Date:March 14, 2020, 12:55 pm
Run Time:2 hours 25 minutes

Tickets for DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER • per adult • $22.00 online

Tickets for DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER • per student • $11.00 online



The Norwegian coast, 19th century. A storm has driven Daland’s ship several miles from his home. Sending his crew off to rest, he leaves the watch in charge of a young steersman, who falls asleep as he sings about his girl. A ghostly schooner drops anchor next to Daland’s ship. Its captain steps ashore and, with increasing despair, reflects on his fate: once every seven years he may leave his ship to find a wife. If she is faithful, she will redeem him from his deathless wandering. If not, he is condemned to sail the ocean until Judgment Day. Daland discovers the phantom ship, and the stranger, who introduces himself as “a Dutchman,” tells him of his plight. The Dutchman offers gold and jewels for a night’s lodging, and when he learns that Daland has a daughter, asks for her hand in marriage. Happy to have found a rich son-in-law, Daland agrees and sets sail for home.


Daland’s daughter, Senta, is captivated by the portrait of a pale man in black—the Flying Dutchman. Her friends, working under the watchful eye of Mary, Senta’s nurse, tease Senta about her suitor, Erik, who is a hunter, not a sailor. When the superstitious Mary refuses to sing a ballad about the Dutchman, Senta sings it herself. The song reveals that the Dutchman’s curse was put on him for a blasphemous oath. To everyone’s horror, Senta suddenly declares that she will be the woman to save him. Erik enters with news of the sailors’ return. Alone with Senta, he reminds her of her father’s wish to find her a husband and asks her to plead his cause, but she remains distant. Realizing how much the Dutchman’s picture means to her, he tells her of a frightening dream in which he saw her embrace the Dutchman and sail away on his ship. Senta declares that this is what she must do, and Erik rushes off in despair. A moment later, the Dutchman enters. Senta stands transfixed. Daland follows and asks his daughter to welcome the stranger, whom he has brought to be her husband. Daland leaves, and the Dutchman, who is equally moved by the meeting, asks Senta if she will accept him. Unaware that she realizes who he is, he warns her of making a rash decision, but she vows to be faithful to him unto death. Daland is overjoyed to learn that his daughter has accepted the suitor.


At the harbor, the villagers celebrate the sailors’ return. Baffled by the strange silence aboard the Dutchman’s ship, they call out to the crew, inviting them to join the festivities. Suddenly the ghostly sailors appear, mocking their captain’s quest in hollow chanting. The villagers flee in terror. Quiet returns and Senta appears, followed by the distressed Erik. He pleads with her not to marry the Dutchman since she has already pledged her love to him. The Dutchman, who has overheard them, lets go of all hope and boards his ship. When Senta tries to stop him, he explains she will escape damnation—the fate of those who betray him—only because she has not yet proclaimed her vows before God. He reveals his identity and Senta ecstatically replies that she knows who he is. As his ship pulls away, she throws herself into the sea, faithful unto death.

Notes by Zeke Hecker

“This sea journey will be eternally engraved on my memory … Three times we were caught in the most violent storms and once the captain was forced to take shelter in a Norwegian harbor … the legend of the Flying Dutchman took on a very definite and individual coloring in my mind such as only my adventures at sea could inspire …” Richard Wagner, My Life

Wagner had lost his conducting job in Riga. To escape creditors he had to cross the border (undocumented!) under cover of darkness with his wife and Newfoundland dog. In Pillau they boarded a merchant ship, the Thetis, bound eventually for London. Bad weather lengthened the voyage to nearly a month. The sound of the sailors’ shouts echoing off the cliffs in that Norwegian harbor found their way into the opening measures of The Flying Dutchman.

The popular supernatural legend was recent, dating only from the era of square-rigged ships. Wagner’s direct source was a story by Heinrich Heine, whom he met in Paris where he supposedly obtained the author’s permission to use it. (You can’t trust everything Wagner says; he made stuff up.) Heine’s major contribution to the plot was the “redemption” theme: the Dutchman’s curse can be lifted only by a woman’s love. Heine, however, had treated the subject satirically; Wagner took it seriously. He added the character of Erik, the Dutchman’s rival, a hunter (thus a man of the land, not the sea), and the sacrificial death motif which recurs so often in his later works. In the original script the setting was Scotland, and the characters named accordingly. His North Sea experience suggested the later Scandinavian setting.  

In Paris, where the young Wagner sought his fortune, he found destitution. He sold his scenario to the Paris Opera, which farmed it out to a house composer, Pierre-Louis Dietsch, and engaged other librettists. The resulting opera, Le vaisseau fantôme, sank. (There’s a recording. You can hear it on YouTube. Don’t bother.)

After the 1843 Dresden premiere, indifferently received, Wagner periodically revised the Dutchman. The most significant addition was the ecstatic “transfiguration” music that ends both the overture and the opera; Tristan und Isolde was already behind him by then, and its influence on this music is obvious.

With The Flying Dutchman Wagner became “Wagner.” He had found his voice. The orchestration is masterful. “Everywhere you open the score the incessant wind blows out at you,” said his colleague Franz Lachner. The characters are sharply etched, the story told clearly and economically. (It’s his shortest opera, about as long as Act III of Die Meistersinger.) He still had a long way to go before Tristan and the Ring cycle. They are immeasurably greater achievements. But The Flying Dutchman is my favorite Wagner opera.

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