“I believe the director’s job is to tell the playwright’s story as clearly and as interestingly as possible.”[i]
The operas of Richard Wagner debuted in Chicago with Leonard B. Grover (1833-1926) whose company first performed a Wagnerian opera in the city at McVicker’s Theater with Tannhauser on January 13,1865. McCabe’s principle was certainly in operation; the critic George P. Upton of the Chicago Tribune called the group “the first German thoroughly equipped opera troupe.”
The Flying Dutchman arrived in Chicago for the 1877-1878 opera season with two separate productions. First The Pappenheim-Adams German and Italian Troupe debuted the opera on November 13 at Hooley’s Theatre on 124 West Randolph between Clark and LaSalle; then on November 29 the Susani-Kellog company presented the opera in English at McVicker’s at 25 West Madison with Clara Louise Kellogg (1842-1916), the self-proclaimed first American prima donna, as Senta. In her Memoirs of an American Prima Donna, Ms. Kellogg, recalls
I was not popular with my fellow artists and did not have a very pleasant time preparing and rehearsing my first parts. The chorus was made up of Italians who never studied their music, merely learned it at rehearsal, and the rehearsals were often farcical. The Italians of the chorus were often bitter against me, for up to that time, Italians had had the monopoly of music. It was not generally conceded that Americans could appreciate, much less interpret opera; and I, as the first American prima donna, was in the position of a foreigner in my own company. The chorus, indeed, could sometimes hardly contain themselves. ‘Who is she?’ they would demand indignantly, ‘to come and take the bread out of our mouths?”
The Chicago Tribune critic says of Ms. Kellogg’s Senta “she has shown she has histrionic powers of a very high character, and certainly no actress ever so lost herself in her assumed character as Miss Kellogg in Senta, the insane girl.”[ii]
German opera got a boost in Chicago as twenty-three year old Walter Damrosch’s German opera company took over the operation of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company in 1885.
On February 23, 1885 the Met company arrived at Chicago’s Columbia Theater at 11 North Clark Street to present Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser. Mayor Carter Harrison welcomed the troupe which featured the world-famous Austrian soprano Amalie Materna (1844-1918). She would sing Brunhilde in Bayreuth’s first Ring cycle (1876), an premiered the role of Kundry in Bayreuth’ s Parsifal (1882). The Chicago Chronicle of 1896 reported “her voice showed all its power and beauty.” So successful was the residence of German opera that the company’s stay was extended another week. Ronald L. Davis explains:
The Germans, of course, made up a goodly percentage of the city’s population, over 15 percent in 1890. A definite loyalty to their homeland pervaded these immigrants, leading them to prefer German goods, German foods, and German pastimes…Musically, the Germans could always be counted on to attend works of their countrymen, with Wagner a particular favorite…But patriotism alone did not bring the Germans to the opera; they knew their music. Opera was an integral part of their European heritage, something the Native population never quite understood. The immigrants had grown up with opera, understood it, and enjoyed it. To them it was a medium of real entertainment, and even the workers could be found at a Wagner performance in abundance, well-versed and highly critical. If the opera was good, no one could be more exuberant, but heaven help the performers of an inferior production. Walter Damrosch’s performances were good, as any Chicago German would tell you, The city heard more German opera the next year and during the 1888-1889 season viewed for the first time a complete cycle of Wagner; s Ring.[iii]
The Flying Dutchman is Wagner’s second work, composed in direst need, when he was living in Paris with his young wife. Songs imitate the hurricane and the howling of the ocean, which he himself heard during an awful storm at sea.
Wagner arranged the libretto himself, as he did for all his operas which succeeded this one. He found the substance of it in an old legend, which dates from the 16th century. The flying Dutchman is condemned to sail forever on the seas, until he finds a woman, whose love to him is faithful unto death.
In 1834 the German writer Heinrich Heine published a series of papers with the title From the Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelwopski. In Chapter VI Schnabelwopski tells of seeing one night “a great ship with out-spread blood-red sails go by, so that it seemed like a dark giant in a scarlet cloak. Was that the Flying Dutchman? He proceeds to tell the legendary tale and of a play which he saw in Amsterdam based on the legend.
Act One of the play occurs on the high seas. The Flying Dutchman, more weary than ever, vainly roves from sea to sea seeking death and with it peace. His only hope is dooms day. He has never found a maiden faithful to him. He encounters a Scotsman who has a sweet and pure daughter. The dutchman begins to hope once more, and offers all his wealth to the Scottish father for a roof to rest under and for the hand of his daughter.
The Scotsman gladly accepts on behalf of his child, what to him seems an immense fortune and so they sail home together. The would-be bride regards the dutchman with deep earnestness, casting glances at a portrait of the flying Dutchman, that she has grown to love, without having, in reality, seen him until this moment. He asks her, ”Katherine, wilt thou be true to me?” She answers, “True to death.”
In the last scene of the play Katherine is seen on a high cliff wringing her hands in despair while the dutchman is seen aboard his wind tossed ship.
“He loves her, and will leave her lest she be lost with him, and he tells her all his dreadful destiny, and the cruel curse which hangs above his head. But she cries aloud, “I was ever true to thee, and I know how to be ever true unto death!” Saying this she throws herself into the waves, and then the enchantment is ended. The Flying Dutchman is saved, and we see the ghostly ship slowly sink into the abyss of the sea.”[iv]
Wagner freely admitted to reading Heine’s work and basing his opera on the story found therein. But he made certain changes, both major and minor.
The father’s nationality is changed to Norwegian and he is given a name, Daland. The daughter, Katherine, is renamed Senta and is given a non-sailing hunter boyfriend named Erik. Wagner creates Daland’s steersman and a nurse for Senta named Mary. He also populated the location with a chorus of spinning maidens awaiting the return of their sailors.
Most importantly Wagner gives the story a new ending which introduces a theme which will feature in most of his subsequent operas.
In Wagner’s libretto Senta’s last line is
“Preis Deinen Engel und sein Gebot, Hie -stech ich, treu Dir bis zum Tod.”
“Praise thou thine angel for what he saith: here stand I, faithful, yea, till death!”
On his next stage direction hangs the meaning of his opera:
Sie sturzt sich in das Meer; – vogleich versinkt das Schiff des Hollander wit aller Mannschaft. Das Meer schwillt hoch auf und sinkt in einem Wurbel wieder zuruck. Im Gluhroth der aufgehenden Sonne sieht man uber den Trummern des Schiflec die verklarten Gestahen SENTA’s und des HOLLANDER’s sich umhslungen haltend dem Meere ersteigen und aufwart’s schweben.
She casts herself into the sea. The Dutchman’s ship with all her crew sinks immediately. The sea rises high, and sinks back in a whirlpool. In the glow of the sunset are clearly seen, over the wreck of the ship, the forms of SENTA and the DUTCHMAN, embracing each ither, rising from the sea, and floating upwards.
The love-in-death – liebestod– of a woman (Senta) and a man (the Dutchman) is revealed to have a redemptive power which elevates the couple beyond human reality into the world beyond.
In response to Franz Liszt’s request for information on how to produce The Flying Dutchman, Wagner wrote “Remarks on Performing the Opera Der fliegende Hollander” in which Wagner demands that the regisseur study the printed instructions in both the vocal and full scores, to see the staging as an extension of the inner life of the drama.[v]
Director Christopher Alden believes he has a better ending in mind. No redemption, salvation, or mutual self-sacrificing for him. He ends the play with Erick murdering Senta with his ever-present hunting rifle. Alden prefers his own tawdry tabloidism’s blood murder to Wagner’s transcendental transformation.
McCabe describes Alden’s phenomenon as trying to control the text, rather than submitting to it:
“Directing that seeks to control the text, instead of subordinating itself to the text, is bad directing. I believe the director’s job is to tell the playwright’s story as clearly and as interestingly as possible.
Mr. Alden takes the package with which he was entrusted, tears it apart and fabricates his own ending, one which resembles more a seamy Hatfield And McCoy melodrama than Wagner’s transcendental reflection of the power of selfless love to transcend death.
Alden’s direction up to the catastrophically wrong-headed ending was strange, to say the least. Bizarre bits of stage business, odd body positions, garish stage costumes, none seeming to follow any rhyme or reason. His direction of Ryan Capozzo as the Steersman and Melody Wilson as Mary were the most troublesome. He had them over-acting and emoting to an embarrassing degree. I actually felt sorry for them to be given such weird directions to follow.
The principals escaped Alden’s bizarre “help”. In fact they turned in beautiful, sensitive and emotionally wrenching musical performances. Miko Kares’ Daland, Tomasz Konieczny’s Dutchman, Tamara Wilson’s Senta, and Robert Watson’s Erik were musically almost flawless.
As was the orchestra under the inspired direction of Enrique Mazzola, whose vigorous conducting was very impressive indeed.
Likewise Chorus master Michael Black led the large male and female choruses into some of the opera’s high points. So fine was the choral singing that we almost, almost, overlooked the bizarre costumes in which Mr. Alden had them appear.
And on another note: a covid mask has no place in the world of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. If the chorister truly needs to be masked, she should be moved to sing from an out-of-sight position, rather than ruin whatever verisimilitude the production hoped to achieve..
Too many cooks may spoil the broth, but it takes only one director like Mr. Alden to ruin a great opera.
[i] Terry McCabe, Mis-Directing the Play. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001
[ii] Chicago Tribuine,11 December 1876, p. 3.
[iii] Davis, Ronald L., Opera in Chicago, New York:Appleton-Century.,1966, pp. 38-39.
[iv] Heine, Henrich. From the Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelwopski. New York: Model, 2008.,Chapter VI.
[v] Carnegy, Patrick. Wagner and the Art of the Theatre. New Haven: yale University Press,2006, p. 32.
[vi] Terry McCabe. Mis-Directing the Play. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.