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Summoning The Angels: The World of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman

By Patrick Summers, Artistic and Music Director

Composer Richard Wagner (1813–83) was 30 years old at the premiere of his Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), an opera generally regarded as the first flowering of a genius who would follow it with works of greater profundity. Though his later creations are among the most monumental works of Western art, if Wagner had written nothing after The Flying Dutchman, he would still be remembered as a great composer and this opera as one of the most thrilling of the repertoire.

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner remains one the most controversial and visionary figures in history. Every opera composer since Wagner has either emulated him or reacted passionately against him; none could ignore him. Besides all of the contradictory and maddening things about his character, he fundamentally reordered the long-held foundations of harmony and melody and permanently altered the expectations of what opera could and should communicate. Wagner considered himself a dramatist who wrote music, not a composer who wrote his own texts, and he disliked the term opera, preferring, and insisting on it whenever he had opportunity, music drama.

His status as a pervasive but contradictory cultural icon was largely posthumous, and at the time of The Flying Dutchman he was simply an aspiring composer dreaming of success in the dominant theatrical expression of his era: Romantic opera. Romanticism rejected the emotional symmetry and light/dark balances of the Enlightenment. A Romantic-era novel or opera always portrayed some communion with nature, particularly involving that grandest of human metaphors: the sea. Romanticism had little to do with current notions of “romance”; rather, the movement was an attempt to release the imagination through the portrayal of deep melancholy and heightened emotions that bordered on violence. Apocalyptic storms mirrored hearts in turmoil; craggy coastlines were metaphors of jagged relationships, and ancient natural beauty only threw into relief the pain of living and the brevity of it all, with many works expressing a hope for a better world beyond this one. An early climax of musical Romanticism was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1824), music unlike any heard up to that time. The open fifths that begin Beethoven’s great final symphony haunted Wagner “as a greeting from the spirit world,” and they found their way into the beginning of The Flying Dutchman’s famous overture, conjuring the torment of the title character.

Following The Flying Dutchman, Wagner quickly rejected Romanticism in favor of his own theories, further immersing himself in what he considered the only eternal arts, German and Norse epic literature and the ancient Greek theater, forms he would meld into his massive Ring of the Nibelungen. From the 1840s onward, he set out to free the opera house from what he considered decorative display and frilly sentimentality. His voracious literary appetite unearthed the characters of Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Hans Sachs, Tristan, Isolde, Parsifal, Wotan, Brünnhilde, and most especially the character with whom he personally most identified, Siegfried. These characters would, one by one, consume the remainder of his complex creative life, and his obsession with them would by association consume anyone with whom he came into contact.

Wagner worked hard to sculpt his personal narrative. In 1839, fleeing Russian creditors in Riga, where he had for two seasons been general music director at the company that is today’s Latvian National Opera, Wagner sailed on the Thetis towards London. Rough seas forced the ship to take shelter in the port of Sandvika, Norway, which became the setting of The Flying Dutchman. Wagner tried in his memoirs, retroactively and very fancifully, to claim that this harrowing sea voyage inspired him to write The Flying Dutchman, and this remains part of the opera’s lore to this day. In actuality, he had sketched most of the text and some of the music already, though the echoes of the ship’s crew off the fiord in Sandvika did inspire the first act’s echo effects. Wagner’s libretto originally set the work in Scotland, which was the setting of his main source materialHeinrich Heine’s 1834 retelling of the Dutchman legend. Scotland was a common setting of Romantic-era art, as it was the farthest-flung outpost of Europe and it held great mystery and adventure in its highlands and foggy moors.

The legend of The Flying Dutchman is as old as seafaring, and multiple permutations of it re-emerged during the Industrial Revolution, because the tale of the mariner doomed to wander the seas forever aligned perfectly with one of the major cultural fears of the time: that mankind was being slowly set adrift into a soulless world of ever-more-sophisticated machinery. The basic story, while not specifically religious, is a parable of faith, for the wheels of the plot turn on rules and the consequences of breaking them: the Dutchman, who has offended the gods by making a blasphemous oath, is able to come ashore only once every seven years, and if he can find a woman who will be faithful to him for life, his sin will be cleansed, his soul redeemed, and his watery curse ended. The most famous English-language version of the tale is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, from 1798, pocked with allusions that entered the 19th-century lexicon: “Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink; water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

The youthful Wagner was also fascinated with ghost stories and by what would now be termed the occult, and in this he was of his time, for supernatural stories enjoyed wide popularity in the early years of Romanticism. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Prometheus Unbound (1820) by her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, set off decades of books and theatrical versions of them about the dangers of modern science, and shades of both are cast upon The Flying Dutchman.

Conceived as a character of the utmost nobility, Senta can appear to modern spectators as simply a pawn for the men in the drama, except for the ardent Erik, who loves her sincerely: Senta’s father, Daland, seems a bit too willing to sell her and the Dutchman wants her for his own redemption. But The Flying Dutchman transcends the plot norms of its era with the only operatic quality that is ever fully transcendent: thrilling music that ultimately assures us that the Dutchman and Senta do find a metaphysical love for each other. Wagner wrote extraordinarily pictorial music several generations before the cinematic era, prompting various commentators to opine that Wagner, had he lived in the 20th century, would have been a renowned film composer. It is a fair observation, but Wagner would more likely have purchased a studio with someone else’s money, written and directed every movie with extraordinary vision, composed every score, and insisted on controlling the environment in which you experienced it. His score of The Flying Dutchman alternates rousing nautical tunes set amidst great waves of orchestral and choral power with soaring Bellini-inspired, arching melodies that limn the work with fragility. Angels permeate the libretto of The Flying Dutchman, and they find musical expression throughout it, most poignantly in the opera’s final text, sung by Senta, “Preis’ deinen Engel und sein Gebot! Hier steh’ ich treu dir bis zum Tod!” (Praise your angel and her vows. Here I am, true to you until death.)

Even though there are so many opinions and so much documentation on Wagner, there is ultimately no way to “know” him, and thus there is no definitive way to perform his works. For as long as we value introspection in our culture, Wagner’s music dramas will find their way into our definition of ourselves. He was a man with abhorrent personal qualities: a notorious womanizer, a horrendous anti-Semite, and hypocritically demanding and ungracious to nearly everyone. That he could conjure works of such moving depth and indispensible value is perhaps a sign of cautious hope for the world, for he clearly could take the demons of his life and make angels of them in art. Many artists would be surprised at the longevity of their creations. Wagner would likely feel about himself much as we do about him in 2018: an uneasy mixture of gratitude and surprise at the eternal cultural storm he unleashed.