Flying Dutchman

Flying Dutchman – an approach

A girl, 15, at home, on the life path that her school friends are also on: early marriage to a local man, most likely a fisherman, and a hard domestic life in a poor, isolated community; net making and mending, weaving, sewing; cooking; cleaning; keeping the company of the same people; repeating the same stories, feeding on the same fantasies and kept safe by the same superstitions and customs.

The way of life and threadbare economy of this community depend almost entirely on the sea, to the West, which also brings news, occasional visitors, excitement, stories, and danger. To the East are the mountains, and the cold inhospitable interior. Things come from there too – like animal meat and vegetables, news from and connections to other communities like theirs, occasional visitors too.

The girl’s father is an important man in this world. He is a ship’s captain, and has responsibilities, many of which he can barely afford. The girl’s mother is no longer here. We don’t know why. Disease, death in childbirth? There is nothing apparently strange in her absence – she is just not there. And since this girl’s father is mostly also not there due to his work, she is more alone than most. A nurse cares for her. And she is imaginative, which makes her more vulnerable still. Her gaze is often on the horizon.

There are many tales that comfort the men and women here, around the fire in the evenings, alleviating the boredom of repetitive work, read aloud or privately. They comfort, but they also educate, and identify, bind together, and help escape, at least in the mind. Tales of bravery, of fantastical sea beasts, of rescue, of escape against the odds, of wars and conquests, of sea battles. of great leaders, of romantic heroes and princesses. There is one that particularly captivates, partly (perhaps mainly) because it is unfinished. A heroine is needed. Like most of the other stories, it tells of fantastical characters, superstitions, it contains warnings, addresses fears by magnifying them and externalising them. But it also tells of an unknown future, when someone – who knows, it could be someone listening right now – will unlock the ending and free those trapped within the story. A heroine who will redeem. A part to play of great importance and fame, of great fulfilment and relevance.

It is easy to imagine that the ship that Richard Wagner and his wife Minna were on when the opera of the Flying Dutchman was conceived would have been awash with similar stories, telling of longing for a different life, of escape from storms, from unsatisfactory relationships, even from creditors – and it is a matter of record that Wagner was not just longing for but actively seeking these things too. That the story is itself woven through with ancient storytelling motifs – women weaving, to delay, to create culture, to protect, to escape, to entrap – as well as those natural superstitions that permeate societies who depend on the mercy of nature; that it is an opera of songs (Steuermann in Act 1, the weaving girls’ song and Senta’s Ballad in Act 2, the chorus’ sailor song in Act 3), all of which tell their own story; that above all it tells of the power that a particular story has to captivate; these only serve to heighten its self-conscious multi-layering, which is so wonderfully mirrored in the music. But in the end it is just a story, and one that must find its relevance for ordinary people today.

Accordingly the challenge we’ve found with this Dutchman is to keep believing what we know to be true – that which is both an instinct and tried and tested through experience – which can broadly be summed up in the term ‘Less Is More’. 19th century dramatic theory, to which Wagner was a fearles contributor, and more recent revivals of interest in ancient Rhetoric and more modern theorists such as Stanislavski, all pivot on the same point – how to create an empathy and the possibility of being engaged, involved and eventually moved in each and every individual in the audience, no matter their age, sex or background, or knowledge of or familiarity with the creator of the story, in this case, Wagner. We want to be true to the Kunstwerk of which that great composer went on to be a consummate master, namely that of storytelling first and foremost – and good storytellers are storytellers to everyone. Therefore a true understanding of the humanity of the characters, of Wagner’s music and his power as a storyteller through that music, as well as what we hope will be a keen and authentic sense of the world we will enter together at that critical moment when you our audience arrive – these have been our guiding lights.

Wagner wrote specifically (to Franz Liszt in 1852, when he himself could not for various reasons be present) about how realistic he wanted the staging to be (Bemerkungen zur Aufführung der Oper: Der fliegende Holländer), and how specific to the music. And yet a true ‘realism’ is not strictly speaking possible in the theatre, perhaps ever, and certainly at certain specific moments (as when Daland and the Dutchman disembark and re-board their respective ships in the first act). He writes almost as a film director might, where a true realism and the ability to cut from one scene to the next without interrupting the believability are more commonplace. Theatre’s powers are different. More of suggestion, perhaps, than description, or instruction. But Wagner suits these means equally well, precisely because of the precision and realistic detail in his music. Wagner writes of the Dutchman: ‘His first entry is extremely ceremonious and solemn: his slowness and hesitance when stepping onto dry land form a stark contrast to the unnatural speed of his ship over the sea. During the deep trumpet notes (B minor), at the very end of the introductory scene, he has stepped off the deck, along a plank lowered by one of the crew, to a shelf of rock on the shore: the first notes of the ritornello in the aria (the deep E sharp of the basses) accompany the Dutchman’s first step ashore; his rolling gait, which is peculiar to sailors who have spent a long time away at sea, is accompanied by a wavelike figure for the cellos and violas; with the first crotchet of the third bar he takes his second step, still with folded arms and bowed head; the third and fourth steps coincide with the first notes of the eighth and tenth bars.’ The way in which the music must inform the movement of the character is clear, and such instruction is useful perhaps as much as anything else in how little actual movement it suggests. And when we begin to find this balance of what we see and hear with what we feel, then our true goal as stagers of this work comes closer – to allow the music to work with what you see and imagine in your own minds to help us tell as vivid and moving a story as we can.

Next: ‘Staging humanity’: Final Note Interview with Fran Marshall