The Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman

The Music

October 6, 8, 12, 14, 2011, at 8 pm
Matinée October 16 at 2:30 pm

At the Royal Theatre, Victoria, BC
In German with English surtitles

During rehearsals of The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer) in Munich in 1864, conductor Franz Lachner grumbled about the wind that blows out at you wherever you open the score.

Indeed, much of the opera's music is bracing – tempestuous – in your face. Full of variety, it evokes multiple worlds – mystical and real, devilish and divine.

The music calls up the storm-tossed world of sailors and the raging sea; it conjures up the eerie, supernatural haunts of the Dutchman and his crew of zombie sailors.

And it invites us into the ordinary world of working folk. Behind the charming Spinning Song and the rambunctious Sailors' Chorus we can find down-to-earth men and women carving a living out of a harsh environment – something we don't necessarily expect amid the Sturm und Drang of Wagner.

In Dutchman, Wagner began feeling his way toward the techniques that would dominate his later operas: increasing the dramatic role of the orchestra, making it an equal partner with the singers; moving away from traditional numbers opera into a through-composed music drama; working to fuse music, song, orchestration, drama, text, visual arts, and stagecraft into a total work of art – what Wagner called Gesamtkunstwerk.

With Dutchman he began to develop the use of the Leitmotif – a Leitmotif is essentially a theme song for a specific character, situation, object, or emotion, that melds the drama and the music, adding layers of emotion and context to each moment. The technique of the Leitmotif was not invented by Wagner, but he refined and polished it, and developed its use much more elaborately in his later operas, particularly the monumental Ring cycle, which musicologists continue to mine for scraps of Leitmotifs.

Even with this early opera, Wagner was beginning to sense the possibilities ahead. Of his Flying Dutchman he wrote:

The vast wild ocean ... does not willingly and obediently permit itself to be polished down to fit a modern opera; and the whole sea-blown Saga of the Flying Dutchman ... appeared to need an utterly dreadful maiming and mutilation, if it were to be forced to meet the requirements of a modern opera-text ... I therefore preferred to modify the material ... to leave the full fragrance of the old tale to spread itself undisturbed over the whole ... The modern division into Arias, Duets, Finales, and so on I had at once to give up; and in their stead narrate the Saga in one breath, just as should be done in a good poem ... never a Frenchman nor Italian would have dreamt of conceiving it.

Wagner's new approach to music drama began with Dutchman and would develop much further in the string of operas to follow over the next forty years: Tannhäuser (1845); Lohengrin (1850); Tristan und Isolde (1865); Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868); the great tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen comprising Das Rheingold (1869), Die Walküre (1870), Siegfried (1876), and Götterdämmerung (1876); and finally Parsifal (1882).

Though his operas are complex, often forbidding, and certainly renowned for interminable length (Dutchman is refreshingly short, just two or three hours, compared to the usual 4-to-6 hour commitment required by most of his other operas), Wagner's music has nevertheless entered popular culture.

The famous opera caricature of a large woman with blonde braids and horns on her head actually comes from Wagner's Ring Cycle. And excerpts from his operas have often been used for motion picture soundtracks: one source says his music has been quoted in around 215 films. The Ride of the Valkyrie from Die Walküre is probably the most notorious and unforgettable scene in the movie Apocalypse Now; it also pops up in the Bugs Bunny film What's Opera, Doc?

The Ring Cycle has been lampooned in Disney's Fantasia and by numerous comedians (see the video below of Anna Russell telling the story of this monumental four-opera cycle.

Among other very familiar selections from Wagner's operas are the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, and of course the Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin (Here comes the Bride), which celebrates a singularly ill-fated marriage.

The Flying Dutchman: The Best of Youtube

Enjoy an introduction to The Flying Dutchman, as Nick Reveles presents San Diego OperaTalk!


Audio recording of Fritz Wunderlich singing the beautiful Steersman's Song Mit Gewitter und Sturm from the first act of The Flying Dutchman

Through thunder and storm, from distant seas I draw near, my girl!
Through towering waves, from the south I am here, my girl!
My girl, were there no south wind I could never come to you:
Ah, dear south wind, blow once more! My girl longs for me.


The Spinning Song from Act 2, followed by Senta's Ballad, in which Senta recounts the legend of the Flying Dutchman.

Hildegard Behrens as Senta
Anita Välkki as Mary
Director: Ilkka Bäckman
Leif Segerstam, Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra and Savonlinna Opera Festival Chorus


Audio recording of the Sailors' Chorus Steuerman lass die Wacht! (Helmsman, leave your watch!) The Norwegian sailors are joined by the village girls for a rowdy party.

Chor der Wiener Staatsoper; Chorus Master: Walter Hagen-Groll
Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Herbert von Karajan


Fun with Wagner

What's Opera, Doc? a 1957 cartoon, directed by Chuck Jones for Warner Brothers. Musical excerpts include the overture from The Flying Dutchman ; Siegfried's horn call from Siegfried (O mighty warrior of great fighting stock); the overture and Pilgrims' Chorus from Tannhäuser (O Bwünnhilde, you'w so wuvwy and Return my love; the overture from Wagner's early operatic hit Rienzi as Elmer is chasing Bugs; and the Bacchanal from Tannhäuser (the ballet scene between Elmer and Bugs)


Discover everything you ever wanted to know about Wagner's Ring from comedienne Anna Russell's famous introduction to Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). From a PBS production, taped in Baltimore in 1984 tour. Part 1


Anna Russell: Wagner's Ring, Part 2


Anna Russell: Wagner's Ring Part 3

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