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Friday, September 29, 2017

The Changing Face of Evil

Offenbach, Stephen King and the Man in Black.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Randall Flagg? Walter O'Dim? Richard Fannin? He's the villain of Stephen King's The Dark Tower.
Art by Jae Lee © Marvel Comics. Character © 1978 Stephen King.
Jacques Offenbach saved his very best work for last. His final opera Les contes d'Hoffmann (playing at the Metropolitan Opera this week) was left incomplete at his death, but quickly entered the repertory in various completed versions. Offenbach based the opera on three stories by the author/poet/composer E.T.A. Hoffmann, working from a libretto that placed the poet himself as the hapless protagonist in his own stories. Standing in his way: four leading ladies (often played by two sopranos and a mezzo) and four villains, all of whom are designed to be played by the same bass-baritone.

In the Offenbach opera, we first meet the personification of Evil as "Councillor Lindorf," a government official who is Hoffmann's rival for the hand of Stella, a beautiful opera singer. She is appearing that night in Mozart's Don Giovanni and, while she gives her (offstage) perfromance, Hoffmann waits and drinks in the tavern. He is urged to tell stories to entertain the drinkers. After delving briefly into the "Tale of Kleinzach", Hoffmann agrees, and tells the story of his three lost loves, Olympia, Antoinetta and Giulietta.

Each of the stories Hofmann tells in the opera are based on tales by the real author. They include "The Sandman," in which a youth is given a pair of enchanted glasses that cause him to fall in love with the robot Olympia. She is literally torn to pieces at the end of the act. In "Rath Krespel" the doomed Antonia sings herself to death at the urging of the quack Dr. Miracle. Finally in "The Lost Reflection", the magician Dappertutto steals a young rake's image and by implication, his soul. Hoffmann himself does not appear in his own stories: this was an invention of the opera's librettists.

The idea of an enemy that changes shape and form is also central to the writings of Stephen King. In 1978, Mr. King wrote a novel called The Stand in which America, its population decimated by a mysterious plague, is forced to choose between the forces of good and the forces of evil. The bad guys are led by Randall Flagg, a "dark man" with otherworldly powers. Flagg is defeated in The Stand, but reappeared a few years later as an evil wizard in the novel The Eyes of the Dragon. Like Offenbach's evil geniuses, Flagg is a magical creature who takes on many forms and identities. His presence can be felt throughout the interconnected web of the author's many books.

In 1982, Mr. King published The Gunslinger, the first volume of The Dark Tower. This eight-book series (we're going to ignore the recent movie version here) tells the story of Roland Deschain and his quest to save reality. At its heart stands the Dark Tower itself, a construct that stands "at the nexus of all realities." Roland is a "gunslinger" (part Wild West hero and part Arthurian knight) of indeterminate age. The Dark Tower is the a linchpin between many other worlds, including the one you are living in while reading this, the Earth where Flagg and the plague wrought havoc, and an Earth that is home to Jake, Eddie, and Susannah, Roland's companions on the road to the Tower.

Standing in their way is a familiar figure: Flagg himself. In Mid-World, he is revealed to carry the names "Walter O'Dim," "Rudin Filaro," "Raymond Fiegler," "Richard Fannin," "Marten Broadcloak" and a few others. (His real name is "Walter Padick.") He is the primary antagonist in the first and fourth books though he appears in others as well, creating obstacles, laying traps and generally spreading evil. Like the villains of Offenbach's operas, he is always recognizable to the reader, and yet unlike poor hapless Hoffmann, Roland and his party always know that it is Randall/Walter/Marten that they are dealing with.

The ending of both works is ambiguous. In the opera, Hoffmann gets very drunk and is abandoned by the faithless Stella. She leaves on the arm of Lindorf. He starts writing, inspired by his muse to continue forward. Are these new tales he is telling or is he writing down the ones we've just seen? As for Roland, he and his company start the final novel of the series by saving life of a Maine author named Stephen King. Roland and Susannah confront evil and the hero makes it all the way to the Dark Tower. There, as in the opera, the story starts over. Roland finds himself in the desert, once more chasing the Man in Black. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.