Am I the only one to spot the resemblance between the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics and Wagner’s Ring Cycle? Given the parallels between the two – too numerous to mention – what was director Danny Boyle, this Wagnerian in disguise, trying to tell us about our society?
The Ring’s action starts underwater, just as with the opening ceremony: ‘Isles of Wonder’, Boyle’s title for the piece, is carved on a sign at the source of the Thames (read Rhine), which is then traced all the way to the Olympic Stadium during a countdown to the ceremony itself. The Rhinemaidens - who appear in Das Rheingold (‘The Rhine Gold’), the first of the Ring Cycle’s operas – symbolise a state of nature, or prelapsarian purity, just as with Boyle’s rural idyll, in the latter case emphasised with such classics of the English repertoire as Nimrod by Elgar (with a backdrop of the shipping forecast) and William Blake’s sublime ‘Jerusalem‘.
Erupting out of this, in the section of the opening ceremony called ‘Pandemonium’, is the industrial revolution – Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’ – with Brunel as Wotan, the king of the industrialising gods. He is seen standing next to what, in the Ring, is the ‘world ash tree’, the source of all wisdom and power, from which Wotan fashioned his law-making spear. The other thing that is fashioned and forged in both is, of course, the ring - memorably so in the opening ceremony – signifying power and its incompatibility with love.
The next section of the ceremony is called ‘Happy and Glorious’ and involves the Queen, a parachute and a helicopter – surely an ironic nod to Die Walküre (‘The Valkyrie’), the next opera in the Ring Cycle, and in particular to the iconic use of its music in the film Apocalypse Now (with Buckingham Palace, then, as a modern day Valhalla?).
Eventually the Valkyrie Brünnhilde returns the ring to the Rhine maidens. Similarly the Olympic flame is brought along the Thames to Limehouse Cut, the oldest canal in London – a return then, as with the Ring, to water, and to origins.
And the whole thing ends, of course, in a great conflagration, the ceremony’s version being Thomas Heatherwick’s extraordinary cauldron. In Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), the final opera, it is Valhalla itself that burns as things come full circle. As Bryan Magee indicates, ‘the very word Götterdämmerung is now used, even in English, for any situation in which everything is cataclysmically and irretrievably destroyed.’
Is Danny Boyle making a point, then, about industrialists, financiers – and even royalty – as modern day gods, raping the natural world in pursuit of power? Is he expecting, or promoting, even, a cataclysmic turnaround in the social order, with the gods consumed by flames? Can it be read in a Buddhistic way as the triumph of love, and innate purity, over the corruptions of power, wealth and politics?
Am I reading too much into this? I’ve been watching the Olympics whilst preparing for a day on the Ring Cycle – this Saturday, at the London Buddhist Centre - exploring themes from ‘Rhinegold’. Hope you can join us.