“The Flying Dutchman” in San Francisco

The Flying Dutchman

Music by Richard Wagner

Libretto by the composer


In Wagner’s first masterpiece, a ship’s captain is condemned to endlessly travel the seas in search of true love. The “masterful” Patrick Summers (Houston Chronicle) conducts a cast of outstanding Wagnerians led by Greer Grimsley, who thrilled San Francisco Opera audiences as “a thunderous and dramatically compelling Jokanaan” in 2009’s Salome (San Francisco Chronicle). Making her San Francisco Opera debut as Senta is Lise Lindstrom, called “a fast-rising star of the dramatic soprano repertory and absolutely one to watch” (The Independent), when she appeared as Turandot at the Royal Opera House. Presented in celebration of the Wagner bicentennial year.

Sung in German with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes including one intermission

Pre-Opera Talks are free to ticketholders and take place in the main theater in the Orchestra section, 55 minutes prior to curtain.

Co-production with Opéra Royal de Wallonie (Liège, Belgium)

Production photos: Cory Weaver.

Audio excerpts are from the November 17, 2004 performance of The Flying Dutchman with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Donald Runnicles.


  • Tue 10/22/13 8:00pm
  • Sat 10/26/13 8:00pm
  • Thu 10/31/13 7:30pm
  • Sun 11/3/13 2:00pm *
  • Thu 11/7/13 7:30pm *
  • Tue 11/12/13 7:30pm *
  • Fri 11/15/13 8:00pm

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret-Taube Media Suite.


Production Credits

Conductor Patrick Summers
Director, Set Designer Petrika Ionesco
Costume Designer Lili Kendaka
Lighting Designer Gary Marder *
Projection Designer S. Katy Tucker
Chorus Director Ian Robertson
Choreographer Lawrence Pech

* San Francisco Opera Debut

Greer GrimsleySynopsis

An icy storm drives the sea captain Daland’s ship miles beyond his home on the coast. As the sky suddenly darkens and the waters again grow rough, another ship, a ghostly schooner, arrives and drops anchor next to Daland’s. Its captain, the Flying Dutchman, steps ashore, despairing of his fate. He once swore he would sail around the Cape of Good Hope if it took him forever, and the devil took him at his word. Once every seven years he may leave his ship in search of a woman who will redeem him from his deathless wandering if she gives him faithful, absolute love; failing this, he is condemned to roam the seas until the Day of Judgment. He tells Daland of his plight and offers a reward of gold and jewels for a night’s lodging. Then, discovering that Daland has a young daughter, the Dutchman asks for her hand in marriage. Daland, seeing the extent of the stranger’s wealth, immediately agrees. Instructing the Dutchman to follow, Daland sets sail for his home port.At Daland’s house, his daughter, Senta, dreamily watches village women as they spin and make sails. They tease the girl about her suitor, the huntsman Erik, but she remains in a trance. Staring at a portrait of the Flying Dutchman, she sings a ballad about the phantom captain. With burning intensity she prays that she may be the one to save him. Erik enters and, after the others have left, asks Senta to plead his cause with Daland. Noticing her preoccupation with the Dutchman’s picture, he relates a frightening dream in which he saw her embrace the Dutchman and sail away in his ship. Senta exclaims that this is her own dream as well, and the despairing Erik rushes away. A moment later, the Dutchman himself stands before the girl. He tells her of his sad lot, and she vows to be faithful to him unto death. Daland blesses the union.

At the harbor, the villagers celebrate the sailors’ return. They invite the Dutchman’s crew to join them but are frightened away by the ghostly crew’s weird chanting. Senta soon rushes in, pursued by Erik, who insists she has pledged her love to him. Overhearing this, the Dutchman believes himself betrayed and jumps aboard his ship. As horrified villagers crowd the shore, he reveals his name and nature and sets sail. Senta runs to the top of a cliff, triumphantly proclaiming herself faithful unto death, and leaps into the sea.

The Flying Dutchman… “theatrical vitality and emotional power.”
  –San Francisco Chronicle
“Lindstrom…gave a performance of vocal ferocity and strength.”
  –San Francisco Chronicle
“And perhaps most dazzlingly of all, there was Ian Robertson’s Opera Chorus, showing in a few perfectly balanced scenes why this group is so integral to the company’s success.”
  –San Francisco Chronicle
“There were strong showings by Adler Fellows A.J. Glueckert—superb and bright toned as the Steersman—and Erin Johnson as the officious Mary.”
“In the pit, Patrick Summers unleashed big bolts of sound from the Opera Orchestra.”
  –San Francisco Chronicle
“Grimsley’s voice is rich in colors, his projection is exemplary, and he enacts the cursed, woebegone Dutchman with believable authority.”
  –San Francisco Classical Voice
“Sigmundsson, as usual, is powerful and reliable.”
“The Act 1 duet between the two men is one of the highlights of the production.”
  –San Francisco Classical Voice
“Patrick Summers led the SFO Orchestra in an intense account that vividly captured the full spectrum of expression that Wagner realized through his score.”
  –San Francisco Examiner
“The Flying Dutchman is a work of ‘wild and somber beauty,’ as Gustav Kobbé put it. There is wildness in this production, some of it musically and dramatically thrilling.”
  –The Classical Review
“Grimsley makes a magnificent first impression…he exudes a kinetic energy even when standing perfectly still.”
“With the backing of conductor Patrick Summers’ spacious tempos and the orchestra’s dynamically plush sound, Grimsley unleashes a warmly thunderous expression of the Dutchman’s anguished search for the end to eternal wanderings. His suffering in this extended aria feels truly oceanic.”
  –The Classical Review
Lise Lindstrom has “a voice that can sound decisively piercing one moment, float innocently the next…the singer offers a Senta of multiple dimensions.”
  –The Classical Review
“Tenor Ian Storey finds the opera’s haunting, fateful heart here, as he spins out the narrative of his own undoing as Senta’s patient suitor.”
  –The Classical Review


Better Angels: The World of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman

Patrick Summers

Storm at Sea, 1865 (oil on canvas), by Gustave Courbet (1819–77)
Sieh, die Maschine:
wie sie sich wälzt and rächt
und uns entstellt und schwächt.

Hat sie aus uns auch Kraft,
sie, ohne Leidenschaft,
treibe und diene.
Behold the Machine:
how it rolls and wreaks vengeance
and drains and deforms us.
Yet since it receives strength from us,
let it without vehemence
drive and serve. The eighteenth of The Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926)

Composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883) was twenty-nine at the premiere of his Der Fliegende Holländer, (The Flying Dutchman) an opera generally regarded as the first flowering of a genius who would follow it with works of more profundity. But as usual with Wagner, an alternate view is equally valid: The Flying Dutchman can also be seen as a reactive culmination of the great cultural flowering of Romanticism. Though his later creations are indeed among the most profound written for any medium, if Wagner had written nothing after The Flying Dutchman he would be still be remembered as a great composer. Enrichment from Wagner’s most mature and abstract work, his 1882 Parsifal, is significantly aided by some prior study and knowledge, as its diaphanous textual symbolism and ethereal aural beauty combine into an experience without parallel in the opera house. The Flying Dutchman, however, is the most accessible of his music dramas (Wagner rarely used the word, “opera” to describe his works), and one in which the depth of his future creations can be most easily approached.

There was a time before him and a time after: Richard Wagner remains, in this 200th anniversary of his birth, the most controversial and visionary figure in Western art. He is emblematic of the “artist,” imbuing the word with ambiguous meanings it never before had. And small wonder: from nearly any perspective: political, philosophic, cultural, musical, theatrical, societal, racial, or religious, one can umpire any principle with some example in the life and/or works of the man, as testified by the estimated 30,000 books about him, a number that grows precipitously each year. This accounts for the wide array of visual styles associated with Wagnerian productions, because his ambiguous creations can support (nearly) any eccentricity foisted upon them.

Wagner is distinctly uncooperative to write about. It is obvious that he left the world a set creations unparalleled in their intellectual and emotional depth, but he also left us the idea that artists exist at the periphery of a society only they can accurately view, a position that still exacts a cultural toll whenever and wherever public funding for the arts is discussed and/or whenever art attempts a political statement. Every opera composer since Wagner has either emulated or reacted passionately against him; none could ignore him. Few artists in history were as vilified in their lifetime as Wagner, who fundamentally reordered the foundations of tonal harmony and permanently altered the expectations of what opera could communicate.

His status as this contradictory and pervasive cultural icon was largely posthumous, preceded by a time when he was simply an aspiring composer dreaming of breaking into the dominant poetic expression of his era. Romanticism rejected the emotional symmetry of the Enlightenment, preferring to traffic in the extremes of human emotion. Nothing in a Romantic-era story was more desirable than solitude with nature, either in a forest or in that grandest of human metaphors, adrift on the sea. Romanticism had little to do with current notions of “romance”; rather, the movement was an attempt to release the imagination, not through reality, but through the portrayal of deep melancholy and heightened emotions that bordered on violence. Apocalyptic storms mirrored hearts in turmoil; craggy coastlines were the settings of jagged relationships. Ancient natural beauty only threw into relief the pain of living and the brevity of it all. The musical apogee of Romanticism was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 of 1824, music unlike any heard up to that time. The open fifths that begin the work haunted Wagner “as a greeting from the spirit world,” and they can be found in The Flying Dutchman’s opening measure, conjuring the spirit of the title character’s torment.

Wagner’s theatrical ideal was Aeschylus, his musical idols Beethoven and—it is easy to forget— Vincenzo Bellini. Following The Flying Dutchman, Wagner eventually rejected the established tenets of Romanticism, further steeping himself in what he considered the only eternal art: German and Norse epic literature. From the 1840s onward he set out to revolutionize the opera house from what he considered decorative display and frilly sentimentality. His voracious literary appetite yielded the characters of Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Hans Sachs, Tristan, Isolde, Parsifal, and Siegfried; characters that would consume the remainder of his complex creative life.

Wagner worked hard to sculpt his personal narrative. In 1839, fleeing creditors in Riga, Russia, where he had been general music director for two seasons, Wagner sailed on the Thetis towards London. Rough seas forced them shelter in the port of Sandvike, Norway, which became the setting of The Flying Dutchman, the name of which we hear in the work’s opening moments. He tried, retroactively, to claim that this harrowing sea voyage inspired him to write The Flying Dutchman, which remains part of the lore of the work to this day. In actuality, he had sketched most of the text and some of the music already, though the voyage did contribute two artistic inspirations: the antiphonal “Ghost” chorus was inspired by Wagner hearing the echoes of the ship’s crew at port in Sandvike. Wagner’s original libretto set the work in Scotland, a common setting of Romantic-era art, as it was the farthest-flung outpost of Europe and held great mystery and adventure in its highlands and foggy moors. Did Wagner change the opera’s setting to Norway simply to distance his creation from his main source, Heinrich Heine’s 1833 retelling of the ancient Dutchman legend, or was he inspired simply by his unsettling nautical escape from Riga? Wagner acknowledged Heine’s influence, strongly at first, much more grudgingly as his career took flight. There is some logic in simply thinking that Wagner liked the alliteration of the Norwegian names more than the Scottish. As usual, with Wagner, the truth is murky.

The legend of The Flying Dutchman is as old as seafaring, and multiple permutations reemerged during the Industrial Revolution, as the tale of the mariner doomed to wander the seas aligned perfectly with the metaphor of mankind adrift in a soulless world of evermore sophisticated machinery. The basic story, while not specifically religious, is a parable of belief, for the wheels of the plot turn on rules and consequences: the Dutchman is able to come ashore only once every seven years, and if he can find a woman who will be faithful to him for life, his sin will be cleansed, his soul redeemed, and his watery curse ended. In most versions of the story, including Wagner’s, the title refers not to the man himself, but to his ship. Over time, several themes were superimposed on the tale, each reflecting a cultural shift of its time: in the late eighteenth century the story took on elements of crime and punishment, that the crew of the Dutchman was comprised of criminals doomed to never make landfall—shades of the British colonies in America, the loss of which in the 1770s left Britain with no place to send its prisoners, hence the brutal voyages of the “first fleet” from Britain to Australia. The most famous English-language version of the tale is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, from 1798, pocked with allusions that entered the ninteenth-century lexicon: “Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink; water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

Beyond the legend itself, several works played important roles that culminated in Wagner’s opera. Goethe’s vast novel, Faust, written and revised over decades, can be felt hovering over nearly every Romantic era story that followed it, and allusions to Faustian bargains are subtly found in The Flying Dutchman. The youthful Wagner was fascinated with ghost stories and by what might now be termed, “the occult,” and in this he was of his time, for supernatural stories enjoyed wide popularity in the early years of Romanticism. Novels by Mary Shelley (Frankenstein, 1818) and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley (Prometheus Unbound, 1820) set off decades of books about the dangers of modern science, and shades of both are cast upon The Flying Dutchman.

Elements of two operas Wagner conducted as a young man can also be found in his Dutchman. Now known only to connoisseurs, Heinrich Marschner’s 1828 opera, Der Vampyr (The Vampire), was thought one of the great works of its day, and Marschner was one of the few of Wagner’s fellow composers he didn’t publicly trounce.  More well-documented is the influence on Wagner of Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821), an opera aligned with Wagner’s infatuation with the supernatural and that remains in the active repertoire of many German-speaking opera houses.

Paris was the most active operatic center for new works during Wagner’s formative years, and one forgotten opera he heard there played a unique role in The Flying Dutchman. La Dame Blanche (The White Lady), provided the opening musical phrase of Dutchman’s famous “Spinning” chorus, which Wagner stole with precision but made better, and also an aria of La Dame Blanche’s leading lady bears close resemblance to what Wagner would make more memorable in his ballade aria for Senta.

For all of the influence of French opera-comique and the German Romantic movement, The Flying Dutchman owes its first performances, as do so many works we now know and love, to the advocacy of an important singer, one of the most renowned of her era, Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient (1804–1860) who premiered the role of Senta. Wagner wrote in his autobiography that witnessing her early performances as Leonore in Fidelio inspired him to pursue a life in composition. Scholars closely examining the peregrinations of both have determined he could not have seen her as Leonore when he was sixteen, as he claimed throughout his life. But he certainly saw her later as Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuletti e i Montecchi, and he conducted her in many roles in the early 1830s. Her greatness as a singer was eclipsed for a time following the posthumous publication of her prurient memoirs. They were, Wagnerian-style, almost entirely fabricated, but their sexual frankness ensured their popularity. For a brief time it was the book no one admitted buying but that everyone privately read.

Conceived as a character of the utmost nobility, Senta can seem simply a pawn for the men in the drama: her father, Daland, feels a bit too eager to sell her, and the Dutchman wants her for his own redemption before he knows her. But The Flying Dutchman transcends the plot norms of its era with the only operatic quality that is ever transcendent: its dazzling score. Wagner wrote extraordinarily pictorial music several generations before the cinematic era, prompting various commentators to opine that Wagner, had he lived in the twentieth century, would have been a renowned film composer—a profession difficult to align with a man who dominated everything and everyone in his orbit. Rarely has a composer summoned more musical energy in a shorter time than Wagner did in this opera: listen to the inexorable drive to the end of the work with the arrival of the “Ghost” chorus. Or the rousing “Sailors” chorus that opens the final scene, or the huge choral conversation between the men and women, something never before seen to such an extent on the opera stage. The opera alternates between rousing nautical tunes and Bellini-inspired arching melodies that limn the work with fragility. Angels permeate the libretto of The Flying Dutchman, and they find metaphysical musical expression throughout it, most poignantly in the in the opera’s final sung text, by Senta, “Preis’ deinen Engel und sein Gebot! Hier steh’ ich treu dir bis zum Tod!” (Praise your angel and his vows. Here I am, true to you until death.)

Though it is counterintuitive to a man about whom there is so much opinion and documentation, there is ultimately no way to “know” Wagner nor is there a definitive way to perform him, because his art provokes inquisition and a continuation of life’s artistic search; it has nothing in it that approaches the static. For as long as we value in our culture the qualities of introspection, curiosity, and our unique ability to think about thinking, Wagner’s works will find their way, as they always have, into our definition of ourselves. That a person of such questionable integrity could invent works of such depth and value is perhaps a sign of cautious hope, and should give us pause. Many artists would be surprised at the longevity of their creations. Wagner, though, would likely feel about himself much as we do here in 2013: that it is difficult to recover from the unsettling wonder he set forth.

Patrick Summers is artistic and music director for Houston Grand Opera and principal guest conductor for San Francisco Opera.

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Hell, Paradise, and Parody

Thomas May

“…[T]he faithful woman hurls herself into the sea and the curse on the Flying Dutchman is lifted, he is redeemed, and we see the ghostly ship sinking to the bottom of the sea. The moral of this piece, for women, is that they should beware of marrying a Flying Dutchman; and we men should draw from it the lesson that women, at best, will be our undoing.”

The Flying Dutchman, published in Collier’s Weekly, December 8, 1900 (oil on canvas),
by Howard Pyle (1853–1911)

It might not be unreasonable to assume this quotation comes from a critic hostile to Wagner. Or perhaps it represents a merry ribbing of the unintended absurdities that never seem far from the surface in his operas, a la Anna Russell? (“The scene opens in the River Rhine. IN it.”) Yet this sardonic wink at the climactic scene of The Flying Dutchman is actually taken from the chief source Wagner used for the opera in which, as consensus has it, he began to realize his authentic voice for the first time.

That source is “The Fable of the Flying Dutchman,” an episode contained within the longer unfinished novel Aus den Memoiren des Herren von Schabelewopski (From the Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski), which was published in late 1833— eight years before Wagner composed the bulk of his opera. Its author is the great German–Jewish writer Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), and his narrator recounts this story as the plot of a play he has witnessed; his retelling of what he sees onstage moreover embeds an erotically titillating episode involving a seductive fellow audience member (her sexually loose behavior making her a kind of anti-Senta).

Heine here applies his celebrated genius for irony to the tale of the wretched mariner whose defiant pride has doomed him to sail forever on a phantom ship. (In both Heine and Wagner, “the Flying Dutchman” refers not to the protagonist, who is unnamed, but to his doomed ship.) Heine’s bathetic parody of Romantic pathos was so effective precisely on account of the popularity of this relatively modern variant of an ageless legend (a principle that can still be seen operating in the success of films like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise). The meme of the Cursed Sailor and his crew likely took shape as European empires expanded their maritime trade activities. While it had made the leap from oral folk tale to literature only recently, the culture was already saturated with this meme when Heine added his cynical depiction of “Mrs. Flying Dutchman”—already by 1826 the London playwright Edward Fitzball could score a hit with a partially farcical, over-the-top melodramatic treatment of this material.

Everyone loves a good ghost story, of course, and Shakespeare and Stephen King alike know how to captivate their audiences with a chilling yarn that can simultaneously provide entrée into something more profound. But the Dutchman motif proved especially alluring in the emerging era of Romanticism. From poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner) and Thomas Moore to popular German storytellers of the early nineteenth century, it quickly made a trans-Atlantic crossing and became a theme frequently encountered in American letters. Examples include the writings of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe (both “MS Found in a Bottle” and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym introduce Poe’s own fascinating twists on this material).

The Dutchman’s eerie fate gratified a craving for tales of supernatural crime and punishment that also found expression in the work of several of Wagner’s predecessors: most notably, the German Romantic operas of Carl Maria von Weber and Heinrich Marschner (who composed one on a faddish vampire story) and Giacomo Meyerbeer’s early French grand opera Robert le Diable.

Nor was Wagner without precedent in recognizing in his cursed protagonist a resonant metaphor for deeper existential questions. The Gothic sense of alienation from ordinary society that is key to Wagner’s portrayal of the Dutchman taps into related currents of darker Romantic angst about modernity—as seen, for example, in Lord Byron’s world-weary anti-hero Manfred and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s precocious novel Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. In addition, as Dieter Borchmeyer remarks in Drama and the World of Richard Wagner, the Dutchman of lore can be viewed as “a symbol of the hubristic spirit of discovery that transgressed the boundaries of knowledge and experience” dictated by religion” and “is thus the maritime equivalent of Faust.”

It’s not by coincidence that during his exile in Paris, Wagner abandoned work on a Goethe-inspired Faust Symphony not long before embarking on The Flying Dutchman. (He later published what he had completed as an independent concert overture.) The composer himself analyzed this move toward “the specificity of the drama” as a liberation “from the mists of instrumental music.”

Wagner’s intense attraction to the Dutchman legend can hardly be explained as an attempt to exploit a topic made fashionable by popular culture. In fact, hot on the heels of his first commercial success with Rienzi, the more artistically adventurous Flying Dutchman initially earned a lukewarm reception (there were only four performances of the original Dresden production).

Another angle from which to consider the tale’s grip on the composer’s imagination, according to Joachim Köhler’s controversial biography Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans, is arguably an inner need to exorcize “the traumatic experiences of horror and the fear of ghosts that kept him awake at night”—terrors that in Köhler’s portrayal had been imprinted on him as a sensitive child. And in a fascinating essay on The Flying Dutchman in the context of the operatic genres of its time, Wagner expert Thomas Grey writes that the composer turned the “melodramatic” claptrap associated with the story—“with its mysterious portraits, invisible voices, ersatz folk ballads, and sentimental ‘romances’”—into “an allegory of Romantic alienation, love, and redemption.” In doing so, “Wagner was aiming to rehabilitee this ailing branch [the “homely genre” of German Romantic opera] of his artistic patrimony.”

Yet what drew Wagner so compulsively to the satirical version of the legend set forth by the notoriously anti-Romantic Heine, whose ironic posture he simply stripped away? Heine, in fact, exercised a far-ranging influence on Wagner’s future career. The aspiring young artist had been befriended by the poet, a fellow exile in Paris who welcomed him into his circle (and quite possibly even helped Wagner polish his French prose in the scenario he prepared for submission to the Paris Opera). Köhler points out that “virtually all the mythological themes that were to be associated with Wagner’s name were already touched on” in Heine’s writings (such as the Grail legends, the tale of Tristan and Isolde, the riding Valkyries, and Tannhäuser’s excursion into the forbidden Venusberg). And in his earlier autobiographical accounts, Wagner credited Heine for giving him “all I needed to adapt the [Dutchman] legend and use it as an operatic subject”—though Wagner’s metastasizing anti-Semitism likely underlay his later suppression of any reference to his debt to Heine.

“One must be able to joke about the most sublime of things,” declared Wagner (as reported by his wife Cosima in her diaries). Borchmeyer adds that “as early as 1840 [before he had even completed his Dutchman libretto] he had written French parodies of Senta’s Ballad and the Sailors’  Chorus, showing how tragic themes immediately evoked parodic associations in his imagination.”  (When you get down to it, “The Ride of the Valkyries” is not such a great distance from vaudeville.) By way of making sense of Wagner’s transformation of the satirical source he discovered in Heine into a primal existential drama, Borchmeyer suggests that “the subject has reacquired its former tragic seriousness, having lived through the experience of its own comic negation…which explains why, in turn, Wagner’s music dramas have repeatedly invited writers to parody them.”

Thomas May, a regular contributor to San Francisco Opera’s programs, is an internationally published arts writer. He blogs at memeteria.com.

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Poets of Sound

William Berger

In case you hadn’t heard, 2013 marks the bicentenary of the births of the two giants of opera, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. It is inevitable that we should compare the two and continue to discuss their relative merits, but much of what is repeated about Wagner and Verdi has grown stale and dogmatic. What was understood about them a hundred years ago was either never true to begin with, or is no longer true in the same way.

Perhaps the best way to celebrate this anniversary is to elevate and expand the discussion surrounding their colossal art.

Download a PDF of this article here

The pairing together of Verdi and Wagner stems from their supreme position in the opera world as well as their common birth year, but there’s still more. People tend to think of them as a sort of “bad cop/good cop” couple, with the faults and glories of one defining those of the other. Wagner, of course, is the “bad cop”: an evil man who stole other men’s wives, never paid his bills, and was an anti-Semitic maniac whose prose spoutings (and perhaps his coded messages in his works) created the blueprint for the Third Reich.

Let’s unpack this. He had two notable affairs with married women—Mathilde Wesendonck and Cosima von Bülow. They weren’t anyone’s property to steal, and in both cases the husbands in question participated to various degrees in facilitating the affairs. We don’t even know the exact clinical definition of Wagner’s relationship with Frau Wesendonck, and once he and Cosima committed to each other, they remained loyal. One searches hard (as have many) for evidence of further affairs. Herr von Bülow’s daughters gained a standing in Wagner’s household equal to that of Wagner’s own children with Cosima—there was very little fuss about “his” vs. “my” children. Wagner did run up bills, and run away from them, but so have many other artists (the great librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte ran as far as Hoboken, New Jersey to escape his creditors), and Wagner was generous when he had money. He was undeniably anti-Semitic, and his obsessive rants on the subject cannot be dismissed in any sort of “let’s just enjoy the music” conspiracy of denial. However, they and their effect on his works must be considered judiciously and with perspective. As it is unacceptable to dismiss his anti-Semitism as irrelevant to his art, so is it unacceptable to dismiss his art as being unacceptable anti-Semitic propaganda.

Here’s the thing: whatever he was, listening to his operas will not make you anti-Semitic. This appears to be the deep-rooted fear, and we must put it to rest. Responding to Wagner’s art will not make you a raging Nazi any more than enjoying a Fanta soda or wearing a Chanel suit will. Similarly, gripping performances of Der Fliegende Holländer have never, to my knowledge, made anyone jump off a cliff in imitation of the frenzied heroine of that great work. Opera doesn’t work that way.

We need to have a better conversation about the relationship between art and politics. There is a relationship, but that fact should not function as a justification of one’s personal dislike of Wagner operas. The simplistic formula of “Wagner = Nazi = Bad” is worse than spurious: it’s precisely the sort of all-or-nothing thinking that is the preexisting condition necessary for the success of totalitarian politics. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Alex Ross recently made a chilling point on this subject, saying “Hitler has won a posthumous victory in seeing his idea of Wagner become the defining one.”

For our present purposes, this reductive conception of Wagner provides an additional disservice: it makes Verdi, perforce, a saint. Verdi and Wagner were both more complex, nuanced, and ultimately interesting than this. For example, Verdi’s dealings with his (eventual) wife Giuseppina Strepponi belie his irreproachable image. It appears he caused her to give up a young son from a previous liaison for adoption, as well as a baby girl who may well have been his own daughter, and it seems there were financial as well as social considerations behind these decisions. Whatever the reasons, it stands in contrast to Wagner, who spent money (borrowed, admittedly) to raise Bülow’s children once he took responsibility for them. Giuseppina’s later letters to Verdi begging to spend more time in Milan—near his mistress—so she could occasionally see a selected few other human beings are truly wrenching. There must have been times when this woman envied Cosima’s relative freedom and status in society. Verdi once dismissed a tenant laborer from his estate for “stealing” an orange off a tree. He was not a bad man. He was human. He never denied his operatic characters their humanity; we should not deny him his.

Some of the assumptions about who Wagner and Verdi were as people might be informed by our deeply seated ideas about the nations they represent: Germany is seen as formidable, brainy, scary; Italy is vivacious and melodic but unthreatening, romantic (literally), and tasty but not very substantial. Italian culture charms us; German culture commands our respect. It’s time to dispense with these clichés and the operatic prejudices they engender. It used to be thought that Wagner was difficult for people to grasp while Verdi was easy. This may have been true 100 years ago (I doubt it), but it is absolutely not true today. Movie soundtracks, for example, are structured much like Wagner scores, and the general public is quite comfortable with systems of leitmotifs. Conversely, some of Verdi’s most powerful moments are so economically expressed (e.g. Rigoletto’s shifting moods in his narrative “Pari siamo” and Desdemona’s “Ah! Emilia, addio!” in Act IV of Otello) that the easily distracted modern listener may miss them. Also, while Wagner’s operas are indisputably profound, Verdi’s are equally so. His genius for melody merely confused scholars for many years. But repeated hearings have made it apparent that the score of his Requiem, for example, or the first five minutes (the “Storm Scene”) of Otello present profound cosmological studies. Our attempts to pigeonhole these two giants into respective roles are illogical, unconstructive, and partly informed by tired cultural assumptions. Perhaps the best response we can offer to Wagner’s racism is a fearless and unceasing reassessment of our own.

We need new thinking not only when we contrast Verdi and Wagner: we need to engage in a little old fashioned myth-busting when we try to assess their similar achievements. It is often repeated that their greatest accomplishment lay in superseding earlier conventions of operatic form (set arias, choruses, ensembles, and so forth) for a more fluid, through-composed style that liberated the entire art. Indeed, Wagner himself told everyone (in volumes of contentious prose) that this was his intent. He wouldn’t even call his later works “operas,” emphasizing their uniqueness with the term “music dramas.” It’s a case of Wagner the Theorist confusing rather than elucidating Wagner the Composer. It’s time to say bluntly that the Theorist was wrong. He was wrong about Jews being the problem with music and he was wrong about arias being the problem with opera. Other commentators dutifully echoed the master’s dicta, and have ever since. They’ve applied the same ideas to Verdi, who also sought to transcend what he considered limiting conventions of earlier opera with his final masterpieces.
The problem is that this has just enough truth to be truly misleading. We’ve learned that operas before Wagner (from composers like Donizetti, whom Wagner disdained) have dramatic validity if they are performed well. Many of Mozart’s operas appear at least as modern as Wagner’s, and who in Wagner’s day could have predicted the modern enthusiasm for Handel’s stylized baroque operas? And while scholars have always conceded the genius of Verdi’s final operas Otello and Falstaff (really, how could they not?), his earlier masterpieces (Rigoletto, La Traviata, et al.) have not diminished in stature. Indeed, his initial successes (Nabucco, Ernani, et al.) have grown in public and scholarly estimation. Similarly, some thought only Wagner’s mature “music dramas” should be presented at the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth, but Wagner himself disagreed. He decreed that all his operas from Der Fliegende Holländer on should be performed there.

It’s true, however, that both Verdi and Wagner continued to grow throughout their careers, and their final works were truly revolutionary even for them. But the power of these works lies not in being free of operatic conventions (they’re actually not); their power derives from the fact that their composers soared to unprecedented heights of artistic expression when they felt themselves free to write what they wanted.

Here’s what Verdi and Wagner really had in common, and why they rule the opera house: They knew the human voice better than anyone who ever lived—not just the voice that sings on the stage (although that too), but the multiplicity of voices within each human representing internal processes.

Literalists don’t really get opera. A father once told me he had a unique experience of Wotan’s farewell in Die Walküre’s Act III because he had to say goodbye to his favorite daughter when she went to college. I asked him if siblings who commit incest experience that opera’s Act I more deeply than the rest of us. The artistic genius lies not in making an abstract experience personal to you, but in making your personal experience universal to all. Thus Wotan’s farewell is about every time we have to mortify the best part of ourselves. Whenever we have to sacrifice an ideal to the demands of real life (i.e. Fricka), we are putting our “favorite daughter” to sleep and keeping her moribund. The music makes the “word” (story, idea, logos) global, beyond language, ego, dogma.

Verdi does this as well as Wagner, especially with the symbolic pairing of fathers and daughters (e.g. Simon Boccanegra and Rigoletto). Verdi and Wagner wed dramatic context and voice types as departure points to create dramas—not the other way around (as many lesser composers do, using the voice to illustrate and [they hope] heighten dramatic situations). Verdi and Wagner are not painters of words. They are the opposite. They use words to help us get to the meaning of the music. It’s better to think of them as poets of sound.

They knew voices well enough to explore complex human dynamics and interactions even beyond the one-on-one examples cited above: They could depict four individuals with conflicting agendas in a single moment (Rigoletto Act III quartet); or formerly conflicting individuals arriving at a place of harmony (Die Meistersinger Act III quintet); or an individual against a group (Aida Act II); or the individual against God (“Libera me” of Verdi’s Requiem); or the community against God (Otello storm scene); or the community with God against an individual (Parsifal, Act III); or individuals against each other against nations against other nations against God (Don Carlo, Act III), and so forth. They are masters of change and transformation—Tristan and Isolde as individuals becoming ideas; Der Ring des Nibelungen of one cosmic order becoming another; Parsifal of death becoming rebirth; and the transformation of entire communities (the finales of Falstaff and Die Meistersinger).

They didn’t manipulate the human voice for its own sake—a worthy exercise in itself—but they accomplished so much more. Their voices evoke our own, ones we didn’t even know we had and didn’t know needed to be expressed, the way a stricken note on a string instrument will cause other strings to quiver. And they did it so effectively that, if there is a world 200 years from now, people will be talking about why these two artists continue to hold such a unique position in the performing arts.

William Berger is a writer and radio producer for the Metropolitan Opera. His books include Wagner Without Fear, Puccini Without Excuses, and Verdi With a Vengeance.

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