When an audience leaves a performance of “The Flying Dutchman”, it is a fair bet that they will have definite opinions, mostly empathetic, about the Dutchman and Senta, and, unsympathetically, about Daland, Senta’s father, a father who is ready to part with his daughter in return for wealth. How many would have strong views, on the other hand, about Erik, the man who hoped that Senta would marry him?
At one point, the women of the village, seeing Senta’s pre-occupation with the story of the Dutchman, warn that Erik is “hot-blooded”, and yet, when he appears and talks with Senta, there is no suggestion that he is ill-tempered or quick to anger. On the contrary, he seems like a patient and long-suffering individual who responds to Senta’s evasions and later, her declared readiness to marry the Dutchman, with grief and dismay rather than the rage that many would find quite understandable.
The problem with Erik, as Senta’s suitor and as a character for a singer to project, is that he really is a nice guy, but he’s fallen in love with the wrong woman. Erik, we may justifiably surmise, looks forward to a well-ordered future, with an attractive young wife at home ready to greet him when he comes back from hunting, living in a community where the rhythms of life go on unchanged from year to year. His hopes are understandable and unexceptional, and he does truly love Senta.
Senta wants more. She feels alienated from the village. However her fascination with the Dutchman is interpreted, she is engaged with emotions and experiences far removed from life in her village community. She doesn’t want to hurt Erik’s feelings, and so tries at first to shrug off his reproaches about her preoccupation with the Dutchman, but the gulf between the two is evident to an audience as soon as they meet. Perhaps Senta could reconcile herself to marriage to Erik, but it would require an act of renunciation and the repression of her true personality and feelings. Or maybe not: that’s one thing she can’t do, and Senta is driven before the wind on an imaginative ocean of her own towards whatever fate awaits her – like the Dutchman who so fascinates her.
When Erik sings of a happy day he and Senta passed together (the cavatina overheard by the Dutchman that makes him believe that Senta is pledged to Erik), its light tone and gentle sentiment affirms the contrast between Erik’s love and the darker but more intimate tone of the conversation between Senta and the Dutchman.
But here’s the challenge of playing Erik. An audience needs to be able to believe that that day that meant so much to Erik also meant a lot to Senta in the past and that Erik had an appeal to which Senta had responded warmly enough for him to believe his courtship of her could be successful. We can empathise with Erik as a man who has been misused by Senta, even if we accept that she’s a woman who feels that she has moved on and that she can’t agree to a relationship to which her heart is not committed. We wish to see Erik not as the nice guy who is a loser, but the nice guy who is unlucky in love.
How will Erik be portrayed in our Singapore-made “The Flying Dutchman” ? Watch it to find out.
(John Gee’s personal reflections on the character Erik in “The Flying Dutchman”. John Gee is RWA(S)’s Hon.Auditor and TFD Blog Editor)