Der Fliegende Holländer returns to the Met this month. How has time changed our perspective on the opera’s selfless heroine?
by Philip Kennicott, illustration by Robert Neubecker.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker
IN 1905, an author named J. Walker McSpadden published Stories from Wagner, which retold the narratives of the great music dramas as if they were fables or bedtime yarns for children. The Flying Dutchman was simply a love story, with the captain of a mysterious ship cast as a handsome but haunted figure, tender and well-meaning. When the Dutchman first met Senta, it was as if the two were dancing at a cotillion: “As he directed his gentle blue eyes to her face, Senta knew instinctively that this was none other than the Flying Dutchman himself.” He treated her courteously, and “each saw the soul of the other laid bare and knew that each was beloved.” The denouement, Senta’s suicide and the redemption of the cursed Dutchman, was as rosy and reassuring as the end of a Disney movie: “But to the watchers on the shore a beautiful picture was given, which sent them their separate ways, with peace in their hearts.”
MORE THAN A CENTURY LATER, few listeners find that final scene quite so reassuring. The Flying Dutchman is at once one of Wagner’s most accessible works—the shortest and most “operatic” of those in the standard Wagner canon—and one of his most disturbing. It is by no means clear that this is a romance at all; rather, it seems a volatile mix of deep masculine neediness and feminine self-sacrifice, in which Senta gives far more than she can receive and the Dutchman takes far more than he deserves. Some feminist readings cast Senta as a victim, too young and too much under the influence of male fantasies to make a free decision about her fate. One critic, Gregory D. Kershner, applying Freudian psychology to the drama, finds all of the characters deeply narcissistic and badly integrated into society, in what he calls “a profoundly psychotic opera.”
But no element of the drama is quite so disturbing as the final scene, the death of Senta and the Wagnerian redemption of the Dutchman, who is likely a cipher for Wagner himself. With close attention to the text, we realize that this isn’t an opera about love, at least not for the Dutchman: “The dull glow I feel burning here, / can I in my misery call it love? / Ah, no! it is a yearning for redemption,” he sings in Act II. Redemption, as early critics, especially Nietzsche, noted, was Wagner’s lifelong idée fixe. “Somebody or other always wants to be redeemed in his work: sometimes a little male, sometimes a little female,” wrote Nietzsche in The Case of Wagner, puncturing with scorn the grandeur of an idea that runs through Wagner’s dramas right up to the most redemption-obsessed of them all, Parsifal.
Contemporary skeptics of Wagner, including smart, dyspeptic writers such as Max Nordau, sensed that redemption was an empty idea, more of a gesture than a thought. Wagner, he argued, used redemption to create grand theatrical illusions that often served to hide his own petty desires and inadequacies. “With him it has never any clearly recognizable import and serves only to denote something beautiful and grand, which he does not more closely specify,” wrote Nordau in his 1892 evisceration of all things decadent and modern, Degeneration.
If redemption struck early critics as, at best, an empty idea, the sacrifice of Senta seems to many contemporary listeners a pernicious one. Step outside the hothouse atmosphere of Romanticism, and it’s easy to agree with Erik, her jilted lover, who can’t comprehend how a young woman can fall in love with a picture and, in a matter of hours, commit herself to a man who is certainly sketchy and likely demonic: “But you—is it possible—offer your hand to a man who has hardly crossed your threshold!” What Nietzsche mocked as the heroine’s “Senta-sentimentality” feels today more like a schoolgirl crush on a celebrity, with fatal consequences. When the Dutchman questions Senta about the depth of her feeling and the sincerity of her pledge (“Do you agree with your father’s choice?”), he sings in a minor key over a dark palette of strings; and when she answers, offbeat triplet figures in the brass, a faster tempo and a major key give the music an effervescence that calls into question the degree to which she understands the adult consequences of her choice.
Wagner credited a tempestuous summer sea voyage in 1839—during which storms forced his ship to take refuge in a Norwegian harbor called Sandwike—for the musical inspiration that ultimately led to the premiere of The Flying Dutchman in 1843. That same year, the French Academy of Sciences announced the invention of the first reliable process for photography. Widely reproducible images soon made possible a new cult of celebrity, a new mythologizing of great men (and women) on a mass scale. In retrospect, Senta’s obsession feels painfully adolescent (she herself says, to Erik, “I am a child and know not what I sing”) in a particularly modern way: she hasn’t fallen in love with a legend or a narrative, and certainly not with a man, but with an image, a picture on the wall, like something in TigerBeat magazine.
The combination of Senta’s naïveté and the Dutchman’s desire for “redemption” seems to diminish Senta’s character to a mere instrument of a man’s salvation. The opera is often read as a Künstlerdrama, essentially an allegory of the artist’s frame of mind, in which individual characters are understood not so much as people but as agents of Wagner’s artistic self-fashioning. Although it was composed in Paris, where Wagner experienced humiliating indifference from the French opera establishment, Dutchman was part of Wagner’s professional and psychological turn back to Germany, to which he repatriated in 1842.
In one reading, the opera (as Künstler-drama) is not about a possessed sea captain and jejune maiden but about a German artist seeking a willing, worshipful public; or perhaps a German composer, who had spent much of his time in Paris writing prose, taking up once more the feminine enchantments of music. Wagner himself was vague about exactly who or what Senta was. “It was the longing of my Flying Dutchman for a woman,” he wrote, “the redeeming woman whose features I beheld as yet only indistinctly, but which hovered before me only as the feminine element in general. And now this element expressed itself to me in terms of the homeland, that is to say, the sensation of being embraced by some intimately familiar community….”
So Senta isn’t even a person, merely an aspect of the composer’s professional ambitions. If the Dutchman loves her at all, it is with the distinctly Wagnerian love that Nietzsche derided as “merely a more refined form of parasitism, a form of nestling down in another soul, sometimes even in the flesh of another—alas, always decidedly at the expense of ‘the host’!” The fanciful thought that these two people have “laid bare” their souls and discovered “each was beloved” is better put thus: he has found what he needed—a woman so in thrall to Victorian notions of feminine duty and romantic ideals of self-sacrifice that she will give everything for a man who returns only the satisfaction of being an agent in his drama.
Senta, at this point, is the one who needs redeeming. How do contemporary listeners engage with an opera that seems to afford her so little dignity, so little agency, so little independence of mind and spirit? She is in danger of becoming embroiled in a larger contemporary critique of opera, as an art form hopelessly mired in outdated and marginalizing views of race, gender and sexuality. And yet there is a robust legacy of directors, critics and audiences who have struggled to redeem Senta as an empowered figure rather than the “hysterical” sacrificial woman of earlier interpretations. Others have worked to make sense of the Wagnerian redemption of the last act, to contain and allegorize a phantasmagoria that might seem risible (to modern audiences) in a traditional, literal staging.
Framing devices are one hoary technique for reconfiguring the more troublesome elements of the work. In 1975, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle staged the drama as a dream of the Steersman, the minor character who falls asleep singing a relatively traditional love song—about absence and longing—in the first scene. As a dream, the events are safely contained in a space where no one is required to believe them literally; the whole opera becomes a dialogue between different forms of erotic entanglement, with the Steersman, Erik and the maidens of the spinning chorus representing traditional ideas of desire, affection and marriage on one side, and Senta and the Dutchman representing a more demented twist on erotic and psychological desire on the other. The audience can “awake” from the drama without having to affirm the values inherent in the Wagnerian side of this debate.
Joachim Herz’s magnificent black-and-white 1964 film of the opera, in which the events transpire within Senta’s daydream, takes the containment of the Dutchman–Senta madness even further. At the end of the drama, we see Senta alive and well, and solitary, walking along the seaside contentedly into the distance. Rather than suicide, rather than succumbing to the Wagnerian psychodrama of need, sacrifice and redemption, she has played her role, then awoken to her own, transfigured existence. She is, at the end, entirely whole.
Recent critics have also found in Senta far more substance than Wagner, at first, seems to allow her. The starting point for this act of redemption is Senta’s ballad, which Wagner claimed (after the fact and somewhat self-servingly) was the genesis and germ of the entire work. The ballad is, in any case, a magnificent piece of music, in which Senta not only tells a story but commits herself to redeem a man she has never met. What some would call a crazy celebrity crush, others recognize as a powerful woman staking out her own sense of identity.
Lydia Goehr proposes a reading that transfers the nineteenth-century idea of greatness—the passion to change the world through an encompassing love or pity for mankind—onto Senta. “In making the ballad her own, Senta makes it belong to everyone,” writes Goehr in a 2005 Opera Quarterly article. “In so doing, she becomes the work’s primary agent, the one who dictates what goes on around her. She is both granted and grants herself the position of creator: like Wagner, she produces a drama born out of world-redemptive pity.” Courtney Howland, in a book called Feminist Perspective on Opera: The Case of Richard Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer, takes this further, asking: Why, if Senta is so clearly a redeeming figure within a Christian context, is she not at least afforded the same respect as other Christ-like figures?
THE EXCITING THING about this kind of reading is that it not only helps rescue Senta as a character; it offers a roadmap for a larger rescue of operas from the worldview of the men who made them. If a work is sufficiently complex, there will always be loose ends and contradictions, threads that, if tugged at, yield things the composer and librettist may not have consciously intended. For all Wagner’s efforts to make Senta both a good girl and an allegory of his inner life, he nonetheless created a character with a remarkable amount of destabilizing energy. The same might be said of Bellini’s Norma, Puccini’s Tosca and Strauss’s Salome. They emerge from male fantasies and are punished horribly for embodying them. Yet they don’t lack agency, and if sung by a great soprano, each seems much more the author of her own drama than the composer and librettist who supposedly “created” her.
So perhaps the idea of redemption isn’t so empty after all. Wagner may have thought it meant a lot more than he could ever articulate. But at least it means this—to find the good in something, what is salvageable, what is self-sufficient and sustaining in a world that struggles to maintain old, delimiting and hierarchical ideas of humanity. Wagner may not have known what he meant by redemption, but Senta clearly did, and she chose that path of her own accord. That may trouble us even so, but we can at least respect it.
chief art critic for The Washington Post, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for criticism.