Before having children, my husband and I frequented the theatre, the symphony, and museums, taking advantage of the cultural offerings in Toronto. And when I was single I went to the ballet, Shakespeare plays, and on occasion, the opera, buying a last-minute discounted single ticket. I’ve always enjoyed the arts in any form, and although I like movies and concerts, I’d prefer to see a play or an exhibit at a museum when I have the opportunity.
When our children were small our theatrical outings tended towards productions like “Barney” at the Skydome and “Disney on Ice” at Maple Leaf Gardens. One evening, in desperation for a more cultural diversion, my husband and I booked a babysitter last minute and made plans to see a play. “The Master Builder,” by the renowned 19th century Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen, was playing downtown, and when I called about tickets, there were still some available.
As usual, getting out the door was a challenge; we arrived at the Hummingbird Centre (now the Sony Centre) at 7:55, with barely a minute to spare. I hurried to the box office to buy the tickets while my husband parked the car. Relieved to have made it in time, I quickly paid for them and waited by the door. When my husband arrived, we grabbed a program and dashed to our seats.
As we congratulated ourselves for our perfect timing, the lights dimmed, the curtains opened and the production began. A huge wooden ship loomed on the stage, rocking up and down against the backdrop of a stormy night; several ghost-like figures hung precariously from the ship’s rafters.
How strange; wasn’t “The Master Builder” supposed to be set in the home of a middle-aged architect in Norway? I’d read the reviews and was expecting a drama about a man who had built a great business at the cost of his relationships and his personal life. Where did a ship on a stormy sea come into the story? Then the orchestra played and the singing began. In German.
I looked at my program, trying to make out the words in the dark: “The Flying Dutchman” by Richard Wagner? This was no Madame Butterfly or Carmen, with colourful costumes and pleasing operatic tunes. From the start, this was a tale of doom, the music as morose as the ominous setting.
In our crazy rush to get to the show on time, I’d mistaken the venue. As it turned out, the Ibsen play was at the St. Lawrence Theatre, two blocks down the street. I couldn’t believe it.
I squinted to read the synopsis: “The story comes from the legend of the Flying Dutchman about a ship captain condemned to sail on his Norwegian ship until judgment day.” The only thing the two shows had in common was their Norwegian setting.
I tried to open my mind to the possibility of enjoying this opera, but without success. All I could think of was how I wished I was watching “The Master Builder” instead, and how painfully morbid this opera was. Having paid a good penny for the tickets, and having planned to infuse ourselves with a dose of culture that evening, we stuck it out until the end.
Reading The Globe & Mail Special Interest Supplement yesterday, I saw that “The Flying Dutchman” is back in Toronto. The headline calls it, “Wagner’s most gloriously romantic opera.” Either my memory serves me wrong, or I completely misinterpreted the production I saw twelve years ago. The article points out that in the end the female protagonist, Senta, saves the sailor by killing herself when she realizes he thinks she is not faithful to him. “It’s a very peaceful ending,” says Johannes Debus, music director of the Canadian Opera Company.
Either I have a lot to learn about opera, or Debus’ definition of peaceful is different from mine. I cannot remember one peaceful aspect of this production or any “gloriously romantic music.”
“The Flying Dutchman” has been performed to appreciative audiences throughout the world for over 150 years. Perhaps I should see it again, but when I’m not so rushed and when there are no surprises. Who knows...maybe I’d enjoy it the second time around.
Interesting note: While researching Richard Wagner, I learned that he composed “The Flying Dutchman” in a desperate attempt to re-invent himself after squandering all his wealth through an extravagant lifestyle. He had run up huge debts and tried to flee his creditors by escaping from Germany to Paris via London, where he hoped to make his fortune. The only way to escape was by an illegal crossing over the Prussian border, which turned out a disaster because his wife had a miscarriage en route. They found a ship that would take them without passports, but the sea journey was hindered by storms and high seas. The supposed eight-day trip took three weeks.
In Paris, Wagner couldn’t get work as a conductor and the “Opera” was not interested in producing his most recent piece, “Rienzi.” With no income, the Wagners had to rely on handouts from friends to get by. At the end of his rope, Wagner came upon the idea of the Flying Dutchman, (inspired by his horrible sea voyage) which would ultimately turn his life around.
The first production took place in Dresden in January 1843, with Wagner conducting.