Wagner Notes

Berthold Hoeckner
November 2023

On 12 November 1880, Cosima Wagner noted in her diaries what Richard had said about the Hermann Levi: “as a Jew—all he has to do is to learn how to die.” Having repeatedly praised the “goodness” of the conductor who had been a champion of his music and would lead the 1882 Bayreuth premiere of Parsifal, the composer appears to have been speaking about death metaphorically. Less so, however, a year later, when Cosima reported Wagner making a “violent joke” suggesting that “all Jews should be burned at a performance of Lessing’s Nathan the Wise.” Amid the persistence of ethnic and religious conflicts around the world, Wagner’s legacy of virulent antisemitism remains a vexing problem that continues to raise thorny questions about the politics of art but also the sticky aesthetics of politics.

How Wagner became consumed by the so-called Jewish question; how he approached it in his writings; and how it entered into his dramatic oeuvre—all this has been scrutinized by scholars and critics. Hence the representation of Jewish characters—and their death—always poses a profound challenge for contemporary productions of his operas. No stage director can afford to ignore the Wagner’s chilling fantasy of a world without Jews, even as the composer took pains to wrap his idea into tropes of redemption.  Leaving aside Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi, the ten operas that make up Wagner’s main dramatic oeuvre are tellingly bookended by two figures embodying the troublesome legend of the Wandering Jew: the Flying Dutchman and Kundry. Both die with a sense of deliverance from their predicament—a predicament that, in hindsight, has become perniciously portentous.

To its credit, the new production of The Flying Dutchman at the Lyric Opera of Chicago attempts to grapple with Wagner’s ominous dream of a sublimated Jewish salvation.  Director Christopher Alden is known for stagings with a critical edge, yet tends to stay clear of the unruly regime of Regietheater.  Opera audiences in the Windy City may recall that Alden stepped in for the memorable 2009 production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at the Chicago Opera Theater in which the senescent titular ruler confronts an unruly group of underage teenage subjects. Alden brilliantly captured the growing pains of the pubescent revolutionary generation on a stage where the white light of Enlightenment cast through the opening of a slanted museum wall crosses the red carpet of bloody tyranny.

Alden’s Dutchman is equally legible, while leaving audiences plenty to puzzle about. Opting for an intermission-less 2-hour-20-minute performance, the single stage design looks like a large industrial hall slanted to the right, offering a glimpse into a subterranean machine room that later reveals the Dutchman’s trapped crew in red light. A steam engine drive wheel looks ahead to the Ring’s parable of the industrial revolution and modern economy, set off by Wotan’s mortgage crisis. George Bernard Shaw showed long ago how the young Wagner embraced communist hopes—which works well with the how Alden stages the mechanized assembly-line-like movements of the women in the Act II spinning chorus: these are the labor conditions and the life Senta tries to escape. Within the washed-out palette of the production, her red wig stands out in solidarity with the undead sailors—quite the revolutionary woman Wagner envisioned.

Possibly feeling post-pandemic financial pressures, the Lyric forwent the now common opening-credits-like staging—say, of a ship weathering a storm, as one might have expected for Wagner’s blockbuster overture whose pervasive musical trope must have inspired the memorable theme for Pirates of the Caribbean)  Instead, the most hellish ride for any horn section is paired with a giant woodcut of the Dutchman which appears to merge Edward Munch’s The Scream with a portrait of Egon Schiele, both eyes covered with both hands.  Senta’s fixation on his picture may be meant to parallel our obsession with images in the digital age. Indeed, for the sizable group of next-generation opera-goers mostly in the upper balcony, the Dutchman’s enigmatic portrait must have appeared as a parody of a profile photo on a dating app—not Tinder, to be sure, but its rival Bumble, where the woman makes the first move.

As Senta does.  In one of the production’s most powerful moments she opens the door behind the portrait to reveal the Dutchman’s statuesque figure holding a small picture (of her?) and she snatches the picture from his hands to unfreeze him for their rapturous duet. Not surprisingly, the production gains traction in the second act, where Wagner began to shake off the shackles of the number opera, also allowing the recently appointed musical director of the Lyric, Enrique Mazzola, to pick up the pace. Let us keep in mind that today’s audiences were naturalized into dramatic music through the hyper-differentiated web of leitmotifs in soundtracks for the Ring-inspired Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings franchises.  By comparison, Wagner’s two main musical ideas for his first romantic opera may come across as primitive. That said, the interplay of the powerful Dutchman theme and Senta’s salvation theme also sports a compelling primal simplicity. This cuts through with the main leads.  Although the secondary characters—Senta’s father Daland, her nurse Mary, and her former love interest Eric—were cast capably, Tomasz Konieczny (Dutchman) and Tamara Wilson (Senta) carried the production. Their duets are vocal duels and their solos that are gut-wrenching reckonings or heart-rending mini-melodramas.  Of course, Wagner also had begun to reimagine his choruses, which are formidable if a bit formulaic in trying to emulate the Meyerbeerian spectacle of grand opéra.  Alden self-consciously holds up a Brechtian mirror in Act III, when Daland’s sailors and local girls taunt the Dutchman’s ghostly crew to join them— while looking out from the stage to us, his 3D-Cineplex acculturated audience. If 0pera was and remains an expensive proposition, it has survived on catering to the economy of our emotions.

Yet Alden’s ending is not just thrilling, but unsettling. His Senta doesn’t jump off the cliff to join the Dutchman in a feel-good salvation for the sinner-become-saint-like transfiguration Wagner envisioned. Instead, at the end of their throwback-ish final duet, Erik takes a rifle to shoot Senta like a defector, holding up the Dutchman’s portrait in defense and defiance. His graven image is destroyed before the bullets hit her heart. Yet Senta does not just join the Dutchman in death by double murder, she also becomes Jewish. Alden had prepared for this perhaps most disturbing suggestion, when the eternal-sailor-become-wandering-Jew took of his black oilskin to reveal a striped uniform that alludes to those worn by prisoners in Nazi death camps. Once Senta slipped on that coat over her wedding dress, their dual death was not just predetermined, but also no longer just metaphorical.

Berthold Hoeckner,

the Keough-Hesburgh Professor and Chair of the Department of Music at the University of Notre Dame, had his most recent book, Film, Music, Memory, published in 2019.