Sunday, May 04, 2008

Mozart meets Iron Man

(a reflection on THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO by the Atlanta Opera and the film adaptation of Marvel Comics' character IRON MAN)

At the opera Friday night, the house glittered with grey hair and jewelry. At the movie theatre Saturday afternoon, it was tee shirts, low-riding pants, and sports shoes. I wander into both venues feeling out of place. Where is my demographic, those who know Tony Stark as well as they know Count Almaviva?

For movies like IRON MAN are grand opera in the original sense of that phrase, "huge operations" that re-tell myths. In one way, the movie is like a chamber drama, because most of the screen time is devoted to close ups of four actors and one lovely actress, with time out for panoramic views of metallic suits flying supersonically, and some huge explosions. But the end credits, though rolling by faster than a guy can read them, take nearly ten minutes to scroll past, crammed with names of technicians, artists, and plain old gofers who made the story happen so convincingly on screen. In the same way, Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte put together FIGARO a 250 years ago, and their four-hour entertainment has only eight or nine characters. But behind them are several dozen musicians, coaches, designers, builders, managers, etc. etc.

All their planning pays off. In FIGARO, we might not appreciate all the concentration that goes into the very soft sustained note that the Countess sings in her lament for love lost, or the precision in the ensemble singing, or the physical mannerisms that made me forget that "Cherubino" was a woman playing a boy. In IRON MAN it was the editing that made the process of Tony Stark's piecing together his iron suit -- well, riveting. Both operas plant seeds in early scenes that pay off much later: the lack of a seal on an official document and a hair pin in FIGARO, a tendency for the iron suit to accumulate ice at 85,000 feet in IRON MAN. There's skill in the making, and fun in the skill.

The fun touches us also because it touches on deeply-held myths. In FIGARO, it's the myth of romance, a pleasant belief that affairs of the heart are all that really matter, and the characters fall neatly into the usual categories (foolish youth, romantic leads, jaded and unfaithful middle age, and foolish age). Besides that, there's political resonance to FIGARO that got it banned in Mozart's day. This Atlanta production emphasized the opera's setting in time by placing all the action between walls plastered with enlargements of two Declarations from two Revolutions, that of America's Independence (1776) and France's Rights of Man (1789). The libretto makes comic use of the aristocracy's ancient rights to control the lives, wives, and daughters of their vassals. So the story is also an even older myth, the story of the little guy (servant, trickster) who thwarts the powerful one.

IRON MAN's first act focuses intensely on stripping arrogant billionaire munitions inventor Tony Stark of all his power and possessions so that he can become the David facing a corporate Goliath. There's another myth, here, too: the careless free spirit whom the gods raise to a heroic fate. It's Prince Siddhartha becoming Buddha, it's David becoming King, it's Orestes, it's the Scarlet Pimpernel, it's George Washington, it's Joseph Schindler.

Like FIGARO, this movie also fits itself snugly into our world-view today. The filmmakers' first scene is remarkable for how quickly it situates this 60s comic book hero into America's view of itself in the world today -- and I think it does this without leaning to political right or left. We see armored vehicles, highly armored soldiers of both genders, and we see all of them as likable, good-intentioned, dedicated, professional, and strong, driving their convoy through dangerous territory in Afghanistan. They are sheltering supremely self-confident Tony Stark, who is about to be humbled by villains using his own weapons. Shortly, he becomes the armored one with good intentions, and he again suffers unintended consequences when he faces off against a super-sized version of his own super-suit, animated by the malevolent chairman of the board. This is, I think, how we all see America now: good-intentioned, guardian of all, technologically armored, and facing hostile nefarious forces that are using our own technology against us every way they can.

Both of these "operas" pause three-fourths of the way through, after non-stop action and laughs, to allow their principals to reflect on themselves. In FIGARO, the Count and the Countess each get a long time on stage alone to sing their thoughts about what they've lost and what they hope to gain, giving more meaning to the last act's farcical disguises and plots. In IRON MAN, our playboy Tony has been brought down to the point where he discovers just how naive he has been and where he must depend on his supporting cast (a Girl Friday named Pepper Potts, an air force general, a rep from a mysterious US agency SHIELD) to get through to the finale.

I never stayed awake all the way through FIGARO (it's put me to sleep since 1976, when it was the first opera I saw), and I always thought IRON MAN comics to be a downer (an alcoholic hero with heart trouble, treating his only friends like dirt to protect his secrets). But these were fun.