March 23, 2016

The Flying Dutchman and Wagner's "cinematography"

A flying horse beats a sword-fight...
Start reading about Richard Wagner and some key phrases keep cropping up again and again:
  • "A genius"
  • "The most influential..."
  • "Revolutionary"
  • "20th century music would not be possible without him..."
  • "Forward-looking"
And so on. But what does all that mean? Presuming that many of you are casual opera-lovers, you may well wonder what all the commentators are talking about with such comments.

O, Faithful Reader, if you only knew.............

This post will cite one example to give you a clue. More like half a clue. More like a teensy fraction of a clue. This post won't give you the tip of the iceberg; it'll give you a snowflake on top of the tip.

But it's a good one.

The title of this post mentions cinematography. That's a film term referring to the photography of the movies we see - the visual images that fill a movie screen. How could an opera have anything to do with the sorts of images we see in cinema? Simply this: Wagner was the first opera composer to imagine cinematic scenarios.

Virginia Opera's most recent production was Gounod's Romeo and Juliet. Besides all the love duets, "R & J" features an old-fashioned "action scene": a couple of sword fights. In much of opera history (other than the so-called Venetian school of the 17th century, when libretti often called for erupting volcanoes) sword fights were the go-to device if action was desired.

Then came Wagner.

Let's look at some of the stage directions that create cinematic moments in Wagnerian opera. The first one, granted, is kind of the opposite of an "action" scene:
Die Walküre, Act 1.
Here's the set-up: Siegmund has found refuge in a crude dwelling during a storm. He learns it is the home of Sieglinde and her husband Hunding. Siegmund and Sieglinde, not yet aware they have the same father, feel a mutual and powerful attraction. While Hunding eyes the stranger with suspicion, Wagner gives us the following stage directions:

Sieglinde goes to the storeroom, fills a horn with mead and offers it to Siegmund with friendly eagerness. ...Siegmund takes a long draught while his gaze rests on her with growing warmth. Still gazing, he removes the horn from his lips and lets it sink slowly while the expression of his features expresses strong emotion. He sighs deeply and gloomily lets his eyes sink to the ground. ...He leans against the hearth; his eyes fix themselves with calm and steady sympathy on Sieglinde; she slowly raises her eyes again to his. They regard each other, during a long silence, with an expression of the deepest emotion.

Well, I warned you; a little short on action. Guy drinks a drink and stares at a girl. Not exactly "The Matrix", to cite a movie I recently discussed on this site. My point is that it really reads more like a movie screenplay than an opera.

Think about it: don't all those long, long, emotion-filled gazes just cry out for close-up camera-work? During the moments when those directions are being acted out, the orchestra is playing voiceless music that functions exactly like film underscoring, with heartfelt music mirroring all those subtle, unspoken interactions. How were these subtleties supposed to register with audience members sitting in the balcony of a typical opera house? He is thinking in cinematic terms.

Let's look at another, more familiar moment in the same opera (I'm getting to Dutchman in a moment):

Die Walküre, Act 3
Okay, rather than type out a series of stage directions, let's just describe the scene: the action takes place on the rocky summit of a rugged mountain. Eight goddesses called Valkyries, the children of chief diety Wotan, swoop and soar through the heavens on their flying horses (!), gathering up the corpses of slain Norse heroes to transport them to Valhalla. One by one, they come in for three-point equestrian landings to huddle up with Valyrie Number Nine, Brünnhilde, to help her plan how to deal with Daddy, who is pretty mad at her right now. (Long story. Don't ask.)

Now we're talking! Sword fight, schmord schmight - this is COOL! I have to wonder how Wagner thought he'd bring this off back in the 1850's when he wrote it. I hope that the first performance consisted of something other than nine sopranos standing on stage with spears, singing their brains out. But without electricity, how was all the swoopy-soary stuff suggested? Even now in 2016, stagings tend to fall a bit short of what we all envision in our minds. Harry Potter-level special effects are called for.

And as for my current object of study, The Flying Dutchman, we can see Wagner already thinking big - very big. In Act Three, scene one, the stage is given over to the chorus. Here I can once again let Wagner's own stage directions describe the scene, minus some intervening singing.

A bay with a rocky shore: Daland's house to one side in the foreground. The background is occupied by the two ships, the Norwegian's and the Dutchman's, lying fairly close together. The night is clear: the Norwegian ship is lit up; its sailors ore on deck, making merry. The appearance of the Dutch ship presents an uncanny contrast; it is enveloped in unnatural gloom and deathly quiet. (The sailors)dance on the deck. The girls arrive with baskets full of food and drink. (The sailors and women call out to the Dutchman's unseen crew, meaning to invite them to the celebration, but the only response is eerie silence.) The sailors drink up and set down the cups noisily. From here on there are stirrings of life on the Dutch ship. The sea, which everywhere else remains calm, has begun to rise in the neighborhood of the Dutch ship; a dull blue flame flares up like a watchfire. A storm wind whistles through the rigging. The crew, hitherto invisible, bestir themselves. As Daland's crew sing a sea chanty, their ship is tossed up and down by the waves; a terrible storm wind howls end whistles through the bare rigging. The air and sea elsewhere, except in the immediate neighborhood of the Dutch ship, remains calm, as before. The Norwegians try to drown the song of the Dutchman's crew with their own song. After vain efforts the raging of the sea, the roaring, howling and whistling of the unnatural storm, together with the ever wilder song of the Dutchman's crew silence them. They fall back, make the sign of the cross and quit the deck: the Dutch crew, seeing them, burst into shrill, mocking laughter. After this the former deathlike silence suddenly falls on their ship again; in a moment, air and sea become calm, as before.


This is Stephen King territory; this is Walking Dead territory; this is Pirates of the Caribbean territory. It not only presented new challenges to set designers and stage directors, it raised the bar for all future composers re-imagining operatic action scenes.

If you want to see how far Wagner's successors took his trail-blazing ideas of action, get a hold of the libretto to Arnold Schoenberg's Moses und Aaron and read the stage directions for the scene of the Golden Calf orgy. Whoa, Nellie! Even Wagner might have found it over the top. Or he might have loved it. But either way, he surely would have said "You have learned well from me, my son".








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