Klaus Billand on “The Flying Dutchman“

Klaus Billand
Klaus Billand

Throughout his artistic life, Richard Wagner fought against two phenomena:  First of all, the Grand Opera in Meyerbeer’s style in Paris and second the over-dominant “Royal Theatre”. For him, the grand opera, in the first place, was only a big organized comedy theatre to entertain the spectators. Instead, he wanted to pose a challenge with his oeuvre to inspire the spectator to strive for a better world. Paradoxically, Wagner achieved his first great success with “Rienzi”, which still embodied many of the elements of the Grand Opera which Wagner  himself wasn’t very excited about. The royal theatres were, economically and artistically, in a more or less large crisis. Some even had to shut down operation at that time. Wagner was convinced that this type of theatre was not suitable for the performance of his opera and music dramas. Nevertheless, out of the necessity to earn money, Wagner accepted a position as chief conductor at the theatre in Riga. This theatre matched all his views of what a Royal theatre was,  in general. He held the position from 1837 to 1839. Finally, he had a falling out with the theatre director over artistic questions. He felt that he needed to flee as he could not meet the payments due to his creditors. Together with his wife, Minna, he fled to the port of Pillau from where he sailed on a flimsy two-mast ship named ‘Thetis’ to London. The ship was hit by several violent storms and once even almost sank.

During this voyage to London, Wagner’s intention of writing an opera about the Flying Dutchman intensified. He had learned about the story through Heinrich Heine’s “Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski” and thereafter had studied the topic. In 1842, “The Flying Dutchman” premiered in Dresden. After some initial hesitation by the audience and the press the opera was a great success. Wagner was awarded the title of Kapellmeister (royal music director) by the director of the Dresden Royal Theatre and received a good salary.

For the first time in opera history, Wagner used chromatology in his composition. The use of semitones gave an appropriate intonation of the world of the Flying Dutchman. On the other hand, Wagner stayed with the well known diatonic to characterize the world of Daland. This combination was the novelty in Wagner’s composition, which he intensified in his subsequent operas.

The “Flying Dutchman” has a long and colorful history of productions. I would like to illustrate briefly a series of important interpretations in the recent past.

Let me refer in the first place to the artistically very important premiere by Christoph Schlingensief in 2007. It was shown in Manaus, in the state of Amazonia, Brazil, and I had the pleasure to watch it. In addition there were premieres in Havana, Cuba, and Seoul, South Korea I unfortunately could not attend.

Let me give you some background to the works of Christoph Schlingensief. He had, in his well know open and absorptive way, studied the local inhabitants  for eight weeks. During his stay in Manaus and the adjacent jungle with its villages and, despite various troubles and challenges, he had intensively studied the history, lifestyle, traditions, myths, hopes and fears. His findings and experience positively influence the aesthetics of his artistic concept, which is more determined by action art than classical opera direction. He included many elements of his “Parsifal” production at Bayreuth, amongst other things including a turntable and a projection screen to show his stylized video and film production and a broad selection of images taken during his studies.

In a merciless and almost restless progressing action rhythm, including a Samba troupe, we experienced the Flying Dutchman as a kind of satyr play. It referred to all cultural and cultic -related elements of Brazilian society and opened up a vast array of associations, without exploiting Wagner’s original works.

Before I discuss additional productions from recent production history, I would like to mention an important dramaturgical aspect that might be relevant to the production in Singapore. You need to ask yourself which of the three main characters is supposed to be the most prominent one: The Dutchman, Senta or Daland or two out of the three. The figure of The Dutchman in relatively linear – he is focused on materialism. But it is different with Senta. She is intertwined in the area of conflict between her father, Erik and The Dutchman. Therefore she is the character in the opera who faces the through biggest psychological imponderables. Daland is basically only interested in his materialistic gains. In the most recent reception history you can find good examples for dramaturgical focus points towards the three named characters.

In 1969 in Bayreuth, August Everding and Josef Svoboda presented The Dutchman as the main figure in their production of “The Flying Dutchman”. This changed in Harry Kupfer’s 1985 production in Bayreuth, in which Senta is present on stage all the time. With this move, she was dramaturgically positioned equally to The Dutchman.  At the beginning of the 1990s, Dieter Dorn moved Daland to the center by revolving the story around Daland’s house. In 2005 The Flying Dutchman was staged by Claus Guth in Bayreuth as an in-depth psychology- based piece. Senta had visions of the parallel epiphany of The Dutchman and Daland. Through this approach, it could be proposed that The Dutchman is maybe only a father substitute.  In Vienna in 2007, Christine Mielitz staged the destiny of The Dutchman as a collective one. His figure came to the fore alongside with his crew, suffering on the ship.

A production by Aaron Stiehl in the Salzburger Landestheater put the Dutchman in a dream interpretation at the centre. At about the same time, Peter Konwitschny shows “The Flying Dutchman” as a clash of cultures. The outcome is decided in a gym between Senta and a Dutchman descending from former times.

In Tim Albery’s production in London’s Covent Garden in 2015, on the other hand, it is Senta who is in the foreground. During the total length of the opera, she stays with a sailing boat in her arms on stage, even during the overture. The ongoing production of Philip Gloger in Bayreuth portrays  Daland as an entrepreneur, who is only focused on his products and nothing else. In Budapest, a semi-staged production was staged again this year which focuses only on Senta. As a second step, it broaches the issue of Daland’s commercial interest and it leaves The Dutchman in a marginalized role only.

Having outlined various possibilities for choosing the importance of the roles, it seems to be of eminent significance for the dramaturgy of the upcoming production in Singapore to choose one of the possible options wisely. In addition to those mentioned, it will be interesting so see how the Singapore production will realize an intercultural approach.

The Victoria Theatre in Singapore

“The Flying Dutchman” will be staged in the old and tradition-rich Victoria Theatre. I had the pleasure to visit the theatre and there I realized that the 500 seat, fully renovated, large but not too large theatre is well equipped to host a production of “The Flying Dutchman”. It is well  equipped with curtain drapery technology, has a stage width of 10m and a stage depth of 15m.  Even the orchestra pit can house up to 55 – very close-fitting – musicians. The exact amount of seats will be calculated by the Richard Wagner Association Singapore soon.


(Article and photo from Klaus Billand, Singapore, 24 December 2015)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s