The Flying Dutchman

At Seattle Opera May 2016

Libretto and Music by Richard Wagner

The Story

Long Story Short:

Dreamy girl meets ancient mariner and loves him to death.

Who’s Who?

Woodcut by Gustav Doré for Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The Dutchman is a gloomy undead sea captain in search of true love. He’s been wandering the seven seas for centuries; every seven years he’s allowed to go on land to seek a bride. But any woman who marries and then betrays him is damned by his curse.

Senta is a young woman who has never really fit in among the giggly, thoughtless girls in her working-class Norwegian community. She’s obsessed with the legend of the Flying Dutchman and constantly broods over a portrait of him.

Daland, Senta’s father, is a mercenary old salt, a sea captain with an eye for a good bargain.

Erik, Senta’s boyfriend and fiancé, is a hunter and landlubber.

Mary, is an older lady who now regrets having filled young Senta’s head with ghost stories.

The Steersman is a sleepy sailor who’s looking forward to coming home to his girlfriend.

The other characters are Fishermen, Spinning-Women, and Ghosts.

Where & When?

Sandwike, a fishing village in Norway. The mythic story could take place at any time.

What’s Going On?

Behold—a ship with black mast and blood-red sails! Forever must she sweep the seas beneath the watchful eye of her pale, sleepless captain. Ages ago, his stubbornness and pride brought a terrible curse down on himself and all his crew, and now he is condemned to sail the seas forever, doomed to a tormented half-life for all of time. Only the love of a faithful woman can release him from the curse. Every seven years he is allowed to go ashore in search of redemption; but alas! every seven years he only succeeds in damning another young woman—the terrible penalty for those who can offer the Dutchman only an inconstant love. He is long since sick of his miserable death-in-life and desires nothing so much as the end of the world, the Day of Judgment, when it will finally be finished.

This legend of the Flying Dutchman is well known to Senta, a romantically minded Norwegian girl. Deep down, Senta wishes she could have the opportunity to free the mythical Dutchman from his curse through her faithful love. But Senta’s father, Daland, has given his consent for her to marry Erik, a local hunter, who pursues Senta with a passionate, desperate love.

Marcy Stonikas sings Senta's Ballad

Daland is trying to get his boat home to harbor on a stormy night when he gets blown off course and seeks refuge in a bay. Another ship joins him there, and he is delighted to discover in its captain a rich (if dark and brooding) man in search of a wife. Daland, who’d prefer his daughter marry a rich man than a poor one—not to mention a man of the sea rather than a hunter—eagerly offers to introduce the captain to Senta so he can woo her. Senta recognizes the Dutchman immediately, and at first the Dutchman is hopeful that she might be the one to free him from his curse. But when he finds Erik still madly in love with her, he concludes that she is impure and therefore incapable of saving him—and worse, in danger of eternal damnation herself if she tries to love them both. Just when everyone is gathered to celebrate the wedding of Senta and the Dutchman, he sails away, choosing another seven years of restless voyaging to endangering her soul. But as a demonstration of her faithful love, she leaps into the sea and drowns—thereby redeeming him from his curse.

The Legend of The Flying Dutchman

In the days of the Dutch sea routes to India, a certain legendary sea captain was having a hard time navigating the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of Africa. In the Devil’s name he swore that he’d make it around the cape, even if it took him all eternity to do so—and this vow became his curse. Since then, countless sailors and ships have claimed to have sighted the Dutchman, usually on dark and stormy nights at sea. Here on land it’s common to find references to the legend in popular literature, art, comics, movies, video games, restaurant menus, sports nicknames, and school mascots.

Wagner came to the legend of the Flying Dutchman through a characteristically roundabout path: the great German writer Heinrich Heine had published, in 1833, a fictional autobiography of a certain Herr von Schnabelewopski, who claims to have attended a performance of a play about the Flying Dutchman. The play described by Heine has much in common with the plot of Wagner’s opera (including the portrait hanging above the fireplace and the idea that a faithful wife could break the curse). Scholars think Schnabelewopski’s play was inspired by an actual English play Heine had seen a few years earlier in London, itself based on a story in a magazine.

The lively chorus of Norwegian sailors from Seattle Opera’s 2007 Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman © 2001 by Nefaria Technologies

About the Composer

Richard Wagner is THE controversial artist. Some believe he was one of the greatest geniuses in the history of mankind; others assert he was one of the worst human beings who ever lived. Many people find Wagner’s music at the core of their social and spiritual lives, and in at least one country his music is, in effect, banned. For over a hundred years he has been debated, championed, critiqued, worshipped, decried, and mocked. His work still has an unshakeable hold on the public; its ability to communicate and move remains unmatched.

Wagner was a composer, and a great one, but his artistry did not stop there. He thought of himself first and foremost as a dramatist, a creator of works of art presented in the theater. Not having much use for the spoken theater as it was practiced in his contemporary Germany, his forum became the lyric theater, the opera house; but he so disapproved of traditional opera, he made it his life’s work to create a new art form. Like opera, it would employ music and theater, but it would be more serious, more meaningful, and more powerful. Wagner’s idea was to combine the various art forms—story, poetry, drama, music, dance, painting, sculpture, visual spectacle—into one unified whole. This gesamtkuntswerk or “collected work of art,” speaking with the combined power of all these various art forms and founded upon a myth of timeless human significance, would move the individual audience member to a higher state of consciousness and, by helping the community confront its heritage and plan for its future, forge a more powerful nation.

Daniel Sumegi and Greer Grimsley sings the Act 1 duet from Seattle Opera’s 2007 Flying Dutchman

Lofty goals, to be sure, and probably not achieved (yet, say the true believers). But if Wagner’s goal was to revolutionize the way people thought about art, he certainly succeeded. His influence on opera, poetry, drama, fiction, the visual arts, and especially music in the last 120 years can hardly be overestimated. In fact, the great new art form of the twentieth century, the motion picture, shares the Wagnerian goal of combining story, sound, and picture into one powerful whole. Were he alive today, Wagner, resenting the commercialism of the film industry the way he resented the popularity of opera in the nineteenth century, would undoubtedly be an independent filmmaker with plenty of axes to grind about contemporary society.

Sketch of Wagner and his wife in Paris done by their friend Kietz

In The Flying Dutchman (also known by its German title, Der Fliegende Holländer), Wagner’s hero was a projection of himself: a man isolated from thoughtless human society, in search of completely unconditional love but doomed never to find it. In fact, the opera was so personal, it didn’t please at its first performances in 1843. (A mediocre production failed to contribute to the opera’s appeal.) Wagner went on to other projects, including the much more popular Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, but got himself in terrible trouble participating in the Dresden uprising of 1849. The revolution failed, and Wagner was banished for life from all the German states.

Eventually, he was redeemed, pardoned, and welcomed back into his homeland by the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who paid off the composer’s considerable debts and presented Dutchman again in 1864. Wagner relied on the king’s support while he campaigned for and created a summer opera festival held in the small Bavarian town of Bayreuth. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus finally opened in 1876 with the first complete performance of Wagner’s vast Ring cycle, most of which the composer had written during his long exile, along with the musically radical Tristan und Isolde and the massive comedy Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Wagner was to write one more opera, first performed at Bayreuth in 1882: Parsifal, an enigmatic quest for transcendence through sex, religion, and art. He died in Venice in 1883, leaving the Bayreuth Festival in the hands of his second wife, Cosima Liszt von Bülow Wagner. (The “Liszt” comes from her father, Franz Liszt; the “von Bülow” refers to her first husband, conductor Hans, one of the greatest champions of Wagner’s music before his wife left him for the composer.) Cosima and her son Siegfried both died in 1930, when the Bayreuth Festival was about to become a favorite haunt of Hitler and the Nazis. After the Second World War, Siegfried’s sons Wieland and Wolfgang reopened the Festival and attempted to purge it of the Nazi stigma that was associated with it. Today, Wagner’s descendents still mount Wagner operas at Bayreuth every summer.

Wagner Emerging

Richard Wagner finished thirteen operas, ten of which are considered “mature” Wagner and are regularly performed all around the world. Wagner himself dismissed his first three attempts at the form; he later admitted they were insincere creations and didn’t fit his definition of a true work of art: a piece that emerges almost unconsciously from the soul of its creator. This definition does, however, describe The Flying Dutchman, the opera in which the composer found his voice and the real Wagner first emerged. The Flying Dutchman is a landmark in the history of Romantic art.

Greer Grimsley sings the Dutchman's aria at Seattle Opera in 2007

Jane Eaglen and Greer Grimsley sing the love duet from Seattle Opera’s 2007 Flying Dutchman

Chorus of Undead Sailors from Seattle Opera’s 2007 Flying Dutchman

Romantic art is all about the life of the artist

Wagner knew the old story of the Flying Dutchman because he was a voracious reader, but he first decided to make it into an opera after a perilous sea voyage of his own. In 1839, he was fired from his job as conductor in Riga (now in Latvia, then in Russia), and was about to be arrested for debt. He escaped, with Paris as his destination. After borrowing some money from a friend, Wagner, his wife, and their enormous dog, Robber, left Riga early one morning by carriage. They bribed some smugglers to get them over the border into Prussia, suffered a terrible accident when their carriage tipped over in a muddy farmyard, and stowed away on a ship from Pillau, on the Baltic Sea, through the Kattegat of Denmark and all the way to London. While their ship, The Thetis, was in the North Sea, a bad storm blew them off course and into a Norwegian fjord. According to Wagner, he began to sympathize with the Flying Dutchman when the superstitious crew of The Thetis started blaming their bad luck on him—he had committed some terrible crime and they were being punished for it! The echoing cries of the Norwegian sailors he heard in the fjord impressed Wagner so much he put them into the choral writing of The Flying Dutchman.

After more adventures, Wagner made it to Paris, where he and his wife almost starved. (His dog ran away in search of someone who could afford to feed him.) But while in Paris, Wagner transformed his experience into The Flying Dutchman, which was produced a couple years later when he again had a stable job conducting in Dresden.

In pursuit of “the eternal-feminine.”

The Flying Dutchman is a typically Romantic Beauty-and-the-Beast story, about how fallen man needs a woman to redeem him. Romantic heroes—especially German ones—tend to be guilt-ridden sinners who then meet the pure, perfect woman. Somehow her chaste femininity will wash away his guilt.

The wisdom of “the folk.”

The Romantics, including the Brothers Grimm, were fascinated by folklore and legends and fairy stories. In Romantic literature, horrible supernatural creatures from old legends (including Frankenstein and Dracula) are constantly coming to life and causing trouble. The Flying Dutchman contrasts Senta’s real, mundane, workaday world and the world from which the Dutchman comes.

Greer Grimsley sings the Dutchman's aria at Seattle Opera in 2007

Jane Eaglen and Greer Grimsley sing the love duet from Seattle Opera’s 2007 Flying Dutchman

Chorus of Undead Sailors from Seattle Opera’s 2007 Flying Dutchman

Wagner took Romanticism to a new level

Wagner may have started with a story that was already characteristically Romantic, but he made of it an opera that was Romantic in a new way. The characters of Daland and Erik are fairly typical of German Romantic opera at the time; in fact, Daland is based musically and dramatically on the character of Rocco from Beethoven’s Fidelio>.

But no opera characters had ever been as passionately single-minded as Senta or the Dutchman. Both are extreme Romantics, clearly destined for each other from the beginning. In their music you can hear a new, passionate intensity, caused by Wagner’s powerful new musical technique: the leitmotif. That is, twenty years earlier, an opera composer might have given Senta and the Dutchman a series of arias exploring their passionate yearning for each other—but each aria would be a discrete work in its own right, a beautiful, balanced fusion of poetry and music. Wagner doesn’t give them arias at all: instead, he creates a musical leitmotif, or signature tune, for each. The Dutchman’s is a bold brass fanfare reminiscent of the opening of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony: powerful, elemental, and a little frightening. Senta has a much gentler falling tune played by the woodwinds. These leitmotifs communicate everything an aria might tell us, only much more quickly. We hear them again and again throughout the opera, varied slightly each time, and the end result is that the whole work becomes a powerful musical poem about Senta and the Dutchman rather than a series of beautiful but disconnected arias. Wagner’s system of leitmotifs transforms music into a language for representing mythical archetypes. That’s why his operas resound, not just in your ears, but in your soul.

Recommended Recordings

Opera d’Oro, 1959 (Wolfgang Sawallisch, with Leonie Rysanek, George London)

Teldec, 2002 (Daniel Barenboim, with Jane Eaglen, Falk Struckmann

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