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.
In the story, the Dutchman relentlessly tries to round the cape during a storm. He challenges nature, going against the energy of the universe, in order to prove his personal power. This is more important to him than his own wellbeing and that of his entire crew. He is resisting the energy of the universe, separating himself from the flow of life. This is the ultimate form of Ego. Because of this, he is then doomed for all eternity, symbolically showing us that there can be no salvation through Ego. Due to attributes we most often associate with male principals, he inflicts suffering on himself and creates turmoil in his soul, which is metaphorically reflected in the stormy sea.
What offers us salvation?
An often-overlooked aspect of the story is the fate of the countless women who did not keep their vow. In his first aria, the Dutchman bitterly wonders if the angel who offered him this path to salvation was only mocking him. Why can’t he find a faithful woman? Is it their fault? Or are they repulsed by him when they find out who he is? As we learn from the Dutchman’s lines in Act III, the fate of the unfaithful women is “eternal damnation.”
What distinguishes Senta from the other women? She seems obsessed with the legend of the Dutchman, while the other characters are all worried for her mental health. There have even been productions where the entire story takes place in Senta’s schizophrenic imagination. However I don’t see Senta as insane, in fact completely the opposite. She is the only one who sees clearly that she has to save the Dutchman. She knows it instinctively and her motivation is a quality we most strongly associate with feminine principles: Compassion.
There is one more thing that is different with Senta. It is the first time the Dutchman puts the salvation of the woman above his own, and releases her from her vow. Having seen her compassion, he then shows compassion for her. He reintegrates feminine principals into his actions, which ultimately contributes to his own redemption.
When Senta dies, she is united with the Dutchman in Heaven. Feminine and masculine have been reunited. They are one again. If we look at the couple as a representation of our entire collective humanity, we may interpret Wagner’s opera as a suggestion that our salvation as a species may lie in the reintegration of female principles into a world heavily dominated by male concepts. We have a chance to change our realty, which is largely created by egoic thinking, through the power of compassion.