On 16 March Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer will be performed in one of the most apt settings possible: the coast of Norway. Bergen Philharmonic and Bergen National Opera’s production will be available to watch live on Bachtrack At Home, and weighing in at a (comparatively) lightweight 2 and a half hours, it’s a great entry point for those looking for a way into Wagner’s operatic oeuvre. Here, we run down the need-to-knows about this early masterwork.

Albert Pinkham Ryder's <i>The Flying Dutchman</i> © Public domain | Wikimedia Commons
Albert Pinkham Ryder's The Flying Dutchman
© Public domain | Wikimedia Commons

1It was born out of fraught circumstances
In 1839 Wagner was at the sour end of his tenure as musical director at Riga’s local theatre. With an unshakable conviction in his own genius, he and his wife Minna were living the life of artistic royalty when in fact he’d yet to be accepted by the cultural establishment. Running up debts and in the midst of a contractual dispute with his employers, he decided to jump ship to Paris, where he hoped his new opera Rienzi would find success. But because of their debts, the Wagners’ passports had been confiscated by the authorities, and they had to make a stressful illegal crossing into Prussia (some accounts say this ordeal caused Minna to have a miscarriage). From the Prussian port of Pillau they set sail for London, but storms forced a detour via the fjords of Norway, and many point to this moment as the seed of Der fliegende Holländer. Wagner himself later claimed that the perilous voyage “made a wonderful impression on my imagination. The legend of the Flying Dutchman ... took on a strange colouring that only my sea adventures could have given it.”

2There were literary forerunners...
While Wagner asserted the story of the Flying Dutchman originated in Germanic folklore, the first written accounts of the doomed ghost ship were actually English: John MacDonald’s 1790 travelogue Travels in various parts of Europe, Asia and Africa mentions a sailors’ superstition about a visionary ship called the Flying Dutchman that appears in bad weather. By the early 1800s this had developed into a story about a Dutch sailor called Vanderdecken who, in trying to battle storms around the Cape of Good Hope, swore to God that he’d complete his journey if it took him until Judgement Day. Satan, overhearing Vanderdecken, cursed him to sail the seas until the end of time. The story was a popular subject in plays throughout the 1800s, and in 1839 – at the time Wagner got his idea for Der fliegende Holländer – Frederick Marryat’s book based on the legend, The Phantom Ship, was a huge success in England. There were other literary precedents – Romantic literature of the early 19th century was awash with infernally-damned figures such as Goethe’s Faust and Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner – but Wagner’s main source for his Flying Dutchman story was an 1834 book of humorous tales by Heinrich Heine, From the Memoirs of Herr Schnabelewopski.

Mist-shrouded fjord near Bergen © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Mist-shrouded fjord near Bergen
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

3...though Wagner steered off-course from his sources
Heine’s text was the first Flying Dutchman story to include a plot point central to the opera Wagner would eventually produce. In Heine’s story, the ghostly seaman must come ashore every seven years in order to find a woman whose love might release him from his interminable fate. But this is presented in a humorous light – each time the Dutchman is glad to return to sea because of the horrors of marriage. Wagner takes the idea of the seven-yearly search for a lover and turns it into something much more serious, adding a few of his own touches: the Dutchman’s potential lover will face damnation if she is unfaithful to him, and if he does not succeed in finding her by judgement day, he’ll be completely destroyed and never find salvation.

4The opera had other folkloric resonances
The myth of a ghost ship that brings bad luck to sailors survived well into the 20th century, with reported sightings as late as 1942. This suggests that Wagner’s opera was a part of the legend-building and helped it to become, to use the composer’s words, “a mythical poem of the folk”. Yet there are parallels in the work with a much older kind of folklore. Many critics have seen in Wagner’s doomed sailor a vestige of the “Wandering Jew” archetype, deriving from a legend about a Jewish onlooker who mocked Jesus on his way to Calvary. Jesus is supposed to have responded to his taunts by saying: “I will find rest soon enough, but you will wander until I come for you” – meaning that he will be unable to rest until Judgement Day. The parallel isn’t mere scholarly conjecture: in his autobiography, Wagner called the Dutchman his “Ahasuerus of the sea” – Ahasuerus being the name traditionally given to the Wandering Jew.

5There are themes of self-sacrifice
In Wagner’s opera, Senta – the daughter of the seaman Daland who brings the Dutchman to shore – is obsessed with the idea of saving the strange seaman. Even before he arrives, she is seen singing to a portrait of the Dutchman. In the final act, she throws herself into the waves, her act of self-sacrifice thus redeeming the accursed mariner. Self-sacrifice comes again in Wagner’s work – Brünnhilde’s suicide by throwing herself into a funeral pyre in the Ring cycle being a prominent example – and some critics have questioned how this is presented in Holländer. With her unwavering devotion to the Dutchman and sacrifice for his sake, some have questioned how much agency and strength of mind Senta is granted in the work.

Charles Temple Dix's <i>The Flying Dutchman</i> © Public domain | Wikimedia Commons
Charles Temple Dix's The Flying Dutchman
© Public domain | Wikimedia Commons

6The Dutchman bears a vampiric likeness
Critics like Tim Ashley have placed Wagner’s moribund protagonist alongside another Gothic obsession of the 1800s: the vampire. The notion of a godforsaken creature doomed to stalk the earth for eternity is strong in both legends, and there was a musical connection too. In 1833 Wagner wrote additional music for Heinrich Marschner’s opera Der Vampyr, and parts of this music were echoed in Holländer. Making a retrospective link, in an early version of Dracula, Bram Stoker had one of the characters go to see Wagner’s opera on the way to Transylvania.

7The setting changed at the last minute
Reflecting just how popular the Flying Dutch myth was at the time, Pierre-Louis Dietsch’s opera Le vaisseau fantôme premiered in November 1842, just as Der fliegende Holländer was nearing completion. Like Dietsch, Wagner originally set his ghost ship story in Scotland, but changed it to Norway after hearing of the rival work.  

8Wagner's frustrations in France fed into the opera 
When he got to Paris, Wagner didn’t find it the welcoming career launchpad that he’d hoped for. He struggled to get his opera Rienzi performed and took to writing articles to keep financially afloat while he worked on Holländer. The measured and conciliatory tone of this journalistic work – made by a composer now legendary for his arrogance – speaks to the pains at which Wagner was to get on-side with the Parisian artistic establishment. As he wrote in an 1840 piece: “May this propitious union ne’er be loosed, for it is impossible to conceive two nations whose fraternity could bring forth grander and more fruitful results for Art, than the German and the French.” But as it became increasingly apparent that he would not be accepted, Wagner became disenfranchised with France and felt more positively toward his own country, seeing in the Dutchman an analogy for his own struggles. He wrote: “It was the feeling of utter homelessness in Paris that aroused my yearning for the German homeland... It was the longing of my Flying Dutchman for ‘das Weib’”.

More Norwegian fjords © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
More Norwegian fjords
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

9It wasn’t well-received at first
Though the Opéra de Paris bought a prose scenario for the work – then only intended to be a one-act opener before a ballet – in 1840, Wagner never managed to get Holländer performed there. When it did finally premiere in Dresden in January 1843, moreover, it was compared unfavourably to Rienzi. Critics viewed the new work as a regression from the French Grand Opera style to something more Germanic, and perhaps because of this negative critical consensus, there were only four performances of the opera at Dresden.

10But Wagner considered it to be a turning point in his career
While the German commentariat disagreed, Wagner viewed Holländer as a defining moment in his career, signalling “a German school of original opera”. In Senta’s ballad – a recurring theme that links the music together – there was a prototype for his future through-composed operas, and the composer believed that the work signalled a new level of seriousness in his output, as he wrote: “From here begins my career as poet, and my farewell to the mere concoctor of opera-texts... My course was new; it was bidden me by my inner mood, and forced upon me by the pressing need to impart this mood to others.”

Bergen Philharmonic’s stream begins at 19:00 CET.