In legend, the Flying Dutchman was doomed to sail the seas until he could find a woman who would be faithful to him, come what may and he could only seek her when he made landfall, once every seven years.
Richard Wagner’s opera, “The Flying Dutchman”, first performed in 1843, will be making its first ever landfall in Singapore in October 2016.
Dr Ronald Ling, Vice-President of the Richard Wagner Association (Singapore) and Chairman of OperaViva Ltd and Executive Producer of “The Flying Dutchman”, shared the genesis of the project with me recently.
“The Richard Wagner Association has been around in Singapore for about four years. We have about 50 members and we’ve held well-attended talks and information sessions. Around a year ago, we started thinking: Is there something more we could do to bring Wagner to the public in Singapore?
A recital was one option that was discussed, but I pushed for being a little more adventurous – maybe a more ambitious presentation with excerpts from some works, maybe a performance with music and voices only, but finally, we aspired to a fully staged production.”
Wagner’s works have a truly international following. RWA(S) has close ties with other Wagner associations overseas, above all the umbrella body, the Richard Wagner Verband International (RWVI).
“The linkages we have with the RWVI gave us the courage to go ahead,” says Ronald. “We met friends in Europe who offered to provide artistic support and we also benefitted from the help and advice of our friends in the Singapore opera circle. With this encouragement, we took the plunge and ambitiously planned a fully staged production.
I should mention Alessandra Althoff-Pugliese and Andrea Buchanan, both of whom have been tremendously supportive. They opened a lot of doors for us in Europe.
Alessandra’s the President of the Wagner Society of Venice and Second Vice-President of RWVI. She’s now become an Advisor to Flying Dutchman-Singapore and is leading our casting of the international leads in Europe. She is a very experienced vocal coach and will be working with all the leads to help them in their preparation for their roles.
Andrea is a member of RWVI’s Executive Committee and Secretary of the UK Wagner Society. She has been hugely helpful with encouragement, advice and introductions.
They were a big help when Juliana Lim (President, Richard Wagner Association (Singapore) went to the International Wagner 2014 Congress in Dessau, Germany, last May. When she shared our aspiration to stage an Asian-style “The Flying Dutchman”, she received overwhelming support and encouragement from the international Wagnerian community – some of whom said they would fly to Singapore to watch our production!”
Why the Flying Dutchman?
Ronald explains why “The Flying Dutchman” seemed like “an appropriate piece to stage” as a first major production by RWA(S).
“Bearing in mind the public’s relative lack of exposure to performed works by Wagner, “The Flying Dutchman” seemed like the best choice. It’s the most accessible of Wagner’s operas. It retains some of the influence of Italian opera and has a larger aria component than later operas, but it is the first of Wagner’s mature works. It is also the shortest, at two and a half hours long, compared to a more typical four hours or so.
We also wanted to choose something that would resonate with Asian audiences. “The Flying Dutchman” is basically a ghost story, with a hero who is under a curse, captaining a dark ship manned by a spectral crew. It’s an appealing story, full of supernatural elements, and Asians like ghost stories.
So that’s why we chose “The Flying Dutchman”. It’s probably the most commonly chosen by those interested in staging Wagner operas and who are doing it for the first time in their countries. It was staged not long ago in South Africa and Cuba, for example, and the productions there were well-regarded and well-received.”
Step-by-Step in Singapore
No firm decision could be taken to go ahead with a production without some certainty of financial support. Ronald says:
“We were thinking about this before Juliana went to Dessau. We made a submission to the National Arts Council in May for a large grant, which was confirmed in August, for which we are very grateful. There was a recognition that this presentation would be a landmark for opera in Singapore.
We pushed on with fundraising in September, but it was only at the end of November that we reached that critical threshold of commitments at which we could say for sure that we could go ahead with confidence. It was then that we were ready to go public with the project.”
Nevertheless, practical steps in bringing the elements of a production together were being taken even as efforts to raise financial support were proceeding. Ronald says:
“We set about assembling an artistic team in April. We wanted to do something innovative to put before both local and global audiences. We decided to bring in a couple of theatre directors who would each bring their own complementary strengths and perspectives to the production. They are Glen Goei, who is the Associate Artistic Director at Wild Rice, and Chong Tze Chien, who is playwright, director and Company Manager of The Finger Players, so we’re bringing together a more western–oriented approach with one that is more Asian.
We’re sub-contracting aspects of the production to The Finger Players, which is a highly innovative theatre company. There will be elements of shadow puppetry and there will be a strong Asian aesthetic to the whole production. This will speak to a local audience and show that works by Wagner can translate into our context. But it is not only a matter of making this work accessible here and now. We think we’ll also be saying to global audiences that we can present new insights, and views from an Asian perspective, and this is one of our inspirations in bringing “The Flying Dutchman” to the stage here in Singapore.
To conduct the work, we’ve approached Darrell Ang, one of the most prominent and productive Singaporean conductors, who is currently working in Europe. He has significant operatic experience. He was interested in this project as he wanted to take on relevant, interesting and high quality work.
Leading our chorus will be Albert Tay, a young up and coming choral conductor who trained at the Liszt Academy of Music in Hungary: choruses are another big part of the opera. ‘The Flying Dutchman’ actually has one of the largest and most complex roles for the chorus of any Wagner opera.
What we hope to achieve is an innovative and high quality production, from both the theatrical and musical aspects.”
There are four lead roles in “The Flying Dutchman”: the Dutchman himself, Senta, whose hand he seeks from her father, Daland, a Norwegian merchant, and finally, Erik, a hunter who courted Senta in the past and still hopes to marry her. Casting for the Singapore production involves filling these roles twice over, as Ronald explains:
“We’re going to have two casts for the lead roles: one international, cast in Europe, and the other one Singapore-based. We’re having the local auditions on 24 January.
For the international cast, we’re drawing on the biennial International Competition for Wagner Voices. That’s a prestigious event held by the RWVI, with participants from around the world.
The 2015 Competition Finals took place in Karlsruhe in October. Juliana, Tze Chien and I went there, with the Singapore production in mind. We worked with RWVI board members, especially Alessandra, and we identified candidates for the roles of Senta and Erik. We are most likely going to look for our Dutchman and Daland among the leading singers in the previous competition, of nearly three years ago.
We are also looking for Singapore-based singers to complement the international cast for select performances. They’ll cover for the international cast, and do a series of outreach performances across Singapore.
This format is developmental. It will provide an opportunity for local singers that they can build on. We mean to be very supportive of the development of local talents and we’re in the process of working on this now.
To conclude, I’d say that we’re being quite ambitious. We’re staging a work with appeal to the public, with young singers and an innovative creative team who will bring a fresh perspective. At the same time, we hope our approach will contribute to the broader development of opera in Singapore.”
“The Flying Dutchman” is presented by the Richard Wagner Association (Singapore) and co-produced by the Richard Wagner Association (Singapore) and OperaViva Ltd in association with The Finger Players.