In the more than 30 years that I have been going to the opera, in no opera house, on any continent, have I seen a production that used the quintessential Wagnerian stereotype: The pseudo-Viking horned helmet. And yet this remains perhaps the most common, easily accessed, widely disseminated image of opera, parodied and lampooned, circulating in old cartoons and movies, mocked and recycled, and perpetuated by people who love and hate opera alike. It is the classic example of a Zombie Cultural Symbol.
There are others: The elderly librarian with horned-rim glasses shushing even a pin-drop of noise, the mad scientist exulting over a test tube of bubbling toxins, the Dalmatian as the firehouse mascot, the parrot on the pirate’s shoulder. Sometimes these things circulate because they become embedded in a harmless fiction of the past (the mythical pirate) or have nostalgic charm (the Dalmatian). But many of them circulate with rapaciously undead and destructive power, caricaturing vital and living traditions with ideas that haven’t had currency for decades. Often, they attach themselves to groups that pursue things that seem culturally marginal or esoteric (like opera), or are perceived as closed off from or hostile to popular culture — think of the caricatures that still attach to nuns.
And strangely, the Zombie Cultural Symbol inspires a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. That’s certainly the case with the horned helmet. Google the words “opera isn’t about horned helmets” and you will find large and respectable professional opera companies perpetuate the image as a straw man, which they then hope to knock down. “This isn’t who we really are.” And yet you can sometimes find plastic knockoffs of the helmet sold in opera gift shops, and it’s not uncommon for people to wear them (ironically, one assumes) to opera premieres or fundraising balls. Unable to kill off the image, opera companies embrace it. But the embrace is fraught, and one senses futility and defeat in it: If you can’t beat them, join them.
Like many Zombie Symbols, there is a kernel of truth, but even that truth is based on a fiction. The horned helmet was basically invented (torn out of its limited historical context and radically repurposed) during the last quarter of the 19th century to flesh out a nascent sense of Nordic identity in Germany. As Roberta Frank explains in a 2000 scholarly article, “The Invention of the Viking Horned Helmet,” the costume device gained currency after the 1876 premiere of Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung,” at Bayreuth. But it was part of a cultural stew of images and devices that had little basis in fact: “Wagner’s Ring commingled Old Norse and Middle High German motifs, creating an impression, which has endured, that Valkyries and norns, Valhalla and the twilight of the gods, were timelessly German.”
The helmet, popularized by Carl Emil Doepler’s original Ring Cycle costume designs, was part of a cultural mania, ongoing for a century at least, among Europeans to invent culture through art. In some cases, the fraud was entire, as in the infamous “Ossian” poems, a pseudo-Scottish national epic published in 1760 and passed off as genuine ancient poetry. In other cases, it was a matter of consolidating folk culture into nationalist literature, such as the “Kalevala,” which helped Finns fight for their cultural identity. Scholars, poets, composers, artists and theater designers all participated in a process that was often shamelessly ungrounded in historic fact.
Within a few decades, the horned helmet image had gone viral and migrated to popular culture as a generic image of Wagner’s mythical world, and by extension the craze for all things Viking. “Mass-produced children’s books were an ideal medium for imprinting the image on the popular imagination,” writes Frank.
So little surprise that one of the most popular and enduring uses of the horned helmet is the classic 1957 Warner Bros. cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?,” in which the ever-transgressive Bugs Bunny plays Brünnhilde in drag, wearing what was in the 18th century the more common “Viking” helmet adorned with large wings. Elmer Fudd wears the now dominant horned helmet. But like the enormous difference between an off-color joke told by and among people of a subculture, and the same joke told maliciously by a dominant group to mock a subordinate or vulnerable one, the horned helmet in 1957 was more of a loving, insider’s joke. Chuck Jones, the great cartoon director, knew his opera.
As opera became more marginal and culturally endangered, the Zombie Symbol took on an uglier edge. It has been at least a half-century, or more, since the horned helmet has been regularly seen in Wagner productions. By the 100th anniversary of the “Ring,” director Patrice Chereau’s 1976 staging set the opera in the industrial age, and if the horned helmet wasn’t already dead, this production definitively killed off any reflexive use of the old iconography. To use it today would be seen as a radical act of antiquarianism in the opera house.
But google the image, and you see its Zombie powers. It is frequently worn by large women who embody another operatic stereotype. So the horned helmet went from its original association with some of the more menacing male characters in the “Ring” to an icon associated with the well-worn quip “It’s not over until the Fat Lady sings.” It is used to ridicule, with a good dose of misogyny and body shaming thrown in.
But its real target is the art form itself, and worse, any culture practice that nurtures a traditional and esoteric language of expression. It is a preemptive form of mockery designed to shame and embarrass people who love an ancient and sometimes arcane art form. Opera companies that use it as a straw man against stereotypes do more harm than good, perpetuating a lazy paradigm (perception vs. reality) for explaining the art form; journalists, especially those not particularly sympathetic to opera, have too often been complicit in this now hackneyed trope of cultural writing.
In the end, the horned helmet creates an argument (“opera is old fashioned and ridiculous”) that can’t be won, and it does so in bad faith, because this sort of thing isn’t about ignorance, but rather anti-intellectual hostility. It obviously has nothing to do with what happens in the contemporary opera house, and hasn’t for longer than most opera-goers have been alive.