“There’s no consistency in how people are dropping dead!” “Who are my tarts and non-tarts?!”
I’ve heard it said that opera can be dull and unexciting, but after hearing the stage directions during a recent rehearsal of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, I bet those people would change their minds.
“A supernatural love story” is the simplest way to describe The Flying Dutchman. Cursed by the Devil in order to save his ship from a ferocious storm, the Dutchman is forced to sail for eternity, or until he can find the true love of a faithful woman. The cynic in me was betting on eternity. But–as any good deal with Devil has–there are loopholes and fine print, and the Dutchman is allowed to go ashore once every 7 years to find his love.
On one such journey ashore, the Dutchman meets another captain who has a daughter, Senta, whom he happily trades to the Dutchman for treasure. But, before I could get too outraged, we are introduced to Senta, who has long desired the Dutchman, based on his legend. Not one to spoil an ending, I’ll just say no opera could ever be that straight forward. Expect plot twists and surprise endings. If you are already familiar with Wagner’s telling of this legend, you may still be surprised by the direction VA Opera takes the ending.
The VA Opera’s staging of The Flying Dutchman is utterly beautiful and powerful in its minimalism. The stage is built out to resemble the front of the ship. Ropes are an important symbol in this opera, used for both a deceptively simple way to create the illusion of a ship on stage and as visual representation of the restraint the Dutchman feels being trapped on his cursed ship. The red sails of the ghostly ship are conveyed through lights, and they are striking.
What I found the most powerful in this opera is just how empathetic one can be towards a character who on the surface is not easily identifiable with: a cursed, supernatural, ghostlike captain doomed to travel the sea for eternity unless he can find love. But the moment the Dutchman steps onto the ship, an imposing character, tattoo’d and shirtless, singing with all the depths of longing and despair about how he has no wife, no child, no home… essentially no bonds to the earth, I connected with him. I wanted him to find his connection to the land, his salvation through love, and not be cursed to wander the seas. I wanted him to find the redemption he so poignantly and desolately searched for.
But operas aren’t generally known for happy endings, which made me nervous when we were introduced to Senta. The Duet of Love eased my fears, though. Again, the Dutchman seamlessly breaks your heart a bit when he sings about love. He doesn’t sing of flowery words, passion, or promises of the future; rather, he sings of fears. A man, alone and trapped in a curse for too long, how could he ever be loved or trust in love?
I’ve been lucky enough to attend operas in Paris, Vienna, and all over the world. I’m always drawn to the history and pageantry of operas: knowing that I’m seeing the same performance that emperors and empresses saw, sometimes in the very theatre they were originally performed in. I love the connection to our musical ancestors. Plus, it’s always amazing to see such phenomenally talented performers in person. But, honestly, sometimes, I’m really not a huge fan of the opera itself–they can be a bit garish, or convoluted, or frankly, long. But, The VA Opera’s The Flying Dutchman is not one of these operas. It is absolutely amazing. The story is beautifully dark and compelling. The characters are intriguing and perfectly cast. When the curtain came down, I was disappointed there wasn’t more.
For more information on seeing The Flying Dutchman and learning if can find love and break his curse, please click here.