confiding in” the barely awake/ hungover prostitutes that he knows aren’t really listening, Hugo sings about his odd life thus far.
If you’re not familiar with the novel Gladiator, Hugo’s scientist father experimented on animals and then on his wife’s unborn son (Hugo). The child had immense strength, speed and near-invulnerability. After accidentally killing a childhood bully Hugo was taught to hide his superior nature, to avoid the obvious negative consequences.
Unleashing a fraction of his talents made Hugo a football star in his academic years but a miscalculation caused another death. Hugo dropped out and sought anonymity by working in a bank. (I’ve moved the bank incident to BEFORE the war rather than after to keep the story flowing smoothly in one direction.)
Hugo must use his super-strength to save a man accidentally locked in the bank’s vault so that he doesn’t suffocate. This public display earns our hero nothing but suspicion and scorn and he is taken away to be studied by scientists. Immune to their attempts to sedate, dissect or otherwise study him, Hugo at last decides to break out. Needless to say his captors are incapable of stopping him.
Danner ran off to join the French Foreign Legion, in time-honored fugitive fashion in dramas. War has provided an arena in which his physical gifts can be unleashed on a daily basis (in a judicious manner) that makes him a hero, yet does nothing to ease his feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Battlefield action is depicted next, as well as can be conveyed on-stage, anyway. Through instances of “feeding our soldiers to the enemy’s machine guns” so typical of Officers’ idiocy in World War One, Hugo emerges as the last man standing from his unit. Furious, he reaches the German lines and – both to avenge his fallen comrades AND ensure that no witnesses live to tell the tale – Danner unleashes his full strength, slaughtering the German troops.
In ironic contrast to the bordello scene, which ended with our hero as the last man standing amid boozed-out or sexually-spent soldiers and hookers, this scene ends with Hugo surrounded by nothing but the dead of both sides. His song of fury has turned into a very melancholy song in which he reflects on the grim future hinted at by this tableau: Will there one day be nothing but him alone, his gifts letting him survive into an unknown future while friends and foes alike all die off around him? Will he live for hundreds of years or, even worse, is he immortal?
ACT TWO: HOLLYWOOD DURING THE SILENT ERA. Back in the U.S. after the war, Hugo Danner’s fame from his (at times a bit mysterious) battlefield heroics has caused him to be wooed by the film industry and by the political world.
After starring in a silent film about his World War One exploits, Danner’s cynicism and disgust grow because of the way the movie makes the horrors he lived through seem so squeaky-clean and appealing. He briefly pursues a career as an action star, enjoying money and beautiful women while his superhuman nature lets him indulge in all manner of substance abuse to levels that even Keith Richards would blanche at.
Hugo quickly grows disillusioned with Hollywood’s shallow presentation of “heroism” in the movies in which he stars and he decides to yield to the call of the political arena, where maybe he could make some genuine, positive changes to the world. Changes that can’t be made by punching or shooting.
ACT THREE: WASHINGTON D.C. DURING THE ROARING TWENTIES. Danner wins election, but like Mr Smith and Billy Jack (I couldn’t resist) he learns that politics is even more dishonest than filmmaking.
The blatant corruption and bureaucratic bloat infuriate him to the point where he must grapple with the Splendid Temptation: Does he dare use his superior abilities to literally crush the corrupters and the corrupted? Does he dare use those abilities to FORCE the inferiors who surround him to yield to his “vision” of how the country and world should be run? Does he dare impose his values from above, through sheer might like the gigantic “hero” of the neglected 1920s novel The Nth Man? (Reviewed previously HERE at Balladeer’s Blog)
Basically, does Danner dare to force his interpretation of “justice” on the world while simultaneously “forcing” an end to war, poverty and unfairness? And if you’re using superior strength to smack down all dissent how “fair” a world is that? And how long will peace imposed in such a manner last?
I would dismiss Hugo’s subsequent journey to explore Mayan ruins for the sake of keeping the story stream-lined. Instead I would have Danner visit some kind of clergyman in Washington DC. He could unburden himself about his real nature and his real fears and uncertainties. In addition to seeking advice on his Splendid Temptation he could ponder if he should dare to ever bring others like himself into the world by procreating.
Prior to seeking the clergyman’s help, Hugo could seek the help of a scientist. The sung advice given him by the scientist and the clergyman could represent the different philosophies which the novel Gladiator presents early on from Danner’s parents: his religious-minded mother and his science-minded father.
The end would feature Hugo high atop a tall building, screaming (well, singing) his rage and confusion at the heavens until struck down by lightning. The questions pondered by Danner in his bitter, disillusioned rant would be reflected in this ending (which is just like the novel’s ending): Is there some Higher Power with a plan? Did that figure strike down Hugo Danner to put him out of his misery or to spare humanity from what the paranormal figure might have done to us? Or was it all just blind chance that caused him to be struck by lightning?
One of the reasons I started with Gladiator is because of the comparative ease of assigning the singing roles. Hugo would be the only recurring character from one Act to the next. He would be the Tenor while the other parts would be split up among the other singers.
I’ll be doing another of these soon.
FOR ANCIENT GREEK COMEDIES CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/ancient-greek-comedies/
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