How Wagner Birthed a Musical Ungulate


Onstage lumbered the mature, if not actually venerable, Ben Heppner in boyish weeds holding a stuffed swan that dangled upside down. The frowsy prop looked like the beloved chew toy of a very large and desperately lonely HeldenHund. The Met audience did not laugh. In fact, never have I seen an audience that could be so legitimately termed “rapt.”

This night of May 15, 2006, at $250 each for our orchestra seats, was my annual visit to the bleachers, sort of. As a Yankees fan, I routinely spend one game a season in the justly legendary bleacher section for educational perspective. (Home plate is real, real far away! We’ve got to stop denigrating Johnny Damon as “Mary”! How can you throw to first when you can barely see it?) Similarly, as a fan of virtually every operatic composer from Monteverdi to Adès, I try a Wagner each year. Then I race back, renewed, to the first or third baselines for the baseball season, and to the operas that do not leave me gobsmacked with fear and loathing. (Sickness unto Death?)

The Wagnerites have heard it all before but will forever remain, uh, rapt. For me, Wagner is, as the landmark student of schizophrenia, Eugen Bleuler, said of his patients, “as strange as the birds in my garden.” Or a musical form of Outsider Art. I’ll give the man this: During Parsifal, in a coup de théâtre more convincing than Klingsor’s launched sword (which did get a laugh), virtually the entire libretto of Our Giraffe snapped into my head.

Other writers have told me about this phenomenon, but since it had never happened to me, I was appropriately agnostic, just as I’ve never expected the image of the Virgin to appear in the snowmelt in my driveway. (But, to be fair, I don’t live in Jersey.)

The operational protorationalism (as they like to say on the Fox NewsChannel) went something like this: Chew toy, to a memory of Lohengrin’s melodiously gorgeous and otherwise bonkers farewell to his loyal swan, “Nunc sie bedankt, mein lieber Schwan!,” to the recollection of a young female giraffe walking north along the Nile in 1826. This creature, whose story is well known to French schoolchildren (used to be, at least), has fascinated me in an offhand way for years. But Zarafa, as the exotic animal was known to the populace that became besotted with her as national cynosure for a time, did not “call me,” as pretentious poets say, as inspiration for a short story, much less a novel.

And yet, there the wily ungulate lurked! She sprang out full-blown. Now, I don’t mean that every iamb was in place. Or if so, I was going to have to mine the cerebrum to find them over the next few months. But the three-act architecture was instantly clear, the cast of characters (with one exception, as I’ll explain) lined up onstage. I felt the mood shifts of each act, a dance lampoon of a notorious aspect of French performance tradition (the requirement of an interpolated ballet, even if the opera focused on The Slaughter of the Innocents) was unmistakable in the second act, and yada yada yada.

Composer Sorrel Hays and I have known each other almost since sandbox days in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She has created a full and various career as performer and composer in Europe and here in the States, including many commissioned operas in Germany. For more than four decades we have occasionally and idly chatted about doing an opera together some day. (We did work together on a film called Invasion of the Love Drones, but never mind.) This time, I called her immediately. After about four sentences of my description of the story, she was clearly emotionally moved and then said, “Charles, this is what we are meant to do.”

As a working freelance writer for decades, without trust fund or lottery winnings or well-heeled admirers, I’ve written pretty much from A to Z—or contract to court action when the publisher doesn’t pay. (Note: The word “hack” has only two legitimate meanings, “cough” and “taxi”.)

This was really something different, perhaps energized at last by my addiction to opera, which began by happenstance when I was 13, growing up in reduced circumstances, as they say. One afternoon, for reasons I’ve forgotten, I was alone in the crackerbox house—an extremely rare occurrence—when NBC “presented” Tosca. Get this: Black-and-white TV with rabbit ears (but not really coal-fired, boys and girls), produced live (not “live on tape”), and the soprano was the young Leontyne Price years before her historic Met debut as Aida. I had no idea that such things as this art form existed, but I was blown away. Live for Art? Die for Love? For a Southern Baptist teenager, this was pretty high water.

There would not be opera again in my life until five years later, when Milton Schmidt, one of my Harvard friends, appeared in Leverett House with passes for four of us to act as supers. We would be paid $2 to strut in Aida, yet $2 more to portray piety in Tosca; the Met was touring, which meant that the all-star casts of the day would roar out several warhorses at the War Memorial Auditorium in Boston.

Rubber and some very good make-up (the Big Leagues!) transformed me into a bald Egyptian priest in Aida at the end of Act I, scene ii. Perched upon a high plinth, I was to throw some sort of dust into the smoking fire in a brazier below right after the penultimate “Immenso Ftha!” Nice, thought I, the flames would be prettily colored by the powder—a lively treat! I leaned over to cast down the stuff with a will on cue, then fell back from the blast, which was drowned out by Lucine Amara, Jess Thomas, Giorgio Tozzi, Rita Gorr, and the rest of the gang howling praise to the Spirto fecondator. But I had already stolen the moment by too enthusiastically hurling too much gunpowder right on target.

The next night, again for some reason costumed and made up as a religious, I was hanging around backstage in Act I of Tosca as an enraged George London, the Scarpia, stormed back and forth, followed by an underling who held up a small lapdog, which I recall as a Pomeranian. From time to time, London would pause and pet the thing, whether for his comfort or its, then return to cursing whatever chorus member had stolen his gold-headed baton. Black-headed batons for males in the chorus, gold-headed for…well, that’s clear enough.

At the end of Act I, attired in a gold brocade chasuble (as I said, Big Leagues), I was leading the faithful during the Te Deum, carrying a tall flapping banner. By some instinct from acting and directing in college, not by design (I was innocent!), I picked up a hot spot on my face, which of course caused me to tear up, obviously moved by religious passion. As Scarpia snarled about his vile designs upon Tosca (Birgit Nilson, that night), the audience watched me in amazement. So did the technician, who followed me with his light across the entire downstage area. As I passed London, still growling “L’altra fra le mie braccia,” he almost broke up with laughter. I had unwittingly stolen his follow spot.

Since then, through hundreds of opera performances, I have remained safely in the audience. But what I saw and heard then—the monstrous challenge of singing and acting and remembering and being prepared for the worst—gave me to understand, I believed, that these creatures were Olympian in every sense of the word. As for the composers and librettists…well, at last, here we are.

And so to the bar at Angus McIndoe’s on 44th Street, and to the stool farthest from the door, next to the newspaper rack. (The ingrates still refuse to affix a plaque to the wall commemorating my hours of composition.) Two or three times a week, I would take MetroNorth from northern Westchester County to Grand Central, pad over to the restaurant and order a dry vodka martini. For an hour, alone with my imagined 19th century Paris, I’d sip slowly and work out a scene or two.

It didn’t matter which of the three acts I chose. Sorrel might want to try out the music for the giraffe keeper’s teenage daughter in Act III. No prob! As the months went by, all of the pieces of the puzzle, scattered about chronologically, fell neatly into place. Don’t ask me how. To Zelig myself with a genius, it was something like Michelangelo’s notion that he “found” his sculptures inside the particular stone before him.

But there was one aspect that did not come in the first heat of inspiration, as I hinted earlier: the character I call the Irish Mountebank. While I was writing the libretto (Art!), I was also involved in a business partnership with an Irish-American grifter who eventually bilked me out of $75,000 (Life!). So did his scam inspire me to create a character who will be iconic for the ages? (We’ll see, but I’d probably rather have the investment back.)

No, the libretto did not precisely “write itself.” But it was THERE. Presumably, the most bored powers and principalities of my subconscious had been entertaining themselves with Zarafa for years.

Also, from my POV, the opera world seemed to be lying in wait for the pretty beast. In my worlds of publishing and film, it’s not all that easy for an unknown to get work read. According to one poll, four out of five Americans believe that they can write a book and many, unfortunately, act upon that conviction, so the slush piles of publishing houses do teem. If you’ve ever taken a cab, picked up your dry cleaning, or in fact performed any standard life function in Los Angeles, you know that everyone has a script in hand. But I discovered that virtually anyone in opera will take a look at Our Giraffe. I first learned from Samuel Ramey, the kindest of human beings, that the greatest stars are eager to encourage new work, and do, so Sorrel and I have essayed many avenues. I’ve just been working the phones and plumbing the address book, schmoozing at O’Neal’s across from Lincoln Center and in other ways making sure the word gets out. It will be given a partial performance at the New York City Opera’s VOX festival this year, a huge lurch forward for our gentle ungulate. It’s been less than two years since Heppner materialized before me with his dead swan.

The title of our opera? Richard again, darn it. Back in the 1970s Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope brought over a strange but totally original and compelling seven-hour-long movie filmed entirely in a basement. Those who have seen Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s Our Hitler, a brilliant descant on German fascism, cannot have forgotten the experience, or the soundtrack. Our Hitler, indeed. Our Wagner. Our Giraffe.

(Oh, yes, since you ask, I am indeed at work on a new libretto.)

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Charles Flowers is the librettist for the new three-act opera, Our Giraffe, with music by Sorrel Hays. The work is one of ten chosen from 80 submissions by the New York City Opera’s VOX program. A public reading of selected scenes will be given at 2 p.m. on May 10 at New York University’s Skirball Center. A synopsis and seven musical excerpts are available here.