Seattle Opera’s General Director Aidan Lang introduces the opera which first made him a Wagnerite as a small child. Listen to or read this downloadable podcast to learn more about this beloved opera and the grippingly dramatic (and intermissionless!) production which is coming to Seattle.
Welcome, everyone. I’m Aidan Lang, the General Director, speaking to you today on The Flying Dutchman, Der fliegende Holländer.
We started the 15/16 season with Verdi’s young piece, Nabucco, and we’re finishing it, bookending it if you like, with Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. Both pieces were works which really provided the breakthrough for their composers. In the case of Wagner and The Flying Dutchman it marked the first work in which we see opera as being something beyond just storytelling. It’s very interesting to look at The Flying Dutchman from the audience’s point of view: what is your role in the overall evening? This is quite a challenging piece, precisely because it works at many layers beyond simply that of its narrative. The audience has a part to play in the way the piece is interpreted, and that probably means that everybody who sees this production will get something very different out of it, depending on how each individual wants to engage with the work. The audience’s response to a Wagner work has to be more than just working at a narrative level, because he imbued his works with numerous ideas which he expected you, as an audience member, to connect with in some way.
What’s it about?
Fundamentally this is an opera about two characters, the Dutchman and Senta. Even the former boyfriend, Erik, exists at a secondary level to those two characters. It is about this strange meeting, this longing for redemption on the one part, of the Dutchman, and the longing to redeem on the part of Senta. So these two characters are destined to come together. At the heart it’s the yearning for peace and salvation which drives the Dutchman every seven years to find his night in port and hope that he’ll find a woman whose undying love for him will lift the curse which rests on him. And in the case of Senta, a strange character, whose mission in life, whose express purpose seems to be to find a solution to this mythical character’s dilemma. Both characters are in their ways outsiders.
Is it fair to call The Flying Dutchman “a great gateway drug to Wagner”?
So I think Dutchman is a good choice for first-time Wagnerians. It is shorter, it lasts about maybe 2 hours 20 minutes or so, which is about the length of a slightly longer feature film. But it is an opera which does move in a more conventional narrative sense than, say, Tristan, much later on. It has the famous overture, which will be familiar to people.
It’s got a much more overtly tonal musical style as well, so people who think Wagner’s music is difficult—swirling around in a seemingly unstructured manner—have nothing to fear here, because the musical numbers are more clearly defined as such.
Tell us about your own history with Wagner.
For me, my first Wagner moment was indeed The Flying Dutchman. My mother worked for Decca, which is London Records here in the States. she was able to get a hearty discount on classical recordings, which Decca produced. So at the age of...I must have been about 8, I guess...I decided I needed to listen to a Wagner opera, and The Flying Dutchman was the opera of my choice, I liked the title! And I can remember to this day putting on my LP, it was the Antal Dorati recording, with George London. And I remember putting it on and thinking, “I’ll just dabble with this,” and absolutely going through the whole thing without stop. The 2 hours 20 minutes passed in a flash. So that was my first encounter, and I listened to it very, very many times. I’m sure I wore the LPs thin. And from then onwards I was fairly hooked, from a very, very early age. So I think it has a lot of good starting points to the overall Wagner experience.
What do hardcore Wagnerites love about The Flying Dutchman?
I think what they see in it is the embryonic idea of a drama based on idea as much as narrative. And of course there are moments where we get glimpses of the harmonic language which is to come. So it’s very much a transition work; his previous opera was a grand opera called Rienzi, written for the Paris Opéra and very much in the grand French operatic style, which he then rejected.
Why do we play this opera without an intermission?
Wagner always said that he intended the work to be performed as one span. He never saw that in his lifetime, and the first time it was done in the version without an interval was I believe in Bayreuth at the express command of Cosima, his wife. What interests me is the amendment to the score which Wagner made in the light of writing Tristan. He famously said that, having written Tristan, he then knew how to complete Dutchman, musically how to express what he wanted to express in the final moments. We hear that at the very end of the overture and we hear it at the very end of the opera. As soon as we move to the altered version with the new, longer dramatic paragraphs, it’s clear that the one-act version, the uninterrupted-span version, is much more appropriate to that later musical version. What we gain from the uninterrupted span is that the piece as a whole becomes tighter and we then feel it much more within the tradition of works that we see later. Actually the evening passes by very quickly precisely because we have a sense of the piece as a whole rather than a story which needs a break from time to time. The piece gains immensely in terms of its momentum and its drive from using the uninterrupted span.
This production, which originated at the Canadian Opera Company, is expressly designed to be performed without intermission, and Seattle Opera, in bringing this production to our public, are performing it without a break. Purely from a practical point of view therefore, I would urge you not to be late for this performance. And there won’t be a bathroom break in the middle—so please go to the bathroom before you take your seats!
Does it matter where and when this piece takes place?
In the score there’s a stated setting of this community somewhere in Norway. However—is the piece really about that? No, I don’t think it is. I think it’s about its community; but to set it in that community in a very naturalistic way ceases to have the importance it would have had back in the 1840s. And I think this is a really important point because for Wagner, the work was not about its setting. It was about its meaning. And that’s really what defines Wagner and makes him so interesting for us today and so ahead of his time, as a dramatist. And the funny thing is, the theater language which got liberated in the post-Second World War years, especially through the work of Wieland Wagner at Bayreuth, gave to Wagner’s works a new visual life which Wagner would have said, “Yes, at last, something’s happening! My works are being given the space I always intended but didn’t know how to express visually.” And therefore I think we need to respect productions which in their own way and with their own visual language attempt to allow us to see into the inner workings of the piece rather than working strictly at a naturalistic narrative level.
We see it very clearly with Senta, who lives on a completely different plane from those with which she interacts in her life at home. This community...first of all it’s men and it’s women. Its men are out at sea, and its women work mending nets and creating sails, sewing, providing the wherewithal for their men to go live this dangerous life at sea, which brings back the trade and brings back the resources for the community to exist. Senta’s father Daland is captain of the ship, but she has this boyfriend, Erik, he’s a hunter, he has a different existence, he’s a sort of landlocked version of the resource-gatherers, the hunters who go out to sea on the merchant ship, to bring back money through trade. And I see something of a difference between the romantic allure and the danger of the sea and someone who goes in completely the opposite direction, out into the forest, whose life is not really romantic and who’s very locked into a rather prosaic vision of what man and wife should be. All the other women in this community have husbands or lovers living this dangerous life, and Erik is the complete opposite, he’s a stay-at-home. Although they are in a relationship, Senta’s feelings go in a completely different direction; she’s drawn not only by the passion and power of the sea but also a figure who has challenged its power through his pact with the Devil, if you like; he’s the Super-Sailor, the one who will not be beaten by nature. The Dutchman has taken this life right to its edge, to its ultimate. That’s part of the allure of the Dutchman to Senta, as opposed to her boyfriend back on dry land.
It’s his desire to hang onto Senta which is important, it’s his function in the story. The Dutchman, in overhearing a conversation between Erik and Senta in the third act, it’s that which tips him over the edge and he feels he’s been betrayed, he’s about to sail off, and Senta goes after him. So there is a kind of triangle in place. Senta and the Dutchman are operating on such a higher level than Erik. Erik’s function is to act as a catalyst to the denoument.
There are certain links between Senta and her slightly unhinged nature and those of those heroines of the bel canto genre. Wagner hugely admired Bellini. The piece also draws on the slightly supernatural nature of some of the German operas, Marschner’s The Vampire (Der Vampyr) and of course Der Freischütz. Weber was a close family friend of Wagner’s father, used to come to Sunday lunch, apparently, and Wagner had a toy theater he used to play on with sets from Der Freischütz on it. He knew this tradition very well and certainly there’s a part of Dutchman where he’s writing in that supernatural tradition: a form of story telling which is heightened and in which the hysteria, the heightened emotion of particularly the female protagonists, plays a part in the audience’s experience.
Tell us a bit about the production we’re presenting. Is this a ‘modern’ production?
We made the decision to bring to our stage a production by the internationally acclaimed American director Christopher Alden. This production originated in the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto in 1996. It’s been revived many, many times. This isn’t Christopher’s debut at Seattle Opera, he presented a production of Don Giovanni in 1991 which I know Speight to this day claims as one of the finest things Seattle Opera ever presented, even though it was controversial at its time. Now, 1996; we’re at 2016. It would be wrong to claim that this is a state of the art thing, because the production has been around for a time. Nonetheless I think its power completely remains. Audiences now are more used to seeing a more abstracted view of opera. A lot of people, when they think of a ‘modern’ opera, just in terms of modern dress, and for me that’s not what ‘modern opera’ or a modern opera production is about at all. Many modern-dress productions are simply a dressing on a fairly straightforward reading of the work. For me a modern production is one which brings the meaning from a simply subliminal level to be presented directly onto the stage, one which goes beyond its naturalistic framework and actually challenges us to think about what the piece is actually about.
Often it’s claimed that impressionism was the beginning of modern art. And what was happening there? Painters were going beyond the literal presentation of whatever the subject was, water lilies or a bridge or whatever, and making our feelings more explicit, in other words bringing our emotions to the forefront, and in a sense that’s exactly what happens with a modern production. It brings to the surface our thoughts, our feelings, and makes them more explicit, rather than simply telling a story. Now as I said earlier, that’s what Wagner was trying to do with all his great works. He was asking us to feel and to think.
I’m always taken by a similarity between The Flying Dutchman and a poem by Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The Ancient Mariner ends with a statement which I think encapsulates what art is meant to be about. It’s a long narrative poem written in rather deliberately obscure English, in which a Wedding-Guest encounters this sailor who is cursed (obvious similarities with the Dutchman). The poem ends with the final stanza by Coleridge, in which the Wedding-Guest is described as waking up the following morning as “a sadder and a wiser man.” This man has undergone the experience of art. He’s heard this compelling story, and he’s gone through emotion and thought. And that really is the essence of the artistic experience: a marriage between emotion and thought. Some works veer more toward the thought side and some works veer more toward emotion. And I think it’s fair to say of Wagner, that we have to view his works with the thought-element of that dichotomy very much at the forefront of our minds.
And I think what Christopher’s production of this opera does very strongly is make clear a number of ideas. Every director works in a different way; what I think is fascinating about Christopher’s work is the way he doesn’t hammer home a point. He allows you, the audience, a lot of space to make your own personal connection. He works as much by allusion as by statement. He hints at things: it may be a period, it may be a style, it may be a thought; but it still gives you the audience space to interpret that in your own way. And the range of his allusions is often quite broad. It may be a small design detail used just to suggest some historical basis, some incident, or some emotion. The whole evening is somewhat like a collage, with a number of different ideas and influences, all there to encourage you the audience to connect with the piece in a very personal way, rather than saying “This is MY version, my vision of the piece as an artist, and you will respond the way I want you to.” Christopher gives us space to make our own ideas. To reject some of the ideas put onstage and to accept others. He’d be the first person to say: “That’s ok.”
And that’s exactly why I think Wagner would have really loved this production, because he was a man of so many ideas, often conflicting ideas. We see it very strongly in his writings as well as in his works. Wagner would have absolutely got this production, precisely because it’s not didactic, because it is so rich in its ideas, and his works are so rich in their ideas. When people say to me, “Oh, you know, it’s not what the composer intended!” my answer is always “Actually, something like this is PRECISELY what Wagner intended. Yes, it’s not trying to replicate 1840s stagecraft or stage pictures. As I’ve said, this piece is not about that. This piece is about what is contained within.
This production has many wonderful coups de théâtre, which I don’t want to spoil for you. It’s almost like a box of tricks; it’s a stage set which does a number of things as required by the various scenes or the needs of the character, and at the same time works as a single space which contains its people. It suggests a very closed, conformist society, which rejects those who don’t accord with it. But at the same time, by the use of very expressive lighting, use of effects, it provides for an ever-changing visual picture. It’s very, very striking to look at. The fact that it’s constantly in a state of flux, reflecting the mood and state of the characters’ journeys, makes for a very compelling evening in the theater.
Every piece has its own secrets. Part of my job is to find a creative team who will bring out the mysteries of that particular piece. It’s absolutely not our intention here at Seattle Opera to make every piece the same. It’s to give a huge variety of experiences to people. Here I am recording this podcast; this very afternoon we’re having a final presentation of the designs for our next production, Count Ory. No two productions could be more dissimilar than what you will experience here with Flying Dutchman as to what you’ll experience next season with Count Ory. And what the team for Count Ory have given is something which is completely appropriate to the zany fun of that piece and completely different to this very intense and serious opera and a very intense and serious reading of it. I love our audiences to have variety, and in time to understand that what we’re doing is curating an experience which is appropiate to each piece. And every single piece has different needs.
Tell us what you love about the Dutchman’s music.
Of course one side of this piece is the fantastic orchestral writing and the fantastic writing for the chorus. We have a big chorus for this piece; I think we have 62 at last count. We need a split chorus for the Norwegians’ chorus and the Dutchman’s chorus for Act Three; I think it’s slightly more men than women, because of the vocal needs. But the choral writing and indeed the choral acting is indeed a hugely compelling part of this opera, as indeed is the wonderful orchestral writing as well.
The famous overture gets us off to a great start. It’s a very challenging work for the singers as well. I have a personal theory that probably this piece, in the 1840s, would have been performed a notch lower than modern pitch. I remember the singer who sang Dutchman for me in New Zealand, about three years ago, saying it’s got something like 65 top E-naturals. Erik lies high, Senta lies high. All three roles are very much on the edge of their voices, which adds to that excitement as well. It gives this very thrilling vocal experience, because all the singers are thinking, “Oh, my God, ANOTHER top E coming, here we go, I’ve got to do it.” So it makes for a very exciting evening, and one that really flies past. I said how we’re performing without interval, but honestly, just like a very engaging movie, this opera is over before you know where you are. Because it’s drive is so relentlessly onward.
And we’re very pleased to feature Sebastian Lang-Lessing, who made his debut at the wonderful gala concert for Speight when he retired. To give an experienced Wagnerian the opportunity to conduct a production here was one we didn’t really want to pass up. He has a real sense of drama to what he does, and momentum, so I think we’re in for musically a very thrilling evening indeed.
So to close I’d like to think that, hearkening back to my 8- or 9-year-old self when I set out on an adventure by putting my LPs on the turntable to listen to this piece, and being blown away by its verve and its drive, that’s what I hope that our first-time Wagnerians will experience with it: be amazed by its energy and its passion and its fascinating look at the depth of the human psyche, and experienced Wagnerians who maybe don’t know this production will be taken by its seriousness of purpose and its extraordinary and compelling theatricality combined with risk-taking and clear evidence of a very serious mind at work.