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Not too long ago I caught a PBS broadcast of a production of one of the grandest of French operas, Hector Berlioz's “Les Troyens”. Berlioz himself wrote the libretto based on the Aeneid, a sort of Roman-centered epic poem that Virgil concocted from various sources, including a rip-roaring tale by a blind poet named Homer who may or may not have been blind or who may or may not have even existed. Either way it doesn't much matter because the story is a good one.
The first two acts of the opera center around Cassandra, the daughter of Priam who had received the gift of prophecy and then, according to which story you believe, was cursed by Apollo when she refused his attentions which turned out to be more than Platonic. The curse ran something like this – she could predict, prophesy, rant and otherwise warn about all sorts of bad things to come until she was blue in the face, but no matter what she might say no one would believe her. But that was only the half of it – for her troubles she would be insulted, branded as a liar, a mad woman or all three.
In one of her delusions she thought there was something fishy and not quite right about the gigantic wooden horse that the Greeks had wheeled up in front of the gates of the city. Right off she smelled a rat (or maybe it was the fish) and set out with an axe and a torch to destroy the thing along with any cargo that might be in the hold. The Trojans knew a certifiable mental case when they saw one and of course they stopped her before she could do any real damage. Well, to make a long story short, the horse is saved, the city isn't, and after all the fuss Cassandra is raped by Ajax the Lesser.
Later on things things get even more complicated – she's taken as a concubine by King Agamemnon of Mycenae and Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra, not at all pleased with the arrangement, takes up with Aegisthus and the two of them murder Cassandra and Agamemnon.
In 1982 the Swedish pop group ABBA were near the end of a wildly successful ten year recording and performing career and along with their final album they released two singles, one of which, while not as widely known as some of their other songs, turned out to be more prophetic than they or their fans could have known. While on tour in Germany they performed both "Sorry Cassandra" and “Under Attack” – and now, more than 30 years later through the magic of archived video recordings, you can click on the preceding link and have better than a front row seat. It helps to have good speakers, but before you listen have a look at some of the lyrics:
Down in the street they're all singing and shouting
Staying alive though the city is dead
Hiding their shame behind hollow laughter
While you are crying alone on your bed
Pity Cassandra that no one believed you
But then again you were lost from the start...
… Sorry Cassandra I misunderstood
Now the last day is dawning
Some of us wanted but none of us would
Listen to words of warning
But on the darkest of nights
Nobody knew how to fight
And we were caught in our sleep
Sorry Cassandra I didn't believe …
(and so on and so forth)
The other single (Under Attack), performed just after the short concert intermission when Anni-Frid, Björn, Benny, and Agnetha are given a splendid bouquet and otherwise made much of by the host presenter, has to do with a woman having mixed feelings about being pursued by someone she's really not too keen about. She would like to be out of the situation, but a lot of things keep getting in the way.
It's been 3000 years, more or less, since an armed band of Greeks crossed the Aegean to Asia Minor, hung around for ten years, offered an outlandish hobby horse with hidden cargo to the dim-witted citizens of Troy, and invited themselves right in.
Lately the traffic has been heading the other way – mostly small boats and rubber rafts carrying a different sort of human cargo motivated by reasons as varied as the people themselves. The news photographers tend to focus their cameras on the faces of helpless women and children landing on the beaches of Lesbos and other European stepping stones – not so much on the able-bodied adult males, many of whom straight off announce their intention to get to any of the larger cities of Germany, Sweden or some other prosperous northern European country where, they say, their worldly needs will be met and religious requirements properly observed by the dim-witted citizens of Europe.
Once in the promised land, joined by or reunited with others who have come before, the men (and some women) feel free to pursue their private dreams. What these dreams are and whether or how they may affect the lives of their hosts is a matter of on-going discussion and debate.
New Year's Eve is a good time for thinking about the past, celebrating the present, and dreaming of the future. One wonders if the joyous New Year's Eve celebrations in the streets of Cologne, Stockholm or Malmö were equally pleasant for many of the the women who were there. If ABBA had done a reunion concert on New Year's Eve in one of Stockholm's or Cologne's main parks or city squares, would they have felt up to performing “Cassandra” or “Under Attack”? Would they have been allowed to? Probably not – everyone knows that Cassandra tended to exaggerate to the point of hysteria and in all likelihood was a genuine crazy lady.
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