Senta of Attention: Making Sense of Der Fliegende Holländer’s Heroine
For this activity, students will need the reproducible handouts entitled Senta of Attention, a synopsis of the opera, chart paper, Post-Its, and the audio selections from Der Fliegende Holländer.
Art, History, English, Drama, Music, Gender Studies
- To strengthen students’ comprehension of Der Fliegende Holländer’s characters and story
- To deepen students’ critical thinking about gender stereotypes in Der Fliegende Holländer and in opera more broadly
- To extend students’ abilities to analyze arguments, develop original opinions, and engage in debate around a nuanced topic
COMMON CORE STANDARDS
Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.
Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used.
Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.
Richard Wagner, composer and librettist of Der Fliegende Holländer, once described the character of Senta as “completely naïve,” offering this as an explanation for her “apparently crazy” obsession with the Flying Dutchman. Yet just now naïve is this character really? Are there other ways modern audiences might understand her?
Senta first appears in the opera as an offstage bargaining chip. Once she shows up for real, she has only one interest: the salvation of a man she has never met but whose portrait and story haunt her. And when she finally meets the Dutchman, she almost immediately sacrifices herself to save his soul. Yet while Senta’s obsession with the Dutchman and her all-encompassing dedication to his “redemption” (Wagner’s favorite concept) might make modern audiences raise their eyebrows, Senta also acts entirely autonomously and premeditatively: She has committed herself to the Dutchman long before she knows that he is a real person (let alone that her father has struck a deal to “sell” her to the mysterious sailor), and she takes her infamous leap off the Norwegian cliffs only after the Flying Dutchman offers to release her from her promise. So is Senta truly as naïve as Wagner claimed, or is she a powerful woman who makes up her own mind and catalyzes a spiritual transfiguration?
Dramatic plot points that can seem questionable or discomfiting—or even downright offensive—to modern audiences show up all the time in works of art, and opera is no exception. Rather than shying away from discussions of gender roles in potentially off-putting stories like that of Der Fliegende Holländer, teachers should provide students with opportunities to engage with the uneasiness that these tales provoke and think critically about troubling or gray areas of representation. In this activity, students will explore the character of Senta through a variety of lenses: the libretto itself, critical essays, and performers’ opinions about the roles they sing. Students will:
- Review the plot of Der Fliegende Holländer and trace how Senta’s character develops across the span of the opera
- Navigate critical perspectives on the role of Senta and critique excerpts of Der Fliegende Holländer’s libretto
- Debate whether the character of Senta is reductive or empowering
In this lesson, students will explore the character of Senta from a variety of perspectives and through a range of media. After reviewing the plot of Der Fliegende Holländer and listening to Senta’s ballad, students will create and act out their own endings to scenes from the opera involving Senta. Finally, students will navigate a collection of short excerpts from articles about Senta and discuss the treatment of female characters in opera more generally.
Launch the lesson by asking students to discuss the following questions in small groups:
- What are some old-fashioned stereotypes about women?
- Can you think of any books, movies, stories, etc. that perpetuate these stereotypes?
- Can these stereotypes ever be empowering or are they only damaging to women?
- Should we continue to read and watch books and movies that include these old-fashioned stereotypes?
After a few minutes of discussion, have students share some of their thoughts.
Tell students that some operagoers find the character of Senta to be old-fashioned; some even find Wagner’s portrayal of Der Fliegende Holländer’s female lead to be sexist. Let students know that in this activity, they will be asked to investigate these concerns by reading a variety of perspectives on Senta’s character.
Begin by reviewing the plot of Der Fliegende Holländer. Distribute the synopsis and take turns reading it aloud; students might also find the Who’s Who chart helpful. As your students read, ask them to think about the following questions. You can also use these questions to spark a class-wide discussion after reading.
- What do you learn about Senta from this synopsis?
- What aspects of the plot (and the opera’s portrayal of Senta in particular) might operagoers consider to be old-fashioned or stereotyped?
- After reading the synopsis, what questions do you still have about who Senta is? Do you think the opera will answer them?
Now let’s listen to Senta herself. In a famous aria from Der Fliegende Holländer, often referred to as “Senta’s Ballad,” she explains her passion for the portrait of the Dutchman and tells the Dutchman’s story. The ballad is available as four tracks in the audio clips accompanying this guide: Track 10 has the complete aria, while Tracks 11 through 13 each include one stanza of the aria.
Play the stanzas one at a time. Before each stanza, ask students to quickly review the English translation. Play the stanza, then pause to ask students a few guiding questions (provided below) to ensure their understanding. Alternatively, you can play the entire ballad in a single listening, inviting students to think about the questions below as the music plays.
What does the Flying Dutchman look like?
What does his ship look like?
Why is the Flying Dutchman cursed?
What will it take to release him from his curse?
Who does Senta think will save the Flying Dutchman?
After listening to Senta’s ballad, begin a broader class discussion about the opera’s story and Senta’s character. Use the following questions to guide your discussion:
- What if the painting were not a portrait, but simply a painting of a ship at sea? What if it were a photograph rather than a painting? What if Senta had read about the Flying Dutchman in a book and had never seen his picture? How would these changes affect your understanding of Senta’s obsession?
- When Daland brings the mysterious captain home, Senta immediately recognizes the Flying Dutchman. But do you think this stranger is necessarily the Flying Dutchman? How else might we explain Senta’s reaction to his arrival?
- What do Senta’s friends (the chorus in the recording) think of her obsession with the Flying Dutchman? Do you think they feel sorry for her? Do you think they feel sorry for him? Do you think they’re afraid? Why or why not?
- If you were to play the role of Senta, what emotions would you try to express? Fear? Excitement? Sadness? Joy? Other emotions? A mixture of the above? Why?
Divide the class into groups of three or four students. Each group will be assigned one of the three “Choose Your Own Adventure” libretto excerpts included in the reproducible handouts. Ensure that the three excerpts will be studied by an approximately equal number of groups and distribute the relevant handouts to each group. (Note that to facilitate this step, translations are in colloquial prose and do not precisely correspond to the line divisions of Wagner’s poetry.)
Explain that each excerpt focuses on a different scene from the opera involving Senta (either directly or indirectly) and point out that each excerpt ends with a question. In their groups, students will write and act out at least two different endings for the scene, thinking about different ways that the questions be could answered.
Audio excerpts corresponding to each of these scenes are available online or on the accompanying CD as Tracks 14–16. Listening to these selections is optional.
Have students begin working in groups on their Choose Your Own Adventure libretto excerpts. Students can use the work space on their reproducible handout to write their multiple scenes. Students should begin by choosing two members of the group (or rotating through the group) to read the scene aloud. Then, either in pairs within the group or as a full group, students will write two possible endings to the scene, retaining the libretto form and format. (Students may imagine musical settings of their new text as a bonus.) While circulating, ask students questions to deepen their thinking, including:
- Which possible ending for the scene is more satisfying to you as an audience member?
- Which possible ending for the scene is closest to the opera? Why do you think Wagner selected that plotline?
- Which possible ending do you think makes for a more dramatic opera? Is it the same ending that is most satisfying to you personally?
Each group (or selected groups, depending on time) will share one of their endings with the rest of the class. Begin with the Daland/Dutchman scene and ask students from each Daland/Dutchman group to present. Students should briefly remind their classmates how this scene ends in Wagner’s opera (they can refer back to the synopsis to do this); then, they should act out their new ending. Following the performance, have a brief full-class discussion about the possible endings, focused around the questions listed in Step 5. Repeat with the Dutchman/Senta scene and the Senta/Erik scene.
The final piece of this activity involves a series of excerpts from three sources: an essay from Opera News by Philip Kennicott about the character of Senta; an article from the New York Times by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, in which soprano Amber Wagner is interviewed about playing Senta at the Metropolitan Opera; and an essay by Richard Wagner with instructions on how to perform the role of Senta. Six excerpts are included in the reproducibles, but depending on the number of students in the class, fewer excerpts may be used.
Hang labeled chart paper posters around the room (one poster for each excerpt included in the lesson) and provide a few Post-Its to each student. (Legal paper can be used instead of chart paper, if necessary.) Provide students with a packet of all included excerpts. Each group reads the assigned excerpt and all students write their thoughts—either their responses to one of the questions posed below each excerpt or their own interpretation or inquiries—on a Post-It, which they will then place on the corresponding chart paper. If time allows, students can move on to another excerpt, adding their ideas (on Post-Its) to the corresponding chart paper for each excerpt they read.
In the final minutes of the lesson, tell students to circulate throughout the room, reading the Post-It comments on each chart paper poster. Close with a final full-group share-out guided by the following questions:
- Which scene featuring Senta are you most curious about seeing in the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD screening? Why?
- If you were directing Der Fliegende Holländer, what choices might you make about Senta’s character?
- Do you think an actor (or opera singer) can change the way the audience understands a character that was written a long time ago? How can a performer do this?
- Philip Kennicott’s question: “How do contemporary listeners engage with an opera that seems to afford [Senta] so little dignity, so little agency, so little independence of mind and spirit?”
Senta’s friend Mary, who introduced her to the ballad of the Flying Dutchman, urges Senta to stop obsessing over the portrait of the doomed sailor. Students can imagine that they are Mary, making one last-ditch effort to save Senta. Students will write a letter from Mary to Senta laying out the arguments for why Senta might be making the wrong decision to dedicate herself to the fate of the Flying Dutchman. Students can think about the following as they consider what Mary’s arguments might be:
Love at first portrait-sight | Stranger danger | Reality vs. fantasy | Female agency