A question for knowledgeable Wagnerians. Could one of you explain to me, please, the origin of the deeply irritating and misleading "woman in horns" image which, along with caricatures of Luciano Pavarotti, seems long to have been the stock illustration — verbal and visual — of opera. Who is she, and who gave her horns?
I mean, I assume she's meant to be Brünnhilde, but as far as I can see, Brünnhilde's helmet has wings, not horns.
After all, she's a Valkyrie, not a Viking I stand corrected — an email from somebody who, unlike me, actually knows (a lot) about these things points out that Valkyries are, in fact, Vikings. I guess what I meant was that she's not one a cartoon Viking warrior; anyway, Vikings apparently didn't go about it horned helmets either. Every time I come across an instance of this — especially from a source which ought to know better — I want to scream. The "woman in horns" exemplifies all that apparently drives people away from opera, so why oh why do I see it on products (books, CDs, etc.) apparently designed to draw more people in? Why not a photo of Anna Netrebko in her Salzburg Traviata dress? Maybe not exactly that, but you know what I mean — if you're trying to convince people to abandon their preconceptions, stop perpetuating the damn things. Surprise them. Say yes, this is opera too and it's not nearly so laughable or so disconcerting as that creature in the horns.
I've been troubled by this for a while. Well, forever really. I bring it up today because I've seen a newly published book by Brian Castles-Onion titled Losing the Plot in Opera. A (very) quick flick suggests it may actually be quite readable and not infested with myths and clichés — the first page I opened to at random mentioned Anna Moffo, which is a reasonably good sign — but the cover caused me (and this isn't poetic license — I was unobserved at the time) to stomp my feet like a two year old and seethe. I don't blame Mr Castles-Onion for the cover. I do blame Exisle. Look, I understand that it's a very recognisable image. A large woman in a cheap Viking costume makes people think opera even before they read the title. It doesn't follow, however, that this is a happy state of affairs. Time for a change — it has to start somewhere.
Update: As the above-mentioned email and comments below indicate, the whole question of horns, both on Vikings and on Wagnerian characters, is evidently far more complex (and downright interesting) than I had imagined. Not at all a simple case of black-and-white anachronisms or error. But the other half of this rant remains unclouded; however complex her horns might be, the woman wearing them still ain't a fair or useful representation of the infinite variety of opera.