Thoughts on staging Wagner, and Dutchman in particular

To be considered a Wagnerian is to be considered part of an apparently exclusive club. I have never felt part of it. But I have always loved music and I have always loved theatre, and if that’s not a start when dealing with the music theatre of a man who coined the word Gesamtkunstwerk, I don’t know what is. I certainly hope so.

One of my early singing teachers, addressing the fear and uncertainty people sometimes speak of when approaching Wagner for the first time, which was a fear and uncertainty he was aware I shared, urged me not to be afraid: Wagner, he said, is merely Schubert writ large. As I loved Schubert with all my heart, which he knew, these were inviting words. But still I hesitated.

Now, working on my first Wagner opera as a stage director, I am in equal parts intrigued and challenged. And I feel like a newbie. I might have an inkling what he meant when my teacher referred to Schubert, a would-be dramatist if ever there was one. But my relationship with Wagner til now has been intermittent at best. That makes me determined to do what I can to make sure that to experience him is _not_ to feel excluded, _not_ to feel inadequate; but to feel that he is nothing more (or less) than a storyteller, a great storyteller with a gift for wonderfully theatrical music; and that like all great storytellers his true gift is to make us feel included, identified with and in the end, with luck, inspired.

What is his story here, and what does it say to Wagnerians and non-Wagnerians alike – in short, to all of us? I don’t presume to speak for everyone. To me, at its heart, it is the story of a community and a vulnerable young girl, whom it fails to protect and nurture. Traditional communities have storytelling woven into their very fabric, and at the heart of this one is the story of a mythical curse. The girl is caught up first by its alluring mystery, then by her teenage susceptibility to the vivid sense of her own potential for a great and unique future. The community itself is poor: it is centred on an isolated fishing village. The fact that it is ill-equipped to contain such an imaginative adolescent leads in the end to tragic loss of life.

Daland is the community’s leader. He acts also as its guardian. He knows that financial security is a constant struggle, dependent as they are on the seasons and the sea, but also trapped by it, by the weather, by the mountains behind. Senta, his daughter, is the bright, imaginative girl, intuitively aware that the future she is promised by the huntsman – the trappist Erik – is one she could never stomach. Mary the one who, in the absence of the girl’s mother, and in the face of the almost permanent absence of her father, tries in vain to contain her. And the Dutchman himself is nothing more or less than the great destiny that awaits her in her imagination, the man locked in an endless cycle from which she alone can free him, through love, through the intertwining of their fates, and who in being freed will in turn free her.

Next: The Flying Dutchman – an approach

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