Redemption from what? Salvation by what?
Thoughts on Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman
by Joachim Schamberger
Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman is one of the most dramatically exciting pieces in all of opera. The story of the cursed sailor who is doomed to sail the seas for all eternity in a ghost ship, and the young woman who sacrifices herself for his redemption has fascinated opera-goers for generations.
The idea of a woman sacrificing herself to redeem a man from guilt or a curse is a recurring theme in Wagner’s work. But what does that mean? Is it just a romantically idealized view of female purity?
The key to my understanding of the story lies in seeing the Dutchman and Senta as one person, not as separate individuals. They respectively personify masculine and feminine principles in each of us.
Wagner's first mature opera, The Flying Dutchman, should be considered in the context of developments in German opera during the first stirrings of Romanticism. Works like Marschner's Der Vampyrand Weber's Der Freischütz (The Freeshooter) were a definite influence on the young composer, with their fascination with the supernatural, a generally melancholic atmosphere, depictions of the power of nature and religious sentiment. Wagner, however, seeks to express these elements in quite specific ways, particularly in depicting the emotions of his characters, which are graced with psychological depth and a sense of dramatic reality.
b Leipzig, 22 May 1813; d Venice, 13 Feb 1883
Richard Wilhelm Wagner was born in Leipzig. Karl Friedrich Wagner, a local police official, was married to Wagner's mother, Johanna, at the time, but there is much evidence that a close family friend, Ludwig Geyer, was in fact Richard's father. Karl Wagner died when Richard was six months old. Geyer married Johanna within the year, and six months later a daughter, C&aauml;cilie, was born. In addition to a letter written by Wagner to C&aauml;cilie in later years, referring to "our father, Geyer," Wagner's close physical likeness to Geyer and their mutual devotion and attachment lent credence to the Geyer paternity.
Geyer, an actor, writer, portrait painter and lover of great literature, had a profound influence on Wagner. Richard's formative years were spent in a household filled with love of culture and the arts. Literature, rather than music, was his first love. His interest in the Homeric epics caused him to study Greek in order to read them in the original. His love of Shakespeare induced him to learn English. At age eleven, he was writing poetic drama filled with characters that die and reappear as ghosts.
The legend of the Flying Dutchman:
A Dutch sea captain once desperately attempted to round a cape during a storm. He cursed and swore, "In all eternity I won’t give up!" Satan heard, took him at his word, and doomed him to sail the seas for all eternity. An angel took pity on him and opened a path to salvation: Every seven years the Dutchman would be allowed on shore for one day. If, in that day, he is able to find a wife to be faithful until death, he would be redeemed. If, however, the woman does not keep her vow, she would share his fate of eternal damnation.
On its journey home, the ship of the Norwegian Captain Daland is forced to seek shelter in a small bay. While the crew and Daland rest on board, his steersman stays on watch. Trying to keep himself awake by singing a song, the steersman finally also falls asleep.