By Thomas May
Given the fundamentally hybrid character of opera, it’s not surprising that so many composers have needed several test flights before getting the balance right, let alone making an artistic breakthrough—even when the composer in question, like Richard Wagner, is the figure responsible for the whole package: the overall concept and libretto as well as the music.
Beethoven famously never found closure with Leonore/Fidelio, for all his attempts to wrestle it into shape; eventually he lamented how the project had turned into a “shipwreck.” At the start of his career, Puccini was fortunate to have earned the confidence of a powerful publisher who gave him the space he needed until victory arrived with his third try, Manon Lescaut. Verdi nearly decided to pack it in after his first two operas before he found his stride with Nabucco in 1842 – the same year Wagner was negotiating for the premiere of a recently completed work, The Flying Dutchman.
The ambitious young German had up to that point been as tormented by frustration as the weary mariner onto whom he projected his solitude, fears and longing. Wagner wrote The Flying Dutchman during one of his most dejected periods, while trying to make it in the opera capital of the time, Paris. Then, in the fall of 1842, just a half-year after Verdi’s breakthrough to the south, Wagner’s struggles as an emerging composer paid off, for the short term at least, when he enjoyed his own sweet experience of success for the first time, on a level that wouldn’t be repeated until 1868 with Die Meistersinger. But it hardly prepared the audience for what was to come in Dutchman.
The triumph in question was that of Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes, set in late-medieval Rome, which premiered in Dresden in October 1842. In Rienzi Wagner had assimilated the model of grand opera in the French style evolved by such phenomenally successful composers as Giacomo Meyerbeer. When his concept of a revolutionary music drama later took shape, it was precisely this model that Wagner would vehemently denounce as the epitome of mindless commercial entertainment, “effects without causes.” Meyerbeer, who in fact had been responsible for arranging the premiere of Rienzi (and tried to do the same for Dutchman), became a particular target of his notorious anti-Semitic polemics as well.
Enormous in scale, full of pomp, and featuring a climax in which the Capitol is set ablaze and collapses, Rienzi was the third opera Wagner had completed. It followed two efforts written before the move to Paris: the Weber-inspired The Fairies and The Ban on Love, his take on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The former never had a performance in Wagner’s lifetime, and the latter proved an unnerving fiasco when the composer tried to introduce it in Germany. Remarkably, the work on Rienzi overlapped with his initial sketches for The Flying Dutchman, the last product of his self-imposed Parisian exile but a game changer in terms of his artistic self-understanding.
In his official memoirs Wagner later wrote that the inspiration for Dutchman originally came to him during the fraught voyage he made with his first wife, the actress Minna Planer, from Riga to Paris by way of London in 1839. The reason they were taking a circuitous sea route was because Wagner’s passport had been confiscated as a result of massive debts accumulated in Riga, where he had been posted as music director. Facing a small army of creditors, he and Minna beat a stealthy (and dangerous) retreat across an armed border. At the time the composer looked to Paris as the Mecca of the opera world, where he would at last find the recognition he longed for.
Smuggled aboard a schooner and hidden away, the Wagners then endured a terrifying tempest whose fierce winds made a “strangely demonic impression,” as the composer put it. The captain was forced to find shelter in the Norwegian fjords, where Wagner took note of a starkly different musical impression: “A feeling of indescribable well-being came over me as the granite walls of the cliff echoed the chantings of the crew as they cast anchor and furled the sails…[It] soon resolved itself into the theme of the Sailors’ Chorus in my Flying Dutchman, the idea for which I had already carried within me at the time….”
Wagner scholars have long since constructed a firewall of skepticism when it comes to the composer’s own accounts of the genesis of his works, well aware that he routinely spins the scenario in hindsight to fit seamlessly into the narrative of his evolution as an artist. They point to the fact that Wagner’s earliest surviving sketches for Dutchman date from the following year—he then composed the bulk of the opera in 1841—and that he retrofitted his setting for Dutchman from Scotland (where he had placed the legend in accordance with literary precedents) to Norway just before the premiere. Still, holding onto latent ideas for future operas—sometimes for decades—became Wagner’s modus operandi.
And the opera contains a deeper autobiographical layer, much as the legend’s storms are not merely literal but symbolic of the human condition as the composer understood it. In this sense he identified as a misunderstood artist with the Dutchman’s alienation as well as with the dynamic between the Dutchman and Senta. Wagner expert Thomas Grey suggests one potential reading of the work as an allegory of the artist’s endeavor, in which “the selfless, self-sacrificing, unconditionally yielding woman was thus also a figure for the ideal audience….”
Dutchman certainly bears out Wagner’s conviction that here, for the first time, he found his authentic voice, marking the start of “my career as a poet and my farewell to the mere concocter of opera texts.” It was a dramatic leap and, as Grey points out, it prefigures the even more extraordinary later leap between Lohengrin and Das Rheingold. And what makes Dutchman the vehicle for this achievement is the fact that with it Wagner at last found the material to convey his vision of life and a musical approach that could begin to do it justice.
But why this particular story? Wagner discovered in the Dutchman the first of his mythic figures, ambivalent in nature, who have the flexibility to accommodate multiple meanings. His (unnamed) hero acquires the resonance of an archetype or myth as timeless as the wandering Odysseus and that, according to the composer, expresses “the longing for peace from the storms of life.” Yet the legend itself seems to have been of relatively recent origin, a few centuries old at most. It initially spread as a colorful sailors’ folk tale but really took root in literary form, ranging from the likes of Coleridge, Poe and Walter Scott to countless retellings in popular culture of the time—in plays, cheap novels and the like.
Wagner had latched onto a topic that was genuinely fashionable as well. He even managed to sell his original prose treatment of Dutchman to the head honcho of the Grand Opera in Paris, who otherwise didn’t have the time of day for him and who handed it over to the composer Pierre-Louis Dietsch to use. (Dietsch’s librettists, however, ended up drawing on different sources for the opera, which was titled Le vaisseau fantôme.)
The storm-tossed captain who wanders about undead obviously struck a chord among those attracted to the darker, Gothic undercurrents of the groundswell of Romanticism. And a larger clan of similarly unhappy figures enduring a nightmarish existence was more recently emerging, from Lord Byron’s lonely, restless Manfred, suicidal but unable to die, to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s experimental rethink of Prometheus in Frankenstein—not to mention aspects of Goethe’s version of the Faust legend. In fact Wagner abandoned efforts to write his own Faust Symphony—he ended up producing only one movement and made it a concert overture—and channeled his thoughts into the new opera instead. In a letter, he remarked that he had “[broken] free from the mists of instrumental music and [found] a solution to the problem that confronted me in the specificity of the drama.” It’s worth recalling here Wagner’s famous interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth as a Columbus-like voyage from the restrictions of the instrumental symphony into a new world fusing music and word. The Ninth marks another profound discovery of his formative years, and its d-minor opening is to some extent echoed in the Overture and the “hollow fifths” outlined by the Dutchman’s theme.
Ironically, though, Wagner’s principal source for The Flying Dutchman came from an archly anti-Romantic account published in the early 1830s by the iconoclastic poet and critic Heinrich Heine. A fellow exile (from the Rhineland) in Paris, Heine welcomed the young composer into his circle. His retelling of the legend—which he incorporated into a larger narrative—contains many of the ingredients essential to Wagner’s scenario, most significantly of all the theme of redemption by the self-sacrifice of the captain’s lover. But this is how Heine describes the cynical “moral” of his story, in which he mockingly refers to “Mrs. Flying Dutchman” leaping from the cliff: “As far as women are concerned, they should be wary of marrying a Flying Dutchmen; and we men should learn from it that, at best, women will be our ruin.”
Among other things, the ironic tone Heine adopts indicates just how clichéd the legend had become by then—the equivalent of a thriller film franchise whose latest sequel causes eyes to roll. But by making it dead serious, Wagner discovered the template that would preoccupy him for the rest of his career: a drama rooted in the existential predicament of its hero and the search for redemption. The condition of a world out of joint, with the protagonist caught up in a dilemma of the highest stakes and with an unlikely hope for resolution, is the Ring cycle in a nutshell. “Die Frist ist um,” the opening monologue that gives us access to the Dutchman’s perspective, already looks ahead to the vision of existence itself as torment voiced by Amfortas in Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, while the Dutchman prefigures the time-traveling Kundry, whose curse also condemns her to an endless life (in the form of reincarnation). In both operas, another is awaited who has the capacity for compassion to break the cycle of suffering.
Another element of Wagner’s deep attraction to this material is suggested by Joachim Köhler, author of the provocative biography Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans. Despite the officially idyllic picture he later painted of life with his actor step-father, argues Köhler, the composer endured a traumatic childhood characterized by fear of punishment, and “found it hard to distinguish between real life and the world of his imagination,” while “the stage that was his family’s livelihood became a place of terror for him.” In the challenge the Dutchman poses to the “normal” community he infiltrates, Wagner “discovered his own spectral past” and could now set about trying “to exorcize ghosts.” Because of his newfound musical confidence as well—earned from his study not only of Beethoven but of French models, in particular the far-reaching experiments of Berlioz—“the ideas that seethed within him,” writes Köhler, “could acquire independent existence in the material world now that the archetypes of his subconscious had begun to speak for themselves….”
In The Flying Dutchman Wagner thus found a way to fuse his identities as both dramatist and composer into the creation of a more powerfully unified work. Although he retains the conventional genre name of “Romantic opera,” the guiding concept of the medium we experience here goes beyond “setting” a story to music or just adding atmosphere, color and heightened emotion to the mix. Words and music begin to coalesce into something more ambitious. It’s curious to recall that Wagner’s original plan was to have Dutchman produced as the “opening bill” at the Paris Opera, the curtain raiser to a full-length ballet. But the original intermissionless structure (which we hear in this production) also prompted him to condense his thoughts into a powerful whole made up of larger scenic units. Anxiety that his new opera, presented by itself, would fare better with intermissions led Wagner to adopt the latter for the premiere. When his widow Cosima introduced it at Bayreuth in 1901, she reverted to his original intention of performing the whole opera without pauses. Along with the uninterrupted momentum this allows, you can clearly hear how Wagner designed one scene to “fade” into the next, as in the transition from the masculine sailors’ chorus ending the first act to the cheerful humming and spinning of the women.
In other words, elements of the seamless music drama of Wagner’s maturity are at least foreshadowed—though not to the exclusion of the old-fashioned models from earlier Romantic opera, of set pieces and even of French grand opera “spectacle,” despite the composer’s retrospective emphasis on Dutchman as a harbinger of the “music of the future.” In fact, the contradiction between old and new gives a fascinating tension to the opera’s texture. It could even be seen to play a dramatic role, underscoring the conflict between the conventionality of the townfolk and the more unusual musical depictions of the Dutchman and his crew. The blithe four-squareness of Daland’s music introducing his daughter to the Dutchman, for example, almost sounds like a parody of the charming but bland music that could win Wagner’s peers such approval from their audience—especially considering the context of the character to whom he’s planning on marrying her off to. And despite his ardor, it’s no wonder Senta wants to escape the bourgeois, predictable life she would have with her suitor Erik, the safe but boring boyfriend. He changes his conventional tune only when he foresees her fate in his dream. Implicit in hyer choice, of course, is the very act of betrayal (of the mere mortal Erik, in this case) that the Dutchman assumes is in his despair is the pattern of every woman’s behavior. But Senta senses a doppelganger-like kinship with the mysterious stranger even before she meets him in person. Through her ballad, Wagner explores this aspect of her character, adding an uncanny dimension to their “love at first sight” that bypasses what could otherwise have been another operatic cliché.
Wagner’s score is often praised for its “realistically” stormy weather and tumultuous evocation of the elements. These do in fact mark the start of an impressive series of orchestral evocations of nature. But what’s even more impressive is Wagner’s musical characterization of the inner psyche of the Dutchman and of his encounter with Senta (a name the composer himself invented and which his champion-turned-enemy Friedrich Nietzsche lampooned with his reference to Wagnerian “Senta-mentality”). Wagner also returned to the score several times after the Dresden premiere to refine the orchestration (some of which Berlioz had found a touch crude and over “obvious”). Most significantly, in 1860, just after finishing Tristan und Isolde, he introduced a new motif of redemption to the end of the Overture and to the end of the opera itself, using a language of harps and lofty strings that is reminiscent of the later opera.
At the opera’s center is a duet between Senta and the Dutchman unlike any “love duet” that had come before. Here Wagner begins to expand our ordinary perception of time as he depicts these characters transcending the mundane pace of the world surrounding them, participating in a kind of shared hallucination, as if enfolded in each other’s dream. Whose dream, after all, is being dreamt? The question seems to be an open one. Wagner lays out the dream narratives of both Senta and Erik. Does his dream frame her own, or vice versa? Wagner even shows us the Steersman drifting into half-sleep – the epitome of the everyday world from which Senta wishes to stray. Could all that follows be his dream? Or are the whole proceedings a fever fantasy of the still-unredeemed Dutchman between one of his seven-year landings?
In The Flying Dutchman, Wagner adopts a strategy that’s also found in such works as Hamlet and Henry James/Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw: He draws us in with a thrilling ghost story that actually embeds a meditation on something far more profound. Wagner might Wagner might have settled for another supernatural, Gothic thriller like those of Heinrich Marschner and other contemporary composers who provided other models in these years. But through his identification with the Dutchman’s self-conscious suffering, the still-rudderless Wagner at last found a sense of artistic direction that he would follow hereafter with unwavering compulsion.
Thomas May writes about the arts and is a regular contributor to the LA Opera program.