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What is the Opera The Flying Dutchman?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 16 March 2014
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Der fliegende Holländer, The Flying Dutchman in English, is a romantische Oper in three acts by the German composer Richard Wagner, with his own libretto, based on Henirch Heine’s novel fragment Aus den Memoiren des Herren von Schnalbelewopski which appeared in volume 1 of Der Salon in 1834. Wagner is also known for his operas Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, and The Ring Cycle.

The choice of themes that led to The Flying Dutchman was, according to Wagner, influenced by a stormy sea voyage that he took in 1839 and during which he heard the story of the Wandering Jew, condemned to sail forever, with only one day in port every seven years. The premiere of The Flying Dutchman took place in Dresden at Königliches Sächsisches Hoftheater on 2 January, 1843, with Wagner conducting.

The story of The Flying Dutchman opens on a Norwegian ship captained by Daland that has just cast anchor in a storm. With the steersman left on watch, the crew goes to sleep, and the Flying Dutchman’s ship appears. The Dutchman tells of being condemned to sail until he finds redemption. Daland hails the strange ship, and the captain introduces himself as a Dutchman and offers Daland a great reward for a night’s lodging. Daland is pleased with this and also with the Dutchman’s interest in his daughter.

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Act II opens with the women at home spinning, with Senta, Daland’s daughter idly examining a painting of the Flying Dutchman and singing the ballad that tells his story. It is through this ballad that the cause of the Flying Dutchman’s curse is revealed: he is being punished for a blasphemous oath. Senta suddenly declares that she will be the means through which the Flying Dutchman achieves salvation.

Erik, a huntsman in love with Senta, has appeared and is concerned by her declaration. He tells her he loves her. but she is not interested. She is more interested in his tale of a dream in which her father brought home the stranger from the picture on her wall. He ends up leaving in despair, as Senta returns to her study of the picture. It is now that her father enters with the Dutchman.

Senta is so taken up with the Flying Dutchman’s appearance that she fails to greet her father. Daland goes out, and in a duet, Senta tells the Dutchman that she means to be his redemption, and he warns her of the cost should she fail to be constant. Daland returns and asks if the homecoming feast should also be a betrothal festivity, and the act ends happily.

At the opening of Act III, the Norwegian sailors are celebrating aboard their ship, while the ship of the Dutchman is silent, even when the Norwegians call to the sailors, inviting them to join the festivities. After a long interval, the crew begins a ghostly song as a storm rises.

Senta enters, followed by Erik, who reminds he that she once pledged her fidelity to him and wants to know why she now pledges to the Dutchman. The Dutchman, overhearing, releases her from her promise to him to save her from a fate like his. As he boards his ship, Senta throws herself into the sea, proclaiming her loyalty. The ship and crew sink, and the scene reveals the Dutchman and Senta embracing, now transfigured.

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