Performance » Theater

Origins of The Flying Dutchman

by

comment

It all started with a storm, and that was almost how it ended. Richard Wagner, not yet a famous composer, braced himself against the hull of the small merchant ship Thetis as it was slammed against a reef that threatened to splinter the ship. The pilot had warned the captain against leaving the Norwegian town of Tvedestrand, where not two days before Wagner had been struck by the sound of the crew's sea shanties echoing off the cliffs.

Wagner, his actress wife Minna and their dog, Robber, were fleeing the Latvian city of Riga and their numerous creditors therein. Wagner had long wanted to go to Paris, where he could put on his shows and hopefully leave behind his monstrous debt. When it became clear he would be thrown in jail if he didn't pay, the couple fled.

They had stolen out of the city by night in a carriage. Wagner's creditors had confiscated his passport, and so they were forced to smuggle themselves aboard the Thetis, on what was meant to be an eight day trip to London. Ten days later, Wagner and Minna found themselves tossed on the Baltic Sea, listening to the horrible scrapping of jagged rock on the ship's wooden hull, wondering if they would make it through the night.

The Flying Dutchman is the legend of a ghost ship cursed forever to sail the seas and never set ashore.
  • The Flying Dutchman is the legend of a ghost ship cursed forever to sail the seas and never set ashore.

When Richard and Minna finally arrived in London after three weeks at sea, they headed to Paris. There Wagner found the people there no more receptive to his music than they had been in Russia, nor his income any improved over Riga. But between working odd jobs, he began writing an opera based in part on his experiences at sea.

As the storms had drug the voyage out longer and longer, the sailors had begun to mutter about curses. They would be trapped at sea forever, cursed never to reach their destination. Just like the Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship who had been cursed to forever roam the seas. It was a legend first mentioned by English sailors a hundred years before Wagner's journey, and by the time their ship had reached the Thames, Minna, at least, had come to believe it.

Wagner, ever the skeptic, hadn't much believed in ghosts. What he did believe in was his ability to compose, and so with the memories of the waves and the sailor's tales fresh in his mind, he set out to write what would become an operatic classic. It would take him four years, but after years of rejection in Paris, Wagner found a theater in Dresden to put on Der Fliegende Holländer: The Flying Dutchman.

The opera was a success, and helped Wagner move from the life of an indebted fugitive into the controversial but wildly popular figure he's known as today.

It was the swashbuckling plot, as much as the musical triumphs, that first caught the attention of Joachim Schamberger who is now the director for the Indianapolis Opera's upcoming performance of The Flying Dutchman this weekend. This opera was the ten year old boy's first opera, and he was mesmerized. Though that was in 1969, in Coburg, Germany, he still has the poster.

"My brothers and I actually put it on as a little show with marionettes, to a recording for my parents and grandparents," says Schamberger. "It was the opera that got me into opera."

"It's a very exciting opera that is profound in its meaning - and it has a very cool story with with ghosts, ghost ships and cursed sailors," says Schamberger. "It's a profound version of the Pirates of the Caribbean."

Schamberger has been at the cutting edge of integrating multimedia into opera, a trend he plans to use to help bring this opera to life at Clowes Memorial Hall.

"It's almost made for these video techniques," Schamberger says. "With the sea and the magic, they are very hard to do on stage. But now we have the technology to go there and make these things happen."

His goal is to bring the power Wagner felt in the storm - that he himself felt when watching the opera for the first time - to the audiences here in Indianapolis.

Director Joachim Schamberger performed as a trained opera singer for years before moving into directing. "It definitely helps my directing," says Schamberger, "to understand the psyche of the singer."
  • Director Joachim Schamberger performed as a trained opera singer for years before moving into directing. "It definitely helps my directing," says Schamberger, "to understand the psyche of the singer."

Add a comment