Religious notions of the devil, or Satan, almost always conjure up visions of an impish red man with a menacing grin on his face and horns protruding from his head, carrying a big pitchfork and beckoning people toward hell. Stories about this sinister, soulless being have been around since the beginning of time, written about in thousands of books from the Bible to biographies, and seen in every art form, from paintings and posters to music and movies.
Fifty years ago, Charles Gounod’s French opera “Faust” — about a deal made between an aging man, Faust, and Méphistophélès the devil, in which Faust sells Méphistophélès his soul in return for renewed youth and pleasure — was singularly the most popular opera in the world. The San Diego Opera will stage “Faust” this month and bring the devil to the Civic Theatre downtown. Jewish philanthropists the Viterbi family will sponsor the opera, showing four times April 23-May 1.
Although the word the world has come to know as “Satan” is derived from the Hebrew “haSatan” (literally “the Satan,” which translates to “the accuser” in English), the Jewish concept of evil and Satan are not as much of the world sees them.
“When it comes to evil in the world, unlike Christianity, which believes [humans are born and remain sinners], in Judaism, we are not born evil,” says Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Michael Berk. “Neither are we born all good. But rather we are born with potential that can be nurtured toward the good…or toward the not-so-good.” According to traditional Christian belief, Satan is a fallen angel who went to the “bad” side and rebelled against God, whose arrogance moved him to want to rule Heaven himself, and whose ultimate goal is to lead people away from God and goodness. The Talmud explains that Satan is an agent of God and has no independent existence.
“Satan is the Angel of Death,” explains Rabbi Chalom Boudjnah of Chabad near San Diego State University. “And the one thing he is interested in is heaven and hell, but it is not the same hell Christians believe in. The fire is not from a little demon poking at you, but the fire of shame, the embarrassment in front of God.
“Satan is responsible for the Yetzer HaRa (evil inclination). But there is a big difference between the Yetzer HaRa and Satan. Satan can never be elevated. Satan isn’t about us being lazy or doing whatever we want without any restrictions, but an intentional act of evil. Hashem gives us free will to do whatever we want, and He created evil to tempt us, to create a challenge.”
Temptation is a running theme in “Faust,” the fictional story based on the legend of magician/alchemist/philosopher Dr. Johann Georg Faust, who lived in Germany in the 15th century. In the tale, Faust is an aging man who strikes a deal with the demon Méphistophélès to become young and free with the opportunity to pursue his love interest, Marguerite, a beautiful young woman.
In today’s world, “Faust” has come to mean a person whose pride and arrogance lead to his eventual downfall and doom. This story of one man’s downfall, a result of faith lost and the devilish pact made as a result, will be related in Gounod’s version of “Faust,” part of the San Diego Opera’s 46th International Season.
Gounod himself was a religious man who had at one point considered entering a Paris seminary to become a priest in the late 1840s. He never did do that. Instead, about 10 years later, in 1859, Gounod’s version of “Faust” premiered in the form of an opera with spoken dialogue.
“The story is kind of a morality tale, that if we choose the easy way, choose the evil way and stop striving for goodness and answers and solutions to the problems in our lives, everything will be destroyed,” explains Nicolas Reveles, San Diego Opera director of education. Reveles and Rabbi Berk had a community conversation at Congregation Beth Israel last fall, called “Faust, Mephistopheles, Angels, Demons and the Problem of Evil.”
Reveles made the connection several times during the talk about how the story of Faust is still relevant in today’s world as well as how the arts, and opera in particular, are still an important part of the world today.
“The stories are universal and on so much of what we deal with still today,” he said at the talk. The term “Faustian” has come to mean a tarnished deal for worldly power at the expense of a spiritual value, which is still very applicable to modern society.
“The whole concept of signing a pact with the devil is contemporary, still with us today,” Reveles says. The Opera educator pointed out a recent story about global dependence on oil and the affected plight of those who are forced to live under harsh regimes where oil is king, as written about in The (London) Independent.
In that Feb. 25 story, the writer opines, “The world is reaping the consequences of bad geopolitical decisions going back decades. After the Second World War, the West entered into a Faustian bargain with autocratic Middle Eastern regimes. We would buy their oil exports and turn a blind eye to the repression of their populations. In return, they would buy Western-manufactured weapons and luxury goods. China has made a similar bargain with repressive regimes more recently. But the Arab revolutions are upsetting those deals.” Of course, the Middle East isn’t the only region where certain segments of the populace are treated inhumanely. Rabbi Berk explains that there is always “the evil potential inside human beings” but that “the whole purpose of religion is to…become the kind of mighty person who channels the energy of our inclinations to the ‘good’ side.” Regarding the Jewish ideas of the Yetzer HaRa and the Yetzer HaTov (the good inclination), Berk uses science fiction TV show “Star Treck” to illustrate the concepts.
“There is this incredible episode where Captain Kirk (played by the Jewish William Shatner) is beamed back aboard the spaceship Enterprise and goes through an ionic storm. He ends up in a dual universe, a parallel universe, and there he becomes separated into the two inclinations. The good side of him gets sent to an evil universe, the evil side gets sent to a good universe. Good Kirk was like a blob of JELL-O. What we saw was that the combination of [good and evil] made him the courageous, valiant Captain Kirk we know.
“Rabbis say we need that Yetzer HaRa. What can we learn from that? That Judaism doesn’t excuse our foibles. Our purpose as human beings is to overcome them. An ‘accuser’ can only try to tempt you to develop the bad inside of you. While most of us are weak at some level, persons of faith can stand up to anything.”
Reveles notes that the conclusion of Gounod’s “Faust” is not the same as other versions of the story, including the one on which it is loosely based — Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s Part One. Goethe’s was written in two parts, and while Reveles admires its philosophical bent and its beautifully written poetry, it is far more gruesome than Gounod’s five-act story.
“Gounod leaves the fate of Faust up to us, leaves a question in our minds, which is always good,” Reveles says. “The great thing, as in any great work of art, is that it puts a mirror up to the audience and says, ‘This is us. You could very easily be here. What is your choice? What would you do?’”
The San Diego Opera has four performances this month of “Faust” — at 7 p.m. April 23 and April 26; 8 p.m. April 29; and 2 p.m. May 1. The opera, last performed by the San Diego Opera 10 years ago, will be performed in French, with English translations above the Civic’s stage. The husband-wife team of tenor Stephen Costello as Faust and soprano Ailyn Pérez as Marguerite will be joined by bass-baritone Greer Grimsley as the dastardly Méphistophélès. These performances mark the eighth time the San Diego Opera has staged “Faust.” Other performance years were 1966, 1970, 1974, 1980, 1981 (in Palm Springs), 1988 and 2001.
Single tickets for “Faust” can be purchased by calling (619) 533-7000 or by going to www.sdopera.com. The San Diego Opera’s free Stars in the Salon, formerly known as the Artists’ Roundtable, will be at 5:30 p.m. April 14 in the Civic Theatre’s Beverly Sills Salon. The informal panel discussion will allow the public to meet the “Faust” singers, conductor Karen Keltner and stage director David Gately. A broadcast of “Faust” is scheduled to appear on KPBS Radio (89.5 FM / 89.1 FM La Jolla / 97.7 FM Calexico) at 7 p.m. on Sunday, June 11.
It’s a Faustian World
The concept of selling one’s soul to the devil as heard in the 19th-century opera “Faust” is one for the ages. References to the story and its characters, it seems, will forever take their place in popular culture.
Four fairly recent places the Faustian influence can be found:
In his 2007 book, “Lyrics by Sting,” the former front man of The Police says his song “Wrapped Around Your Finger” is “vaguely alchemical and probably about a friend of mine, a professional psychic and my tutor in tarot, with bits of Doctor Faustus and ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ thrown into the pot for good measure.”
Sting’s Faustian lyrics include: “Mephistopheles is not your name/But I know what you’re up to just the same” and “Devil in the deep blue sea behind me/Vanish in the air, you’ll never find me/I will turn your face to alabaster/Then you’ll find your servant is your master.”
The 1981 Academy Award-winning film from Hungary, “Mephisto” is an adaptation of the story of Méphistophélès and Doctor Faustus in which the main character, a German actor, in effect sells his soul to the Nazi Party to achieve his dream of portraying the devil in a Faustian play.
In “Crossroads,” a 1986 film starring Ralph Macchio, the main character, a classical guitar player, finds out about a pact with the devil made by one of his Blues-playing guitar heroes; he is later challenged by the devil as well in a similar deal.
Randy Newman produced a musical theater piece and two-disc rock opera CD on Faust in 1993, in which he borrowed from Goethe’s version and Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” The play was performed at the La Jolla Playhouse as well as Chicago’s Goodman Theater. The CD included appearances by James Taylor, Don Henley, Elton John, Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt.