Quick Start Guide: The Flying Dutchman

As seen in Opera Cues, Fall 2018


The Flying DutchmanThe Flying Dutchman, cursed because of a blasphemous oath he once uttered, must sail the seas endlessly until the completely faithful love of a woman frees him from the spell. He is allowed to go ashore once every seven years to find that faithful love, and he believes he has found it in Senta, the daughter of a Norwegian sea captain. Senta wishes with all her heart to break the curse and agrees to marry the Dutchman, but she has already promised her love to Erik. Genuinely fearful for her future if she weds the Dutchman, Erik confronts Senta. The Dutchman partially overhears Erik’s entreaties and believes Senta has betrayed him. Senta must now prove her faithfulness in order to save the Dutchman.

A full synopsis appears here.


The Flying Dutchman, which premiered January 2, 1843, in Dresden, is considered the first of Richard Wagner’s mature works, the one that would point the way to the future. In it, Wagner began to use leitmotifs (musical notes or passages associated with a particular character or theme) and introduced the theme of a suffering outsider who is redeemed by the love of a woman, both of which we see in Wagner’s subsequent operas.

For more about Wagner and the genesis of the opera, see "Summoning the Angels: The World of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman"


Try to pick out the musical leitmotifs associated with Senta and the Dutchman, as well as the sea. All are introduced in the overture but will recur throughout the opera. “Senta’s Ballad,” in which Senta tells the story of the Dutchman, his curse, and the only means of breaking it—all before she has actually met him—is particularly arresting.


The Flying Dutchman Projections and video are being used increasingly to achieve special effects in opera. Find out more about how this is done in our interview with S. Katy Tucker on pp. 56–57 of Opera Cues, the projection/video designer not only for The Flying Dutchman but also for Florencia en el Amazonas later this season. 


Wagner was so obsessed with his idea of Gesamkunstwerk—a total harmony of poetry, music, and stage design—that he could achieve his vision only by completely controlling the entire process. For each of his operas beginning with The Flying Dutchman, he not only composed the music but crafted the story and wrote the libretto. But what to do about the singers, whose performances were completely out of his control? Wagner’s answer in this case was an instruction manual titled “Remarks on the Performance of the Opera The Flying Dutchman.” It contained detailed instructions, for example, on the Dutchman’s movement, facial expressions, and gestures, coordinating everything with specific measures of music. Naturally, such detailed instructions are not observed today.