Below is an essay on the Gothic craze that swept the Romantic artists of 19th century in Europe (and the US). Wagner was one of those fascinated by this trend. The Flying Dutchman - coming up at Opera Roanoke September 21 & 23 - was his first gothic masterpiece.
The Romantic Gothic, Wagner & Vampirism (or: Dutchman ain’t Twilight)
During this season of interesting travels, adventures and artistic musings we have enjoyed spending time with various artists who might be “outside the box” of the mainstream, so-called members of the avant-garde or simply fascinating characters unknown because unread un-translated unsung or unperformed… A couple of such eccentric writers relatively new to us include G. de Nerval & H.P. Lovecraft. Their nocturnal settings, strange dreamworlds & mysterious visions connect directly to the Romantic & Gothic realm of Wagner. All three romantics were influenced by the fantastic Tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann & the craze for the “Un-dead” Byron helped inspire across the “dark & stormy” 19th century. More on both influences in a moment.
The Flying Dutchman is arguably the most gothic of Wagner’s operas and is frequently referred to as “Vampiric” in motif and character. Senta’s love for the Dutchman is echoed today in (among many others) the popular teen series Twilight*, another adaptation of the “lost soul” or “dark love" story of a young bride beloved of and / or by a vampire, devil (Mephistopheles) or creature who may take the form of anything from a handsome young Faust to a Frankenstein, a Jekyll & Hyde, Doppelgänger,Vlad the Impaler or a Vampire King in Louisiana… This complex ‘villain’ may be an historical figure or he may be a Shakespearean anti-hero (the so-called “tragic hero” which finds Macbeth keeping company with Hamlet, and King Lear dining with Othello in the Bard’s pantheon of tragic heroes, anti-heroes and generally flawed humans).
The Gothic fad that coursed across Europe in the 19th century (and has not abated since) may have begun in 1816 when Lord Byron had the clever idea of creating literary “ghost stories” during the so-called “Year without a Summer” in which stormy and unseasonably cool weather swept across the continent and forced many indoors for their holidays.
Sounds positively chilling already, doesn't it?!
Byron’s circle was exceptionally literate and included the great writers Percy Bysshe Shelley and his equally gifted wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (whose Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus was the most famous fruit of Byron’s challenge until Stoker’s Dracula). It was Byron’s physician, however, who wrote what many consider to be the first Vampire story. And since Dr Polidori’s novella, The Vampyre was falsely attributed to that original Byronic hero George Gordon (aka: Lord Byron) its success was insured from its release.
This new Gothic strain of literary Romanticism felt itself kin to the “classical” revival also spreading across 19th century Europe. These so-called “romantics” were Janus-faced visionaries who invented new forms and revived old ones in new ways. These artists connected back through the Renaissance to the ancient world of the Greco-Roman-Egyptian-Babylonian gods, myths, spirits, sirens & creatures. Indeed, “weird” tales would remain in vogue well beyond the ever-ebbing tides of “Romanticism.” In American literature a line runs clearly from Edgar Allan Poe through his fellow romantics Hawthorne and Melville to the 20th century master H.P. Lovecraft. European writers indebted enthralled or included in this new craze for scary stories start with E.T.A. Hoffmann (whose bizarre tales have inspired many operas and spin-offs). Other literary giants participated, from Nikolai Gogol, the Grimm brothers, Alexander Dumas (of Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Crisco fame, source of the novel upon which Verdi based La Traviata) to Bram Stoker and Sheridan Le Fanu (whose novella Carmilla would inspire one of the original vampire [silent] films, Dreyer’s Vampyr). This gothic strain appears across the 20th century from the “dystopian” visions of Kafka & Borges, the “magic realism” of Latin American literature, and among other varieties, the gothic fantasies of Margaret Atwood, Anne Rice and Haruki Marukami (to name a random trio from our library). Back to Wagner.
We had the exciting and daunting task at the 2009 Bard Festival of singing Wagner’s “insert aria” for the romantic opera Der Vampyr, by Heinrich Marschner (based on Ritter’s story, Der Vampyr, oder die Totenbraut – The Vampire, or the Bride of Death). A common practice until late in the 19th century, composers and impresarios would insert new or more popular pre-existing arias & cabalettas into another composer’s opera to, so to speak “jazz it up.” Preparing to conduct a production of Marschner’s gothic opera, Wagner composed a new allegro cabaletta to follow the young tenor’s cantabile aria. It is a tour-de-force of “storm & stress” passion we shan’t soon forget performing, vividly recalling our heart racing with the cruel & demanding tessitura that would become one of the hallmarks of this ambitious & exciting composer’s style. Wagner would not have taken the trouble to compose an insert aria had he not found his elder contemporary’s (whose work he openly admired) opera worth updating with his hipster & innovative style. This sheds interesting light on the dark gothic world of The Flying Dutchman, begun soon after his work on Der Vampyr.
As a “cursed soul” the Dutchman (Davy Jones in the Pirates movies) is a ghastly ghostly ghoulish Vampiric figure. And he is a complex human being who has made that proverbial “deal with the devil.” The archetypal Faust myth of selling one’s soul in the name of a vain and ultimately deadly ambition is timeless & universal. Hence the term “tragic flaw” in great drama from the Greeks to Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams. Wagner would revivify ancient mythology & archetypes with his singular vision. The Dutchman is his first masterpiece, his first Shakespearean hero. And thus Senta is his first Muse, his Mary, his beloved & unattainable “other.” The Dutchman will be followed (in roughly chronological order) by Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Wotan, Siegfried, Brünnhilde, Tristan & Isolde and among others, Parsifal, Amfortas & Kundry (in case any inquiring readers or newcomers to Wagner want to explore this rich & fascinating world…)
In a case of artistic serendipity (connections seem to materialize with uncanny frequency when one is attuned to them) we have recently added Nosferatu: an opera libretto to our eclectic library. The book includes a perceptive essay written by the poet Dana Gioia on the subject of opera, Sotto Voce (from which we quoted when writing about opera’s immediate appeal in popular works like Carmen). The poet and librettist Dana Gioia just so happens to be the same author writing the libretto for the opera we are co-commissioning & co-producing with the new Va. Tech Center for the Arts and Tech’s Music and Theatre departments. Stay tuned for more on that new opera for the 2013-2014 Season.
The serendipity in Gioia’s Nosferatu was cinched by the book’s foreword, Listening to the Children of the Night: The Vampire & Romantic Mythology by Anne Williams. She expands on many of the connections and motifs we have briefly glossed in this humble attempt to shed light on Wagner’s gothic romantic opera. Williams makes the connection for us. The love stories of the “Un-dead” are “fated and doomed.” They are the gothic horror version of the romantic operatic Liebestod (or Love-death) with which Wagner was identified from The Flying Dutchman to the more famous examples of Tristan & Isolde and Götterdämmerung (Roanoke audiences heard the Liebestod from Tristan & the Immolation scene from the last chapter of Wagner’s Ring cycle in a “Wagner in the Valley” concert in 2009).
Like the “Bride of Death” in the Vampire stories, Wagner’s Senta has an ill-fated love for the shadowy Dutchman. Williams notes that Nosferatu’s avenging bride, “as an operatic soprano” – unlike other heroine-victims of (usually male) monsters – “she has a voice of her own. But she triumphs at the price of joining Nosferatu in death, in a dark but unmistakable Liebestod. It is, however, a love-death reminiscent less of Tristan und Isolde than of Senta and her beloved, another Byronic overreacher, Wagner’s Flying Dutchman.” She concludes that “Gioia’s Nosferatu is thus not only a libretto with strong ties to the traditions of Romantic opera [and Wagner] it also reveals the vampire’s essential being as a Romantic archetype.” It might be one of the few such supernatural archetypes to have survived modernism squelching of the romantic era, but that is another subject… The Romantic un-dead is alive and well.
From the stormy tempests of Der Fliegende Holländer’s bold overture to the mysterious appearance of the ghostly captain and his fata morgana phantom ship, Wagner is re-creating (in his own image) the romantic gothic world of mystery and secrets, ghosts & demons, fate & chance, the mythic curse and the transfiguring redemption of love. It’s magical. It’s awesome. It’s opera at it’s best ability to bring an impossible fantasy to life through a one-of-a-kind harmony of music, drama & poetry – technique, craft & art –lights, opera singers – action!
*Tongue-in-Cheek Disclaimer: Audiences should not expect Wagner’s characters or mise-en-scene to resemble Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series or the Sookie chronicles upon which HBO’s True Blood is based. Audiences should not expect Wagner’s Flying Dutchman to be an operatic “prequel” to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. Wagner’s opera has traits in common with both the vampire love-story & the ghost-pirate adventure. Wagner shares motifs, symbols and themes with the Romantic-Gothic tradition that includes Vampires and ghost-ships. We recommend audiences explore the world of Wagner’s operas, starting with The Flying Dutchman, and look for connections to the fantasy, adventure & romance genres from Dracula to the Dark Knight… -- H. L. McCrea (Summer, 2012)