Wagner creates mythology out of legend

The Flying Dutchman is a fairy tale for adults

Even non-opera aficionados are familiar with the name Richard Wagner. It’s a name often associated with controversy particularly because the German opera composer was in the words of University of Calgary German studies professor Maria Euchner a “raging anti-Semite.” Wagner who died in 1883 was also one of Hitler’s favourite composers.

“Wagner was very eccentric. He was extremely egotistical. He was a misogynist” says Euchner.

For example Euchner says in all but one of Wagner’s works the women die for the men in their lives. “His romantic notion of love is one of female self-sacrifice.”

Despite these less-than-stellar attributes Wagner is one of the 19th century’s musical revolutionaries and produced some of history’s most powerful music.

“His music hits me right in the heart” says Euchner adding that people have to decide for themselves how to reconcile the artist’s personal life with his art.

Calgary Opera is bringing one of Wagner’s early operas to the stage. The Flying Dutchman which premiered in 1843 tells the story of a sea captain whose spirit is forced to roam the seas until he finds a woman who will be his true and faithful wife and only then will he be released from his curse. Senta the daughter of a Norwegian sea captain is the woman who will prove her fidelity and free him from his restless journey.

“Wagner’s particular genius is that he took a legend which has existed in many cultures and he created a mythology out of it. A legend would exploit what the seaman did whereas a mythology explores the relationship between people…. It’s a fairy tale for adults” says Kelly Robinson who directs the production.

Unlike many opera composers Wagner wrote his own librettos. “He put dramatic action back into the forefront of his operas” says Euchner adding that Wagner found the Italian opera of the mid-19th century “too artificial” and so started his reform of the art form including introducing the tradition of dimming the lights during a theatrical performance.

“Wagner wrote about people who needed to know what they felt…. His work deals much more with an interior landscape than an exterior one” Robinson says adding that Wagner’s revolutionary psychological approach to opera presents some unique challenges for directors.

“Rather than an exploration of some emotional response to an event which you can physicalize a lot of Wagner is really about characters coming to grips with their thoughts about things. Often there’s not a lot of stage action. Audiences tend to want to see action” he adds.

As such Robinson says productions of The Flying Dutchman incorporate lighting and other stage effects.

Another challenge companies face in mounting a Wagnerian “music drama” — as his operatic works became known — involves the sheer enormity of the productions. In The Flying Dutchman Robinson estimates there are some 85 people in the cast and chorus plus another 80 musicians in the orchestra.

While Wagner is often thought of as “inaccessible” Robinson says that stereotype no longer holds true in the 21st century.

The Flying Dutchman is quite a simple story made rich by this extraordinary score. Wagner is often overladen with needless complexity” says Robinson.


In conjunction with Calgary Opera’s production of The Flying Dutchman University of Calgary German studies professor Maria Euchner has organized a free public symposium on it controversial creator Richard Wagner. “I want to dispel the underlying belief that opera is an elitist art form” she says.

The symposium will include six talks on various aspects of Wagner and his work ranging from his music to the controversies surrounding his writings to anecdotes from University of Calgary music professor Donald Bell about working with Wagner’s grandsons.

Pianist Kathleen van Mourik will also play “Senta’s Ballad” from the opera and there’ll be a round-table discussion about Calgary Opera’s production featuring director Kelly Robinson.

Euchner says she wants to bring people from the academic and artistic communities together for the symposium as well as members of the general public who “are thinking about opera but feel they don’t know enough about it” in the hopes of encouraging them to experience the art form for themselves.

The Wagner Symposium takes place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday February 1 at the Rozsa Centre. Admission is free.