Here at Balladeer’s Blog I love sharing my enthusiasms. My blog posts where I provide contemporary slants to Ancient Greek Comedies to make them more accessible have been big hits over the years, so I’ve been trying it with operas, too. Previously I wrote about how Philip Wylie’s science fiction novel Gladiator could be done as an opera. Then I looked at how an opera version of the 1966 Spaghetti Western Django could be done and then an opera based on the novel Venus in Furs.
This blog post starts a look at how the original Dune novel could be done as an entire cycle of operas. If you’re not familiar with the story it is set over 20,000 years in the future, when humanity has colonized many Earth-like planets.
LANGUAGE: Spanish. 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.
SINGERS: Two Baritones, two Bass-Baritones, two Sopranos, one Mezzo-Soprano, four Tenors, a contralto and a Bass.
ACTS: FOUR ACTS
STORY: My fellow Dune geeks may get annoyed with this change, but remember, adaptations for staged performances have to be made very tight. I would start out at the Arrakeen Great Hall as the family and court members of House Atreides have just arrived on Arrakis/ Dune, the desert planet. All the scenes that the book covered while the Atreides family were preparing to depart their home on Caladan would instead play out shortly after their arrival on their new planetary fiefdom.
Parallels would be drawn between the stifling new feudalism of this far future setting and our own world’s troubling lapses into such outmoded systems. The plotting and conniving of the Great Houses would emphasize the similarities between the way governments and organized crime families maneuver against each other.
One of the centerpieces of this first opera in the cycle would be the grand dinner gathering where songs could clarify the competing interests at stake as well as highlight the strengths and weaknesses of our characters.
Ultimately, after the House Harkonnen attack on House Atreides (an attack launched alongside disguised members of the Emperor’s Sardaukar troops) and after Duke Leto Atreides’ self-sacrifice against Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the opera would close with Paul Atreides and his mother Lady Jessica fleeing for their lives.
Though obviously an open ending, a sense of closure to this opera would be felt in a song highlighting Paul’s refined use of his prophetic gifts, his sense of responsibility as the future of House Atreides, his revulsion over his mother really being a Harkonnen and his apprehension about his visions reavealing the potential paths along which his destiny may unfold. As in the opening third of the book, Paul at last allowing himself to shed tears to mourn his father is the finale. Now, My Father, I Can Mourn You would be the title of this closing piece.
Second opera in the cycle.
SINGERS: Two Baritones, two Bass-Baritones, three Sopranos, one Mezzo-Soprano, two Tenors and a Bass
ACTS: THREE ACTS
STORY: Paul Atreides and Lady Jessica rise to the top of the Fremen hierarchy while their foes, believing them dead, resume their plotting to extend their own wealth and power. Gurney Halleck, like everyone else convinced that his old masters were slain, joins up with armed spice smugglers.
The Beast Rabban would inflict his reign of terror on Arrakis while his father continues plotting against the Emperor and Princess Irulan.
As this opera draws to a close I would reverse the order of the two final episodes. Paul and Chani’s tender exchanges in their chambers would come BEFORE Lady Jessica taking the test to see if her Bene Gesseret abilities would allow her to change the drink to a non-poisonous one before giving it to Paul.
After her aria about all the changes and reflections she felt within her while doing so, Paul would take his drink and then join her in a duet, with him clarifying the moves and countermoves in this second opera as well as wondering again if he can possibly choose a future path that will not end in interstellar jihad.
Lady Jessica would sing about her triumphant feelings over having passed the test but even that would be tainted by her fear over what may become of her unborn daughter Alia after having been exposed to such a test in the womb.
Third opera in the cycle.
SINGERS: Two Baritones, two Bass-Baritones, two Sopranos, one Mezzo-Soprano, two Tenors, a Contralto and a Bass
ACTS: TWO ACTS
STORY: The story in this opera would, of course, wrap up the first novel of the Dune series. Paul Atreides would succeed in harnessing one of the enormous sandworms and lay his plans to attack the Harkonnens in Arrakeen.
Baron Harkonnen and his minions would implement their plans, with Emperor Shaddam IV plotting as much as his comparatively limited abilities would permit.
Paul and his Fremen troops, riding sandworms, would attack the Harkonnen capital, with the fleets of the Emperor and other Houses orbiting Arrakis/ Dune. Naturally Paul’s sister Alia – already displaying her own paranormal abilities from the test in the second opera – would kill Baron Harkonnen when he tries using her as a hostage, Paul would defeat Feyd-Rautha in single combat and would threaten to destroy the spice melange in order to force the Emperor to step down in his favor.
The purely political marriage of Shaddam IV’s daughter Princess Irulan to Paul would cement the new arrangement and the restored House Atreides would now be the dominant force in the Landsraad and, in fact, the entire Imperium. Paul’s apprehensions about his troubling visions of the future would for once be subordinated by his mother’s joyous song History Will Call Us Wives.
Fourth and final opera in the cycle.
SINGERS: Three Tenors, two Sopranos, three Mezzo-Sopranos, two Contraltos, a Baritone and a Bass
ACTS: THREE ACTS
STORY: Like the book Dune Messiah, this opera would pick up twelve years later. Literally billions of lives have been lost to the interstellar jihad unleashed by Paul’s triumphant followers.
He struggles to alter the future to a more peaceful outcome but all possibilities seem to lead to stagnation or destruction for humanity. Paul and Chani are still without children since Princess Irulan has been slipping contraceptive chemicals into Chani’s food.
Paul’s paranormal senses have revealed this treachery to him, but he says nothing since his visions have told him that if he and Chani have children it will result in Chani’s death. His love of Chani is at odds with his tentative realization of what must be.
The Tleilaxu, Spacing Guild and the Bene Gesserit plot to bring down Paul and even provide him with a ghola/ clone of his late friend Duncan Idaho pre-programmed to assassinate Paul at the appropriate moment. Chani’s switch to a Fremen fertility diet lets her get pregnant, but she dies giving birth to twins, a son Leto and daughter Ghanima.
After surviving the attempts to kill him, Paul, blinded earlier in the story, walks off into the desert to die, establishing himself as a mere human and throwing off the mantle of godhood that was being thrust upon him.
Before departing, he would have engineered events so that the Fremen forces remain loyal to his sister Alia, who takes his place on the throne until Leto and Ghanima come of age.
That would take up the first two acts of this fourth and final opera in the cycle. Once again risking outrage from my fellow Dune fans, I would use the closing act or acts (I’m still torn) to blend elements of Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune and Heretics of Dune.
In my opinion Frank Herbert spent too much time in the sequel novels rehashing the same themes about predestination, trying to fight fate and obsessions over finding a future for humanity which would not result in destruction or stagnation.
(Hey, how about self-government instead of all-powerful elites like the Major Houses making all the decisions on humanity’s behalf? Call me crazy …)
I’ll avoid spoilers regarding those other installments in the Dune saga since hopefully a lot of new fans will be attracted to the books by the upcoming reboot movie.
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