Your Guide to Wagner's The Flying DutchmanBy COC StaffPosted in 1920
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THE FLYING DUTCHMAN IN A NUTSHELL
Wagner’s First Masterpiece
Following a string of career disappointments, The Flying Dutchman marked a turning point for Wagner and showed early signs of the renown he would achieve through later works, like Parsifal.
The legend of the Flying Dutchman, about a doomed ghost ship set to sail for eternity, had haunted superstitious sailors since the 17th century and Wagner was inspired to adapt the popular tale after a fateful sea voyage of his own.
A Signature COC Production
With its German Expressionist aesthetic and timeless themes, this popular and thought-provoking COC production has captivated audiences since 1996.
ROUGH SEAS: THE ORIGINS OF THE FLYING DUTCHMAN
In 1839, a penniless young conductor and failing composer named Richard Wagner was on the run. While working as the music director of an opera house in Riga for the past two years, he was also composing works that would mostly remain unperformed or unfinished. With no income to pay off his growing debts, he fled from his creditors across the North Sea to London. While he didn’t remain in England long, it was this stormy sea voyage that sparked an idea for an opera that would mark a turning point in the composer’s career.
“The voyage through the Norwegian reefs made a wonderful impression on my imagination; the legend of the Flying Dutchman, which the sailors verified, took on a distinctive, strange colouring that only my sea adventures could have given it.”
– Wagner on the sea crossing that inspired The Flying Dutchman
By 1841, Wagner had composed all but the overture for The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer). The libretto was based on a satirical novel by Heinrich Heine, which itself drew from old sailors’ lore of a ghost ship doomed to sail for eternity. It was just one of many versions of the legend that had emerged since the 17th century and by the mid-1800s, Gothic horror tales had reached the height of their popularity. In Heine’s (and subsequently Wagner’s) version, the Dutchman is cursed to sail the seven seas for all eternity with one means to break the curse: every seven years he could come ashore for one day; if, on that day, he could earn the faithful love of a woman, he could be redeemed. (Disney fans might be familiar with this trope from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies). The novel and first draft of the opera were set in Scotland – a popular setting for Gothic literature – but Wagner transferred the setting to the fjords of Norway, inspired by his earlier time there during that tumultuous North Sea crossing.
WAGNER'S FRESH START
The Flying Dutchman marked a transition in Wagner’s career and is considered his earliest masterpiece. The opera took on various iterations as he worked to perfect it right up to his death. He initially sold his libretto to the director of Paris Opera — driven, as became his pattern, out of financial desperation — who liked the story but wanted it translated into French with music by a French composer. An opera by Pierre-Louis Dietsch called The Phantom Ship, or The Accursed of the Sea premiered in Paris, which Wagner assumed was based on his original scenario. So, he started over to work on his own version with his original German libretto and own music. He originally envisioned the piece to flow seamlessly as a single act but, among his various reworkings, also created a three-act version. The newly completed work was rejected by opera houses in Munich and Leipzig, but eventually premiered in Dresden in January 1843.
While not met with the most enthusiastic reception initially, the opera continued to increase its popularity alongside Wagner’s growing reputation. With the later Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1850), The Flying Dutchman is known as one of Wagner’s “Romantic Operas” and it helped establish Wagner as a renowned composer. Indeed, Wagner himself considered the opera a rebirth of his career. It is his first work to meaningfully showcase the innovations that he became known for, including the use of leitmotifs (musical themes), increasingly complex orchestrations, and a story drawn from mythology and folklore; it’s even possible to see the nascent seedlings of his most famous and ambitious works, The Ring Cycle and Parsifal, taking root in Dutchman.
A UNIVERSAL CONCEPT
Since its “maiden voyage” in 1996, this production of The Flying Dutchman, from American director Christopher Alden, has become a signature staple of the COC repertoire. This marks its fourth outing on the COC stage, and its timeless appeal continues to captivate and intrigue by addressing universal themes about how minorities are treated in society and how to address opposing views to our own.
Alden and his team draw evident parallels to the rise of Nazism in 1920s Germany and took inspiration from other insular groups and religious communities in their depiction of the opera’s remote village. Designer Allen Moyer’s visually striking sets and costumes evoke a surreal aesthetic, reminiscent of German Expressionist films like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Senta’s styling, in particular, nods to silent movie stars of the time, like the pale face and dark eyes of Theda Bara. The focal point of the box-like set is an off-kilter stage, recalling the toss and roil of churning waves. It also creates a sense of claustrophobia felt, not just on a ship, but in this rigid society where individuality is threatened.
Photo credits (top to bottom): A scene from The Flying Dutchman (COC, 2010), photo: Michael Cooper; Ships on a Stormy Sea by Raden Saleh; Portrait of Richard Wagner by Franz von Lenbach; A scene from The Flying Dutchman (COC, 2010), photo: Michael Cooper