The Flying Dutchman Primer

by Gregory Moomjy

Just as every musicologist worth their salt should, I own a copy of Harold Schonberg’s tome The Lives of the Great Composers. He chose in a rather telling way to put two chapters back-to-back–“Colossus of Italy,” about Giuseppe Verdi and “Colossus of Germany,” about Richard Wagner. Much ink has been spilled on the relationship between these two composers, not only about their music but also about the friends they had, their views on women, even the food that they enjoyed the most. Ok, some of that is an exaggeration, but you can watch 2013’s VERDI vs WAGNER by Pablo Morales de los Rios and see these two giants fighting to determine who is the best.

At the bottom of this rivalry, there are two facts that they have in common, which have in turn defined their legacies. They both came of age at a time when the national operatic styles of their respective countries needed a champion. Also, while both men created something new while working within the constraints of what was already there, which was at least true for part of Wagner’s career, they both defined Italian and German opera, respectively, dominating it for the rest of the century. Consequently, not only did they divide Europe between two schools of musical thought–the Mediterranean and the German–but every composer after them was seen as either their heir or their opponent.

When the Met unveils its new production of The Flying Dutchman on March 2, audiences will get to see François Girard’s take on a pivotal opera in Wagner’s oeuvre. Premiered in Dresden in 1843, it is the first of the three operas, the others being Tannhauser and Lohengrin, which set Wagner on the path to his later masterworks. The Flying Dutchman is still an opera, unlike his later Music Dramas. This means there still are clearly defined numbers, choruses, arias, duets, etc. like you would find in Italian or French operas of the period. Yet, Dutchman displays Wagner’s first serious attempt at leitmotifs. Additionally, the work’s depiction of a sailor doomed to roam the Seven Seas until he finds redemption through true love showcases themes that Wagner identified with throughout his life and would return to several times in his music.

The Flying Dutchman can be seen as the third and final evolution of the very early definition of German opera. Opera lovers are familiar with singspiel, a genre of musical theater where musical numbers are separated by dialogue. Think of operas like The Abduction from the Seraglio or The Magic Flute both by Mozart. As great as those operas are, they were Austrian and written for the Imperial Habsburg’s. German opera had its birth in the early 19th century with Der Freischütz by Weber who based his music off folk tunes. Next came Der Vampyr by Heinrich Marschner. His writing was more complex than Weber’s, bringing each individual number or ensemble to a new level of sophistication. However, it was not until Wagner wrote The Flying Dutchman that these individual numbers were connected by musicalized speech instead of spoken dialogue.

Before going forward, it’s necessary to make a slight clarification. Wagner did not invent the leitmotif. However, he was the first composer to use it so consistently and to hone its ability to communicate the drama of the plot. In fact, the very term leitmotif was coined as a way of giving Wagner a gentle ribbing because he used it so frequently. We can certainly say that Wagner had the last laugh, because much like impressionism in the Visual Arts, leitmotif has gone from a term of derision to a staple of musicology. In later operas, like Lohengrin, he would learn how to use a variety of techniques, such as instrumental color to distinguish his leitmotifs. In The Ring, he would even combine several leitmotifs just as Germans make compound words in everyday speech. Here though, he first associated musical phrases with major themes, characters, and plot points, such as the Dutchman’s ship, his curse and Senta’s redemption through love.

All these leitmotifs make their first appearances in the overture which is really more of a tone poem. Tone poems are instrumental depictions of places, people, actions, and stories. Der Rosenkavalier for instance, begins with a rather famous tone poem. Act I opens on the leads in bed after relations. However, the overture, a musical setting of their love making, allows the audience to be privy to what happens before the curtain rises. By comparison, the overture to The Flying Dutchman is an opera in miniature, where the leitmotifs present the protagonist’s journey from cursed wanderer to redemption.

Although Wagner based the plot on the poetry of Heinrich Heine, much of Dutchman is autobiographical. The composer, who until that time had been an outsider, pursued by creditors throughout Europe, identified intensely with the outcast sea captain. Consequently, when Simon Estes became the first African American to sing the lead at the Bayreuth festival in 1978, the audiences were scandalized. Bayreuth was founded by the composer himself and for a very long time Wagner’s originals stagings were sacrosanct.

Unfortunately, The Flying Dutchman illustrates another, darker trait of Wagner’s work, his use of opera as a platform for his politics and racial theories. It is a well-known fact that Wagner was an anti-Semite. The Flying Dutchman is a take on the tale of the Wandering Jew. According to legend, Ahasuerus, a Jew, laughed at Christ carrying his cross to Calvary. As punishment, he must roam the Earth until Judgement Day. The story of the Wandering Jew appears throughout Wagner’s operas. Most famously in Parsifal from 1882. There the crusading knight redeems the cursed sorceress Kundry who is doomed to live forever until she finds the man who she cannot seduce.

Like Dutchman, Parsifal is a problematic work. What it says about redemption and who is eligible for it, does not sit well with modern audiences. Fortunately, François Girard who directed the latest Met production of Parsifal in 2013, staged the ending slightly different, ensuring that the final scene depicted both men and women receiving salvation. Girard, who film lovers will recognize as the director of The Red Violin returns to the Met to direct Dutchman. This production is intensely psychological.

The central character of the production is Senta, the Dutchman’s bride who jumps into the sea to prove her fidelity. According to Girard, the central relationship of the production is between Senta and the portrait of the Dutchman that she sings to in Act I. To that end, the Met stage will become a massive oil painting, the focal point of which will be the Dutchman’s eye. The eye will be seen throughout the production almost like a visual leitmotif. All in service of a greater exploration of Senta’s psychological state. According to Girard, “The Flying Dutchman is a story about a woman so obsessed by a picture that she will eventually be swallowed by it.”

The other prominent feature of this production is the Dutchman’s shadow. A dancer will follow the Dutchman around from backstage mimicking the singer’s movements. Not only is this a nod to the captain’s supernatural status but it also uses yet another medium to portray the Dutchman, making this production a total work of art or Gesamtkunstwerk which would certainly have Wagner’s approval.

There is no denying two principle characteristics of Wagner’s operas. Number one, they revolutionize the way we go to the opera with far reaching effects outside of the opera house. Additionally, they are extremely problematic works. However, they should still be seen. In fact, I would argue that it is precisely because they are problematic, that they should be seen. It is extremely sad that Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer. To him, Wagner was the epitome of German nationalism in music. Yet these operas are still being performed decades after World War II. To me, that proves that there is something more to these pieces. It is the job of modern directors, performers and opera houses to acknowledge the dark potential of these works, while at the same time to search for new meanings that speak to our current society. Fortunately, New York City audiences will soon get a chance to see what new discoveries François Girard can bring to the conversation.

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