I’m not a real opera buff, but there are certain operas I listen to over and over. I love Carmen because that’s all we studied in my fourth year high school French class. Tosca is near and dear to my heart because a co-worker who was an opera fanatic walked me through the elements of the libretto and score. Die Fledermaus is light and fun and Willie Stark an awesome three dimensional examination of a flawed conflicted man. Because of my fascination with myths and legends, the four operas in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle are particular favorites.
This past summer, I listened to Live at the Met performances of the entire Ring. In one of the between act discussions I learned of a contemporary African-American adaptation of the first opera, Das Rheingold. In that version of the opera, the sought-after gold is James Brown’s first gold record. This inspired me to try my hand at an adaptation of my own. My version would be set during the Reconstruction/Gilded Age.
Imagine my surprise and dismay as I grappled with the issue of incest in the second opera, Die Walkure/Die Valkyrie. Incest? Really? Yikes. But how on earth could I have been surprised after all the times I’ve listened to or seen this work performed? Had the beauty of the music and the splendid interpretations of the artists somehow pushed the issue to the background? Or had my attention instead been focused not on the taboo, but on an injustice highlighted in the story?
I read an article that explained Wagner intended to set true love in the taboo of incest against the immortality of society’s support of loveless arranged and abusive marriages. How could I not side with Sieglinde’s search for true love? How could I condemn her for finding it with her brother Siegmund when her husband Hundig is such a pig? Wagner’s critics and audience agreed. Die Walkure/Die Valkyrie met with tremendous approval when it premiered in 1870 with only one contemporary critic insulted by the absence of morality in the storyline.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines a taboo as “a prohibition imposed by social custom or as a protective measure,” “something that is not acceptable to say, mention, or do,” and “a prohibition against touching, saying, or doing something for fear of immediate harm from a supernatural force.”
As noble as Wagner’s intent is/was, I couldn’t bring myself to emulate it in my story. I’m not saying Wagner felt incest shouldn’t be taboo. Come on. Who of you out there isn’t creeped out any time you hear Donald Trump’s quote about Ivanka, “If she wasn’t my daughter, I’d date her” or that picture of teenaged Ivanka sitting on daddy’s lap? Shudder. Double ick.
I admire Wagner using his art to force his audience to think about why they railed against incest but didn’t have an equal amount of outrage about marriage as a tool of oppression. No guts, no glory, right?
Using a taboo to throw a spotlight on the hypocrisy of a societal practice is an integral part of Die Valkyrie‘s story. If I want to craft an adaptation worth telling, worth reading, I had to find a way to use a taboo to focus on an issue of injustice. I found my answer in my setting. The taboo in my story wouldn’t be incest but miscegenation.
Anti-miscegenation laws were only one of the vehicles used to control non-Whites everywhere in the United States — and especially the newly freed Blacks — during the Reconstruction/Gilded Era years. It wasn’t until 1948 that a ban on interracial marriage was struck down for the first by the California Supreme Court (Perez v. Sharp) and not until 1967 were bans on interracial marriage declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court (Loving v. Virginia). Miscegenation would be the perfect taboo to use in my story about the struggle of African-Americans to survive and thrive in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
I don’t know if my story will have the power and beauty of Wagner’s or any of the works other artists have crafted to enlighten as well as entertain, but at the very least I hope my story will celebrate the triumphs of former slaves and African-Americans born free who claimed their share of the American dream.
One Breath Away
Sentenced to hang for a crime she didn’t commit, former slave Mary Hamilton was exonerated at literally the last gasp. She returns to Safe Haven, broken and resigned to live alone. She’s never been courted, cuddled or spooned, and now no man could want her, not when sexual satisfaction comes only with the thought of asphyxiation. But then the handsome stranger who saved her shows up, stealing her breath from across the room and promising so much more.
Wealthy, freeborn-Black, Eban Thurman followed Mary to Safe Haven, believing the mysteriously exotic woman is his mate foretold by the stars. He must marry her to reclaim his family farm. But first he must help her heal, and to do that means revealing his own predilection for edgier sex.
Hope ignites along with lust until the past threatens to keep them one breath away from love…
Pastor Morton’s wagon pulled away from Harvest Home’s front porch only after Mary bolted her cabin door.
She lit the kerosene lamp then waved goodbye to him and his passengers through the window. The lamp remained on the sill, not in welcome but in warning.
Its glow flickered over the revolver she kept nearby. She’d been taken by surprise in Weston. She’d never be taken without a fight again.
She gave the gun barrel a pat then skipped toward the kitchen, a spring in her step. A hope in her heart. The refrain of Good Night Ladies played happily in her mind.
Good night ladies. Good night ladies. Good night ladies, we have to leave you now.
Home at last, she’d see if meeting Eban meant this night would be good.
Since her ordeal, her sex rivaled the Chihuahuan Desert in dryness. Yet Eban’s gaze had summoned the fragrant flow that even now moistened her core. Could it be her body had finally healed? She swayed, dizzy with expectation.