April 21, 2016

Flying Dutchman's lesson: don't be a Daland, be a Senta

Minna Wagner, nee Planner
Call her the "Temporary Feminine"
In a previous post about The Flying Dutchman, I compared the characters to those in the sci-fi movie The Matrix. The idea was that all the residents of the fishing village save for Senta were in a different plane of reality than she and the Dutchman. Daland, his crew and the village maidens led complacently oblivious lives; as the years rolled by, the sailors put out to sea and returned to shore in an endless cycle while the women spent their lives at their spinning wheels, a visual metaphor for ultimate futility.
But of what, specifically, were the villagers oblivious? The short answer is the true identity of the mysterious "Holländer"who sails into their midst, but there is a larger meaning; the sort of meaning that great art always provides in its function as the mirror of society.

What Senta alone perceives; indeed, what accounts for her obsession with the legendary figure of the Dutchman, is her deeply-felt empathy with his suffering. Over and over she sings of his suffering and her desire to be the agent of his relief.

Senta may "love" the Dutchman, and he may "love" her as well, but this is the least erotic love affair in all of opera. Senta doesn't want to "date" the Dutchman; she doesn't want him to kiss her or bring her flowers or whisper sweet nothings in her ear. She never sings of wanting to begin a new life with him or of bearing his children. Hers is a single-minded obsession: being the Chosen One who will, through her fidelity, bring his torment to an end.

Bottom line: what makes Senta "unplugged from the Matrix" is her sensitivity to suffering; her empathy. The Dutchman's suffering stands for all the suffering in the world. Senta is aware of it and, even more importantly, cares and takes sacrificial action to deal with it. Her father, on the other hand, regards the Dutchman solely in terms of what he himself will gain: a dowry of gold and jewels.

Suffering has always been present in the world. Obviously, there are millions who are homeless, hungry, ill or persecuted. The rest of the world has choices to make in response to suffering and adversity. Some become doctors; some join the Peace Corps; some give to the Red Cross and other charities.

But we all know there are many who get caught up in the day-to-day routines of their lives and rarely think of the afflicted among us. They don't relish others' adversities, but their attention is consumed by their jobs, raising children, walking the dog, paying bills, doing the dishes and all attendant minutiae. They allow themselves to become oblivious.

Of course, anyone who reads about Wagner's life will understand that in this opera, he was thinking, as it were, locally rather than globally. The composer generally projected himself into all his heroes, and it's certainly true of the Dutchman. Already, still in his youth, Wagner felt he was leading a life of existential misery and torment. Read his letters, especially those to his friend, champion and eventual father-in-law Franz Liszt, and phrases like this appear over and over:

"No one knows the burdens I carry."

"My art is my only refuge from my misery."

And what was his "curse"? Apparently, it boiled down to being the Greatest Genius Who Ever Lived, but not being universally recognized as such. As one example, he suffered the humiliation of offering an early version of The Flying Dutchman libretto to the Paris Opera in hopes of receiving a commission, only to have them assign the project to some nonentity named Dietsch, who produced a forgettable opus called Le vaisseau fantôme.

Ouch. Okay, he had a point; who among us wouldn't feel a little cursed if that happened to us?

Perhaps Wagner's serial womanizing (unfaithfulness to his wives, affairs with other men's wives, and so on) amounted to a search for a woman who would understand his suffering and ease his path; help him achieve his manifest destiny as that Greatest Genius. This ideal woman would, like Senta, be willing and eager to make any sacrifice necessary; indeed, to sublimate herself completely to his needs.

Of course, the trouble with women (from Wagner's point of view) is that they always turn out to have their own wants and needs. For example, during the period of Dutchman, his first wife Minna left him to take a lover, eventually returning to a marriage that would end some ten years later. The dream of finding a woman who would devote herself to him 100% and tolerate his mercurial eccentricities remained a fantasy.

So Senta (not to mention a gallery of other Wagnerian heroines) became the so-called "Eternal Feminine"; the fictional realization of the kind of woman that remained unattainable in reality.

But let's not get caught up in Wagner's narcissism and egomania. His early masterpiece manages to transcend his personal story and speak to us about ourselves and the world the we live in. The message is there: it is empathy that will save the world and it is indifference that will doom it.

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