March 6, 2016

The Flying Dutchman, as explained by Bill Murray and Keanu Reeves

This post, the first devoted to Virginia Opera's upcoming production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, draws parallels between the opera and two Hollywood films you may have seen.

Though it may strike you as unlikely at first, the outline of the plot is contained in Bill Murray's 1996 comedy Groundhog Day.

Even more interesting to me: a reasonable interpretation of the characters and (most importantly) the contrasting styles of music in Wagner's score, can be made through the prism of the 1999 action flick The Matrix.
Red pill and blue pill.
{Author: Wim b. Used with permission)

First, about that plot. Even if you know nothing about Wagner, you already know the basic story of the Dutchman. In Groundhog Day, Murray played an arrogant man whose arrogance was punished by some cosmic force that doomed him to repeat the same day over and over. Each day, with mounting misery, he found himself in the same hotel room with the same Sonny and Cher song playing on the clock-radio. After hundreds of repetitions of the same day, he tried in vain to kill himself just to end the torment. But every form of suicide was short-lived, resulting in yet another morning of Sonny and Cher. In the end, this curse was lifted by finding true love in the character played by Andie MacDowell.

In the operatic version, the (unnamed) Dutchman's curse of unwanted eternal life was due to his shouting blasphemies while battling a storm at sea. Satan decrees he shall sail until Doomsday for his arrogance. Longing only for the peace of the grave, he is finally released from the curse through the devotion of a woman who proves faithful unto death.

I don't know if the producers of Groundhog Day were aware of the close ties between the movie and the legend of the Dutchman, but closely tied they are.

Now for The Matrix.

The premise of the movie is that the reality that you and I and most people experience is an illusion. Hostile alien robotic machines long ago enslaved the human race, imprisoning us in individual capsule-like pods where we spend our lives hooked up to a giant alien computer that pipes dream-like images into our brains as we remain in perpetual sleep. Billions of pods exist in vast towers overseen by the aliens, but a few individuals (such as Morpheus, Neo and Trinity) have managed to break free from this Matrix. They alone experience true reality, which consists of surviving in dark subterranean tunnels in a nightmarish world while evading those darn robots.

How does this relate to The Flying Dutchman? It's pretty simple. All of the characters, save the two lead roles of the Dutchman and Senta, lead complacent, repetitive lives. Daland and his crew spend their adult lives going to sea and catching fish, then returning home and eating fish.

Catching fish, eating fish. Catching fish, eating fish. Catching fish, eating fish. Catching fish, eating fish, all the while singing lusty sea-chanties. They believe that their lives have purpose and meaning; they believe their activities are fulfilling. It never occurs to them that they are trapped in an empty routine.

The village maidens, Wagner lets us know, are no better off. At the top of Act 2 they provide an obvious visual metaphor of the pointless futility of their own existence: endlessly spinning at a loom. We are to imagine a mouse on an exercise wheel.

Daland, his crew, and the rest of the villagers (save for Senta) are plugged into the Matrix, clueless about the existential crisis they should be obsessing over.

Senta, present but detached from the group in the spinning-wheel scene, rejects the stupid loom and the stupid song they sing to pass the time. She is kind of a combination of Trinity and Neo; while she's the Matrix-free female in the cast, she's also really the "chosen one" like Neo, the Keanu Reeves character. He was "chosen" to free humanity from the Matrix; Senta is destined to free the Dutchman from his curse.

The Dutchman, of course, is also burdened with Existential Anguish. His monologue careens through an emotional roller coaster encompassing rage, bitterness and defiance. The eternal stormy sea is tormenting him and kicking his butt just as the clones of Agent Smith torment Morpheus in the movie.

Wagner's opera even has a character much like Cypher. Cypher knows about the gritty reality of Man vs. Robot, but prefers the dream-world of the Matrix. With a juicy piece of steak on his fork, Cypher contemplates the fact that the steak isn't real, but he doesn't care. He just enjoys it.

This is a bit like Senta's frustrated suitor, Erik. Erik seems to intuit that there is more to life than the complacent faux lives of the fishing villagers. He relates a dream he had to Senta; one that seems to predict Senta's ultimate sacrifice. So in that sense, he's unplugged from the village Matrix. Yet he wants nothing more than a conventional life with Senta. She should marry him, bear his children, make his home, all the regular wifey stuff. Some part of his mind suspects an alternate possibility, but even so, he chooses to "plug in", so to speak. Thus the arias with which he woos his erstwhile girlfriend are ardent but far removed from Wagner's "futuristic" style, as you'll note in his Act 2 solo beginning at 1:21 in this recording.

I believe this two-planed existence in The Flying Dutchman helps to explain the startling contrast of musical styles in the opera. Extensive sections of the score reflects a conventional German Romantic operatic style, a style similar to the popular operas Wagner conducted in his early career. The Steersman, Erik and Daland sing tuneful arias with regular periods, conventional structure and highly conventional harmony. Daland's Act 2 aria, in fact, is downright dull and stodgy - a perfect bit of musical characterization of Senta's father, who is not the sharpest tool in the tool kit. (In this recording, it begins at 2:07.) The orchestration in their solos is discreet, even affecting an "oom-pah-pah-pah" for old Daland, for pity's sake! The Steersman's aria (sung here by Fritz Wunderlich) features a good bit of unaccompanied singing; the orchestra's contributions are practically Mozartian in texture.

Senta and the Dutchman, on the other hand, sing in a style much closer to mature Wagner. The orchestra often features huge sonorities, thick textures, blaring brass, strings in turmoil and brooding chromaticism. Even the simplicity of the "Redemption" portion of Senta's ballade are austere and stark. (More about their music in a future post.)

Daland's crew and the spinning maidens sing in a manner appropriate to their complacent lot. My goodness, there are portions of the Spinning Chorus that, if slowed down a bit, would sound like a soft-shoe number. Listen to this version and think "Tea for two". In WAGNER!!

But everything changes when, in Act 3, those same choristers make the mistake of poking a sleeping monster, arousing the zombie-crew of the Dutchman's ship. The passage in which the ghostly crew terrorizes the villagers gives them a Close Encounter (Another movie reference! Sweet!) with Wagner's versions of the Alien Robots.

Many Wagnerian commentators attribute this musical dichotomy to Wagner's immaturity. One reads comments like "finding his way"; "still searching for his voice". "still formulating his musical ideas". I don't agree. To me, the two contrasting styles were a deliberate dramatic choice by the young composer; a way of delineating the two planes of reality experienced by the two groups of characters.

Ironically, the conventional Romantic style of Erik, the Spinning chorus, and the other members of the Matrix, though used for irony, had the advantage of tossing some ear-candy to the audience. Who wouldn't enjoy the toe-tapping tunefulness of that Spinning Chorus? It's a bit of subtlety on the composer's part that at the same time he imbued his score with audience-pleasing tunes, there was nonetheless a subversive message in those same tunes.

In a way, your reaction to that tune is a litmus test for YOUR place in the Matrix. If you see the irony, you took the red pill: you're unplugged. If you just sit back and enjoy the melody............  you swallowed the blue pill...............................................

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