Wagner for Beginners

This weekend, when the Houston Grand Opera opens its season with The Flying Dutchman, much attention will be paid to the production's visual elements. As directed by Julie Taymor -- the Tony Award-winning director who brought quirky, high-art puppetry to Broadway's version of The Lion King -- Dutchman features several elements of her striking stagecraft: To Richard Wagner's opera, she adds a troupe of dancers, and whole new characters; the set features a hulking, skeletal ship like nothing seen in the 1800s.

Still, stage director Christopher Harlan insists that the thoroughly modern staging is in service to the opera. "The costuming is very period," he notes. "There's nothing hysterical, no S.S. Gestapo men walking around. It's basically just using Taymor's theatrical techniques to tell Wagner's story."

Taymor, who's currently directing a movie in Rome, will not be in Houston when Dutchman opens -- though she oversaw the version that opened in L.A., co-produced by HGO and the Los Angeles Opera. The Houston version of the show is in the hands of Harlan, who worked with her on the L.A. premiere.

Harlan is excited about production elements of the opera, but even more so about the music; he has a soft spot for the Romantic composer. Dutchman, says Harlan, is "not the most representational Wagner, but it's a good starting point to get into Wagner." The opera is more melodic than many of his works, has some Italian influences, and marks the first time the composer used leitmotifs. And at two and a half hours, it's short, by Wagnerian standards.

The story, of course, is familiar: A haunted hero (played by German baritone Franz GrYnheber) is doomed to sail the sea endlessly for his blasphemy. Allowed to return to shore every seven years, he will be freed from his curse only if he can find a woman who will love him. He meets Senta (American soprano Sue Patchell), a young woman obsessed with his legend. (Does it have a happy ending? Well, this is opera.)

Though the work is relatively easy on the listener, it demands much of the cast. Wagner was only 28 when he finished Dutchman, and didn't yet understand the limits of the human voice. "Poor Senta," says Harlan, "has to sit on stage for 20 minutes and hum this tune, which is very high up in the register. Then she turns around and sings this amazing ballad with no warm-up."

Nobody ever said opera is easy.

-- Paul J. MacArthur

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Paul J. MacArthur