Plot & Creation
An opera in three acts, sung in German
Music and libretto by Richard Wagner
From the Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski by Heinrich Heine
In 1839, Richard Wagner fled Riga (then part of Russia, now the capital of Latvia) with his creditors hot on his heels. Under the cover of night, he and his wife slipped across the Russian border and boarded a ship destined for London. The sea crossing was treacherously stormy; the ship, the Thetis, was forced to take shelter on the coast of Norway. And it was here—anchored near a small town called Sandwike, listening to the sailors’ cries echoing against the steep walls of the fjord—that Wagner first read about the Flying Dutchman.
The story appeared in From the Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski (pronounced “HAIR fohn SHNAH–bel–eh–VOHP–skee”), a satirical novel by Wagner’s friend Heinrich Heine (“HINE-rik HIGH-neh”). In one chapter, Heine’s hero sees a play about the cursed ship of the Flying Dutchman. The narrator revels in the story’s ghoulish details, but the play’s real purpose in the novel is to catalyze a romantic interlude between the hero and a woman he meets in the theater. In fact, this dalliance causes the hero to miss most of the play; when he returns to the auditorium, it is just in time to see the heroine sacrifice herself to lift the captain’s curse. An implicit comparison thus emerges between the faithful (and fictional) maiden of the play and the (real-life) temptress from the theater, and the chapter ends with a tongue-in-cheek warning that although women should avoid marrying a Flying Dutchman, men should avoid women altogether.
Wagner, by contrast, found the Flying Dutchman’s story to be no laughing matter. He was deeply impressed by the heroine’s faithfulness and the redemption she promised, and in the cursed captain’s stormy existence he saw an uncanny echo of his own tempestuous life. He soon set about crafting an opera based on the story, filling in the pieces missing from Heine’s narrative and moving the setting from Scotland (as in Heine’s version) to Sandwike to reflect his experience on the Thetis. Unfortunately, the opera’s creation would prove to be yet another source of turbulence and frustration for the young composer. Hoping that the work would spark his career in Paris, Wagner sold his plot to the Paris Opera—only to see the story given to another composer for musical elaboration. Infuriated and hurt by the betrayal, Wagner revised his original plot and set about composing his own version of the opera, which premiered in Dresden in January 1843.
On the storm-lashed coast of Norway, a merchant ship takes shelter to wait out a terrible squall. As the crew rests, the ship’s steersman keeps watch and thinks of his beloved, who he knows waits for him at home. Suddenly, out of the swirling wind and waves, a ship with blood-red sails and a black mast appears beside the merchant ship. Stepping onto the shore, the captain of the ghostly vessel reflects on his fate: Long ago, caught in a storm, he swore to the devil that he would make it around a rocky cape even if it meant sailing until Judgment Day. Now, cursed, he must sail the seas forever, setting foot on land only one night every seven years to search for the true love that will release him from his endless wandering. If he cannot find a wife who will be faithful to him forever, he must sail the ocean for eternity.
Soon, the merchant captain Daland notices the phantom ship. The strange captain introduces himself simply as “a Dutchman,” and he offers Daland a chest full of treasure in exchange for one night of lodging … and the right to marry Daland’s daughter. Blinded by the glittering treasure, Daland consents. The storm dies down, and a gentle wind from the south blows the two ships into Sandwike, Daland’s home port.
The women of Sandwike sit at their spinning wheels and wait for their beloved sailors to return from sea. Senta, Daland’s daughter, does not join them: She is too busy staring at a painting of a pale man dressed in black. The women tease her, telling her that she is more in love with the painting than with her suitor, the hunter Erik. Senta announces that the sailor in the painting is the “Flying Dutchman,” the captain of a ghostly ship, and she asks her nursemaid, Mary, to tell the captain’s story. Mary, superstitious and fearing the devil’s wrath, refuses to do so. Gesturing to the painting, Senta tells the story herself and declares that she will be the one to save the captain with a promise of eternal love. Erik enters with news of Daland’s return, and Mary and the others hurry off to greet the sailors. Erik declares his love for Senta, but she can focus only on the painting and barely acknowledges him. Hurt and frightened, Erik tells Senta of a dream he had in which he saw her sailing away on the Flying Dutchman’s ship, clasped in the captain’s embrace. Instead of distracting Senta from the painting, however, Erik’s story only pushes her to further proclamations about how she will save the captain. Heartbroken, Erik rushes away.
A moment later, the Dutchman enters. Senta cannot believe her eyes, for she recognizes him as the man from the painting. Daland enters and asks his daughter to welcome the stranger, whom he has brought to be her husband. The captain, unaware that Senta recognizes him, warns her to think carefully about the decision. Senta, however, immediately promises to be faithful to him forever. Daland returns and is overjoyed to learn that his daughter has accepted the wealthy suitor.
The townspeople gather at the harbor to celebrate the merchants’ safe return. Next to Daland’s ship, a strange vessel has also dropped anchor. Although the ship is dark and silent, the villagers call to its sailors to join the festivities. Suddenly the ghostly sailors appear, mocking their captain’s desperate quest for a bride. The villagers run away in terror.
Senta enters, followed by Erik. He pleads with her not to marry the Dutchman, insisting that she has already pledged her love to him. The Dutchman overhears them and believes that he has lost both Senta and the salvation she promised. As his crew prepares to cast off, he declares that he is the Flying Dutchman of legend. Senta ecstatically replies that she knows who he is. As the ship pulls away, Senta cries that she will remain faithful to him “through death and beyond”—and throws herself into the sea.
Richard Wagner is born on May 22 in Leipzig, a town in eastern Germany.
Wagner undertakes six months of study with the music director of Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church, the same church where Johann Sebastian Bach was employed a century before.
The 20-year-old Wagner gets his first job, directing the chorus at a theater in Würzburg, a city in northern Bavaria.
Wagner returns to Leipzig, where he joins a group of German intellectuals calling themselves Junges Deutschland (“Young Germany”). The group includes Heinrich Heine, whose novel From the Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski (published this same year) will provide the source material for Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer.
Wagner marries the actress Christine Wilhelmine Planer, known as “Minna.” Their marriage is stormy. Within months she will run off with a merchant, only to return to Wagner shortly thereafter.
Wagner takes a position as music director of a theater in Riga (the capital of modern Latvia). Fortunately, the move allows him to escape his creditors in Leipzig. Unfortunately, he soon begins accruing new debts in Riga. This perpetual cycle of debt will continue to plague Wagner for almost 30 more years.
In July, Wagner flees Riga. Moneylenders have seized his passport, so he and Minna must cross the border in the dead of night. They board a ship, the Thetis, to London, from which they plan to travel on to Paris. Due to stormy seas, the Thetis is forced to take refuge in a Norwegian port. Wagner will later claim that the voyage inspired his opera Der Fliegende Holländer.
Wagner takes up residence in Paris, the cultural capital of Europe. The Paris years, however, are brutal. Wagner and Minna are perpetually broke, and their marriage remains unhappy. Moreover, Wagner is profoundly snubbed when the director of the Paris Opera gives Wagner’s plot for a Flying Dutchman opera to a different composer to write the music. Furious and disgusted, Wagner sets about writing his own version of the opera.
After three years of personal and professional disappointments in Paris, Wagner decides to return to Germany and takes up residence in Dresden.
On January 2, Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer premieres at the Dresden Court Opera with Wagner himself conducting.
Revolutions break out across Europe. The political turbulence soon spreads to Dresden. Wagner, caught up in the revolutionary excitement, produces a series of firebrand speeches and essays. When the revolutions fail, Wagner must flee the city. He will remain in exile for almost 15 years.
King Ludwig II ascends the throne of Bavaria. An idealistic 18-year-old and a great lover of music, Ludwig offers Wagner the financial support necessary to realize his grand artistic ambitions.
In the summer, Wagner takes up with Cosima Liszt von Bülow, the woman who will prove to be the love of his life. Wagner is by now divorced, but his affair with Cosima is nevertheless one of the great “soap opera moments” in the history of music, since she is not only the daughter of famed pianist Franz Liszt (one of Wagner’s best friends) but also the wife of conductor Hans von Bülow (one of Wagner’s early musical champions). Their daughter, Isolde, will be born in 1865; Wagner and Cosima will marry in 1870.
The Ring of the Nibelung, Wagner’s 16-hour cycle of four operas, premieres at Wagner’s new opera house at Bayreuth (pronounced “BIE-royt”). The result of almost 30 years of labor, the Ring is the greatest expression of Wagner’s operatic ideals. The Bayreuth opera house, designed by Wagner and built with Ludwig’s funds, features a sunken orchestra pit, dimming electric lights, and rows of seats that all face toward the stage, and it will become one of the primary models for modern theater design.
Der Fliegende Holländer is performed for the first time in the United States, in Philadelphia.
On February 13, Wagner dies in Venice. His body is taken back to Germany and interred at his estate near Bayreuth.
Der Fliegende Holländer is performed for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera. To this day, it remains one of Wagner’s best-loved works.