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James Conlon: Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman"

flying dutchman collage

By James Conlon

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
Henry David Thoreau

Alas for those that never sing, but die with all their music in them.
Oliver Wendell Holmes

The protagonist of The Flying Dutchman has led a (very long) life of desperation, but thanks to Richard Wagner, not a quiet one. He will go to his place in the universe (no grave) but, fortunately for us, will have left behind his “song.” His song is not just that of the protagonist of this opera, but that of one who will be omnipresent in the rest of all of Wagner’s music dramas: The Outsider.

This production marks LA Opera’s first tribute to the three composers who share an anniversary in 2013. They are, in order of their births, Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi and Benjamin Britten. The Outsider will be as ubiquitous in Wagner’s works as the plight of the tragic father in Verdi’s and the voice of outraged innocence in Britten’s.

Another key characteristic embodied in the Dutchman is that of “The Wanderer.”

I wander silently and am somewhat unhappy,
And my sighs always ask "Where?"
In a ghostly breath it calls back to me,
There, where you are not, there is your happiness.
(Translation by Paul Hindemith)

Franz Schubert’s rendition of this poem by George Philipp Schmidt (von Lübeck), from which Franz Liszt further developed his work for piano and orchestra, is a classic. Wagner draws from the ancient myth of the “Wandering Jew” and initiates a series of exiles who will appear in his subsequent music dramas: Tannhauser, Siegmund and Sieglinde, Wotan (who will actually be renamed “The Wanderer” in Siegfried) and Tristan. Even Lohengrin and Elsa, despite their enormous dissimilarity with the Dutchman and Senta, also tell a tale of a distant “mythical” figure who exists first in the imagination of a young woman and then in reality. Lohengrin and the Dutchman enter the real world, the former from the realm of the grail and the latter from that of the devil. Both women lose their earthly existence, Elsa as a victim and Senta as the first in a series of self-sacrificing women.

Senta represents a third motif that will be repeated constantly in Wagner’s works: the redemptive woman, who teaches the world true love by sacrificing her own life to save a masculine soul imprisoned in emotional and metaphysical torments. Although criticized for its male bias, Wagner’s vision of this figure implicitly suggests that the man, wracked by his own conflicts and longings, can never achieve what the woman possesses by birthright. She incarnates infinite and redemptive love, and is the core of the universe.

I believe that the full power of the union of Senta and the Dutchman can be understood more completely if interpreted as the mythical (re)union of two parts of a common soul, man and woman, like Siegmund and Sieglinde. Viewed in this manner, Wagner steps into the world of myth for the first time, opening up the future to the Ring.

The Dutchman, who made his Faustian pact with the Devil, has been condemned to sail the seas for centuries, to be released from his curse and allowed to die only if he can find a woman who is faithful to him. He has lived on the sea, lonely and increasingly bitter, apart from any other society, unable to have a home, unable to rest, unable to find serenity.

Even in the most settled and stable of us, there is a part that has known that sense of exile and separateness on some level. The Dutchman embodies the 19th- century German concept of “Sehnsucht” (yearning). The painful perception of the distance between an ideal world and the realities of life is a staple in the artistic environment of the German-speaking world of that time. It fueled the poetry and literature of its time, impregnated the music of Schubert and Schumann, and eventually was projected onto a cosmic screen by Wagner.

This yearning exists not just in the Dutchman, but also in Senta, the young woman who has grown up obsessed with the legend of the Dutchman. She lives in isolation within her community precisely because she has been drawn to the fate of this mythical outsider, whose picture hangs on the wall and through whose agency she becomes an outsider herself. Perhaps she recognizes her status as outsider early on, and bonds with the myth in a mystical union that only she can understand.

Even Erik, the young man who believes himself to be betrothed to Senta, is an outsider. As a hunter living in a community of sea-faring men, Erik is subject to the cultural tensions between the men of the sea and those of the land. Like Senta, he suffers the disdain of his community. The Dutchman wanders, Senta and Erik do not, but all three are equally isolated.

Finally, the power of the sea, in both its real and symbolic forms, competes for the status of protagonist. A perfect medium to express the tempestuous, oceanic emotions that characterize so many operas, it serves Wagner here as it will again in Tristan und Isolde as a metaphor for colossal emotional, metaphysical and erotic forces. Verdi will use it as a metaphor of exile for the Doge in Simon Boccanegra, landlocked as head of state while his heart is at sea. Britten also lives in dialogue with the sea, from Peter Grimes through Billy Budd to the end of his life with Death in Venice.

Thoreau’s “quiet desperation,” or Puccini’s writing the “tragedies of little souls” are nowhere to be found in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. He casts the mythical dimensions of his protagonist onto a cosmic panorama. There is despair and desperation, but there is also devotion and that central theme to all of Wagner’s work: redemptive love.

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