There’s something precarious about sheets on a clothesline. A hubris in spite of their humble attachments. Shapeshifting ghosts; always just a gale away from being ripped loose and landing on the neighbors Great Dane.
Man Ray’s painting reminds me of the one my grandma strung from Mrs. Connors fenced mulberry tree to Mr. Tolands honey suckle and tomato plants. Solid wooded pins held sheets better than the ones with springs I recall. I can find myself as a boy in the shadows of the painting. Pretending to be Luke Skywalker the shape-shifting sheets became billowing towered walls to be climbed or monsters to be slain. Man Ray imagines Wagner’s opera in the sheets, specifically the sails of the titular captains ship, “The Flying Dutchman.”
Projections of white dots open today’s production of The Flying Dutchman. They swirl and spin in blackness. Occasionally they coalesce into ships and waves, but only to break apart again. While I believe full-heartedly in operas mission statement to merge music and theatre and try new things, here I have to close my eyes to trust Wagner’s provocations like I did with Britten’s Sea Interludes earlier in the season; like I did with the wind and sheets as a boy. With eyes closed I can only hear with my imagination: Swirls swift as trumpets, a pause, then clouds break into rivulets of sunlight like dominoes onto a smooth sea. Forever in all directions flutes and oboes like sea robins gilt the surface of a phantomless black. Poseidon commands with his shell! Horns and violins shatter and fall, collide, rise, crash down again, ascend into tidal waves equal to ocean depths, humpbacks mating, a brief triumph of sails, escorts from rainbow dolphins try to cut through the rage, try to find the resolution of home. Then comes a final trident of sound, a call from the supernatural and nature responds in a final rage with one last enthusiasm, and just as it feels the fight must be lost a defiant and jubilant crew pierces a fluted dawn.
The Dutchman’s ship is an iconoclast run by ghostly sailors and a thousand battles behind them – black with red sails. The Dutchman himself steps onto land after the storm and meets other survivors. Here the natural and supernatural greet, and for a chance of redemption and peace the Dutchman offers gold for the other captain’s daughters hand in marriage.
It’s only the overture. Two hours of opera ahead. No intermission.
Wagner wrote this still in his 20’s with a voice fully formed, fresh out of the gate like Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. Everything of the sublime wall of sound and experimentation to come in “The Ring” is foreshadowed here, just not yet as big or totally cohesive, but here.
It’s a good day and I just want to find a coffee shop and fill a poem of accolades for Wagner, a typhoon of adverbs and adjectives to express his singular magnitude. Today’s performance overflows with talents too. Tomasz Konieczny! Elza van den Heever! The young conductor Thomas Guggeis leads the day attentive to every shift of emotion, leitmotif of anticipation, and minor chord belying a vocal enthusiasm; a framework of sound that lets the arias, duets, and chorus find a balance always just right on the edge of too much or too little that gives it a unique flavor of confidence; a chefs signature leaving the whole fantastically and unbelievably tastier than the parts.
The opera ends, dinner begins.
I unfurl a soft white napkin like a sail onto my lap (history knows it would serve me better under the collar to protect my shirt).
We dine the celebration of another great opera from The Met. The restaraunt named Dirt Candy parallels tonight’s opera in many ways. There is special mushroom dish paired to a light Pinot from my beloved Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The dish is a journey! It is Wagner-esque . Texture, balance, high notes, deep flavors, contrasting temperatures, layers, high cherry counterpoints; a sumptuousness that makes me shake my head in disbelief that anything could be so completely and satisfyingly – well – complete. The meal is a sensory multiverse that makes the smallness of my typical mundane experiences all the more glaring in their one-dimensionality. Momentarily lifted, being brushed by the magnificent. That is a meal. That is high art. That is opera!
A program note: Paul Thomason who wrote Program Notes for The Metropolitan Opera passed away last month. His articles were filled with historical insights, illuminating quotations, and a restrained urgency just beneath the words that showed he loved what he was writing about. Reading him helped me shape my own project into a more personal and associative narrative knowing I couldn’t bring his level of expertise to this thing I loved, I had to find my own way and my own voice. However, with each performance his generosity enriched my listening and am forever grateful he helped me get deeper into opera! You can find his notes for Der Fliegende Holländer here: https://www.metopera.org/globalassets/season/2019-20/operas/fliegende-hollander-der/programs/030620-der-fliegende-hollander.pdf
So What is Der Fliegende Holländer all about?
A courageous sailor gets the attention of the devil by saying that even if it takes eternity he will sail around the horn. He is cursed to sail the seas forever, but gets one chance every seven years to go on shore and find someone to faithfully marry him. Meanwhile, fan girl Senta adores a poster of the heartthrob Dutchman. As fate would have it her father unknowingly meets him and promises the Dutchman his daughter in marriage. A very happy ending is sure to follow…
Notes on the Production:
Conductor………………Thomas Guggeis (Met debut)
Senta…………………….. Elsa van den Heever
Daland………………….. Dmitry Belosselskiy
Erik………………………. Eric Cutler
Steersman……………… Richard Trey Smagur
Mary……………………… Eve Gigliotti