I took Taku to the opera to see The Flying Dutchman. “I don’t like Wagner,” he says. “You don’t know Wagner,” I says, “Keep an open mind.” By which I meant, of course, you’ve got to know them very well to love them, so let’s get started.
You don’t have to work all that hard to get Taku into the Opera House. He loves gold leaf and plush seats and the very thought of theatre. And he has sung along with Maria Callas since he was barely out of his teens. Besides, I bought us season tickets.
So we went to The Flying Dutchman. Both of us had run through the opera in preparation. I had bought the libretto as well as the CDs and spent an evening alone being carried away by this glorious sound. I was primed and ready. Taku was hesitant, but willing.
We sat side by side and saw the stage from Row A of the balcony. A nice clean view of the entire stage. But it became clear as we walked down the stairs after the two and a half hours without intermission, that we had had two distinctly different experiences. To wit,
Version 1 (Alan’s partial recall)
What minimalist staging. Glad I was warned. A recounting of a legend. Yes. That opening sailor music - yo ho heave ho. That’s how the English hear it, those people who brought you cock-a-doodle-do. Ei ukh nem, go the Russians, juchhe, the Germans. Why does it all sound so hokey? Obviously somebody’s notion of what a romantic sailor in a nice clean sailor suit ought to be singing. Oh happy happy sailor life. Not.
I digress. Let’s review the plot here. One of those deals with the devil. Like Faust and Mephistopheles, only this time the Devil didn’t play fair. There’s this Dutch seaman who once made the mistake of shouting to the Heavens, “I’m going to get this fucking ship around this goddam Cape of Good Hope if I have to sell my soul to the Devil.” Now we aren’t surprised, because we know our legends and the workings of old Beelzebub, that The Devil immediately accepted the offer. So now Dutch rides around at sea for seven years at a time, through the centuries, and there is no rest. A cruel and unusual punishment for a careless moment of passion.
Now either Old Lucifer is fair after all, or he’s a fallen god who likes to play with his victims –you’ll take the latter view if you are grounded in Western Civilization, of course, but he leaves this poor Hollander a way out of his dilemma. Once every seven years, he (the Devil) will let him (the Dutchman) land and look for a woman who will be “true to him till Death.” If he can find him a sacrificial virgin in one of his seven-year rest stops, he’s free. (This is Norway, not Chichen Itza, so women have to want to throw themselves into volcanos; otherwise the principle’s the same.)
Well guess what. It’s that time. And here he is in Sarvik - how’s that for a piece of trivia, the name of the fjord where the action in Dutchman begins. We don’t see the ships, but the entire stage becomes red and we’re to understand (because we’ve done our homework) that means the Dutchman’s ship with the red sails has just pulled in. Come to think of it, I also happen to know that the masts were black. I understand the red sails, it symbolizes blood and that scares the bejeezuz out of everybody he encounters, but why the black masts? Been reading Stendahl, have you Richy? Glides in so silently during the night up next to Daland’s boat that the Steuermann (who appears to be in castrato training, his voice is so high) on watch doesn’t hear a thing.
Now, as luck would have it, Daland has a daughter who dotes on him. This comes as no surprise, because otherwise we wouldn’t have a story.
OK, enough digressions. Let me cut to the chase. Dutchman offers pearls and stuff for a good night’s sleep and a woman to wed; Daland offers daughter Senta, this pisses off Erik, Senta’s boyfriend, hunter and plot-advancer extraordinaire; Senta likes the idea of saving somebody from death (she knows the truth about Dutch, turns out); Dutch overhears Erik ask Senta “What about those sweet nothings you once whispered into my ear?” misinterprets this as betrayal, and takes off. Senta flings herself into the ocean and saves Dutchman, end of opera. All so very epic like. A kind of Germanic Ben Hur. Lovely rich silly stuff. Absolutely lovely performance. Bravo. Bravo. Bravo all around to everybody.
Version 2 (Taku’s partial recall)
This Bear of a fellow, quite nice looking, actually, shows up and offers this guy some money for his daughter. Actually says, “I want a woman. Do you have one?” Can you imagine? And the father actually says yes!!! Two heroes of the patriarchy who talk about this woman as if she were property! Then in the next scene there are all these women spinning. As if women couldn’t do anything else. And this idiot, Senta, is going on about this man who has been condemned and she actually wants to save him! Get a life, Senta. Shows how the patriarchy has inculcated its values in the women, who have lives no better than slaves.
And then there’s all this talk about love and duty and honor and all this shit. Give me a break. Where’s the honor when this Dutchman is only thinking of himself?! He knows this is going to be a life of misery for Senta, but does he tell her? Absolutely not. He’s a user if there ever was one. We won’t even talk about Daland. He actually boasts of his daughter’s absolute devotion. Obviously this is a society where money is the only real value.
True till death? Are you crazy? This means Senta has to give up her sex life and become erotophobic while he’s out at sea? What manipulation. You don’t hear the Dutchman promising Senta he won’t masturbate. Like to see that happen.
Who’s this Erik character? Why is marrying a smelly animal-killer the only alternative? What a sick society. And she doesn’t even need twenty-four hours to say yes. Slut. Deserves what she gets. She should have a mind of her own. The only way to fight the patriarchy is to accept responsibility for your own actions. Why is she so fat? She’s only 16 or something like that? She looks 40, at least. Why do they think we’re going to think she’s 16? Slut.
Wake me when it’s over. I like Italian opera. This is shit. Is it because it’s German? Are Germans really like that? No romance. Just cold fat people. Honor and duty and no sensuality at ALL!
At this challenge to his cultural roots, Alan waxes didactic:
Alan M: Remember when Herder talked about nation-building? Wagner, like Herder, thought you did that by creating a cultural nation, by sniffing out German uniqueness in the heroic versions of folk tales uniquely Germanic. He was into myth, not reality!
Another Perspective: But why did he have to ruin opera to do it?
AM: Mozart is also German, remember. His themes were contemporary and silly because society was silly. Wagner was interested in the power of nation and the heroic story, Mozart in the music and in entertainment.
AP: Mozart wrote in Italian. Sounds like he didn’t want to be German.
AM: Mozart wrote Magic Flute in German! -- at the insistence of the anti-Italian forces in the Viennese court.
AP: I think he really wanted to be Italian. In any case, I don’t like these German stories. The Italians make better opera. They understand sensuality better. When are we going to Italy? I don’t have to see any more German operas, do I?
AM: Well, I think you’d like Rosenkavalier.
AP: That’s the opera which begins with an FTM (female to male transvestite) fucking her girlfriend and the overture ends in the orgasm?
AP: OK. I’ll go see that one.
October 15, 1997