In the nearly two years that I’ve been writing this column, I’m almost certain I’ve mentioned that my grandmother, Evelyn Troughton, is a big fan of the opera. You might even say it’s intrinsic to the column’s entire premise. But just in case I somehow forgot to mention this crucial detail, I’ll say it again: my grandma really likes opera. When a new show comes out, she might very well see it five or more times. It’s the same thing with me and Captain America movies. What I’m getting at is this: every time that I’ve taken in a show at Seattle Opera alongside my grandma, she’s already seen that production before, usually in dress rehearsal. She still loves seeing it again, of course, but she knows exactly what’s coming. She’s more interested in my reaction.
Until The Flying Dutchman. Due to circumstances never fully elucidated to me, Grams wasn’t able to see Seattle Opera’s production of Wagner’s classic maritime tragedy until we went to Wednesday’s show. She’s usually all “too cool for school” after we exit the auditorium. She’s already seen the sets and cosutumes, is familiar with the characters and the pacing, all of it. That was not the case last night. For the first time, I got to see her genuine post-show reaction, and it was something to behold. There are few things more charming than a fully energized, tiny octagenarian. I was afraid she was going to knock me across the room with her enthusasm. Okay, not really.
Her reacton was understandable: Seattle Opera’s The Flying Dutchman is quite an experience. It’s a full two and half hours without an intermission, which can be something of a challenge for an auditorium filled with elderly folks and fat guys with nagging old football injuries (that would be me). But it’s worth it to let this bizarre story of doomed ocean romance hypnotize you with it’s ominous power. The company really outdid itself with the set: a spectacular giant box turned upward at a 15 degree angle, simulating the slant of a ship tossed by waves. The audience only sees this one set, so the lighting is crucial, and the designers and technicians nail it. Colors shift with the tone of the music and cast members make subtle changes to the surroundings while the show marches on. It’s gorgeous, dark, doom-soaked stuff that gradually builds to a powerful, nerve-jolting finale. Once again, I’m amazed at opera’s ability to tap directly into the viewer’s emotions. It washes over you like a giant, unstoppable wave, cresting in slow motion.
Grandma and I got together for burgers before the show, and then immediately after the curtain call. I’ve edited out the portions of our discussion where I try to explain to her the appeal of Facebook and Mystery Science Theater. I didn’t make any progress on either of those fronts, anyway.
Before the show
GRANDMA: Okay, you know that there is no intermission today, so it’s two and a quarter hours straight through.
I’ve never seen an Opera without an intermission before! Does that go back all the way to when it was originally written?
That’s the way Wagner wrote it. Other companies, when they do it, they put an intermission in, but it was intended to have no intermission to break the intensity of it.
He didn’t want the audience to have a chance to catch its breath, essentially.
Evidently! [Laughs] I have not seen it. I did not see the dress rehearsals; life’s been too hectic these last two weeks.
You haven’t seen this at all, basically?
Not this production. I’ve seen Flying Dutchman several times. This particular production, no. The first time I saw The Flying Dutchman was in Paris.
Wow. That’s not bad.
Well, I was very disappointed in it.
I’m super excited about this show. First of all, it’s Wagner and that’s this theater’s specialty. And I’ve seen eight operas now and not one Wagner, so this is kind of special.
It is! And I don’t know a thing about it!
Well, I think it takes place on a boat…
No, it doesn’t. [Note: parts of it totally take place on a boat. So there.] There is a boat involved, because he’s a captain of a… you know basically the story, don’t you?
You oughta know at least something about it! Okay, so the Flying Dutchman has been damned, so to speak, to sail the seas until he can find a woman who will give him true love. And every seven years he is able to land and find such a woman. So in this story, he’s come to port at the end of seven years and there’s a fella who has a daughter named Senta and she’s been enthralled with the story of the Flying Dutchman, so she’s in love with him to begin with. But she does have a boyfriend. His name is Erik. So that’s the basic story.
Okay, so the Flying Dutchman has been damned, so to speak, to sail the seas until he can find a woman who will give him true love. And every seven years he is able to land and find such a woman. So in this story, he’s come to port at the end of seven years and there’s a fella who has a daughter named Senta and she’s been enthralled with the story of the Flying Dutchman, so she’s in love with him to begin with. But she does have a boyfriend. His name is Erik. So that’s the basic story.
So it’s the story from Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest.
Well, I’ve never seen that.
I think there was something about seven years and finding a woman and a damned boat sort of thing. I suspect they got it from this.
Well, I’m pretty sure, because Pirates of the Caribbean is newer than Wagner [Laughs].
Yeah, I think that’s right.
So this is going to be a night of firsts for you. First opera without an intermission. First Wagner.
First opera with elements that I recognize from a Johnny Depp Disney movie…
After the Show
[Note: I missed some of her gushing statements while I was fumbling with my phone to start the recording.]
So you really liked it?
I thought it was fascinating! That set worked so beautifully! And that music! Well, of course I recognized every note, and I knew what was coming, the storm and then the peace. It’s all there in the music. Were you counting the motifs?
I think so… [Note: I was not]
The opening notes of the overture, every time you heard that, it was referring to the Dutchman, specifically. That’s called a motif, that’s a Wagner motif! It’s music associated with a character.
A lot of film composers do that.
They learned from Wagner! [Laughs] Because they don’t have that in any other operas, but Wagner’s operas always have a motif.
I say this every time, but these operas are all so different from each other. And once again, we’ve never seen anything like this before! Or at least, I haven’t.
I have never been so impressed with the Dutchman as I was with this one. The sets and the lighting matched every note of the music. And I can’t get over the women and how they stomped the beat so perfect, and the arm movements, and then the men banging their cups! Everything perfect, not one thing even a second off!
Did they do that in other versions of Dutchman? Is that written into the Wagner script?
I don’t know, I don’t remember any of the other versions of Dutchman anymore! This one was the best! That set with the slanted box!
The overture was really long and I felt like it helped build suspense, because after all that music in the darkness, they yank up the curtain really fast and you see that set and just gasp!
Yes. One of the reviews that I read said that it was a box. And I think of a box as a square! That wasn’t a square, it was a rectangle! And it had character. It was all just so intense!
Well, that’s what [my friend who accompanied us] Paige said the second it was over: “Whoa! That was so intense!”
I’ve been to other operas where there were moments that were intense. But this was intense all the way through! I’m just so impressed with this. Now I know what this woman I met in the store the other day meant when she said that she loved it. She said she’s not a Wagner fan, but she loved this.
I can see why. I thought it was interesting that there were no applause breaks. They started it and then went to the very end without pausing for applause and I had no way to gauge how the audience was responding. But when the curtain came down, yeah, they were in to it.
I thought that was wonderful, because sometimes people’s applause breaks into the music and it ruins the last few notes! [Laughs]