Posted on Mon, Jun. 09, 2003

Sailing through Wagner

Mercury News

For the uninitiated, a Richard Wagner opera may seem much like this sentence -- long, boring, endless, lots of commas and conjunctions, one huge redundant run-on that exhorts and exhausts over and over until, mercifully, it reaches its conclusion.

But the first step to appreciating Wagner is knowing where to start. That opera is ``The Flying Dutchman,'' which gets a semi-staged five-performance run at the San Francisco Symphony beginning Wednesday.

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Its subtitle should read: ``Wagner for Those Who Think They Won't Like Wagner.''

Mark Delavan will sing the brooding title character -- a plum part for baritones, who so rarely get the girl at the end. Wagnerian soprano Jane Eaglen, now a Grammy winner, plays Senta, who thinks the Dutchman is to die for. Which, this being opera, is exactly what she does at the end.

``What's great about `Dutchman' as a first selection is it comes right out and slaps you on the face,'' says William Berger, author of the guidebook ``Wagner Without Fear.''

That's what happens in the famous overture, a popular concert piece that was also played by Symphony San Jose Silicon Valley on Saturday night. In 20 seconds the overture takes the listener to the stormiest of seas, with the orchestra spraying salt water over the first few rows of the audience. It's not subtle, but nobody gets caught napping.

That music was inspired by Wagner's experience aboard a wave-tossed ship. The story was inspired by an old legend of a ghost captain and his phantom crew that sails the oceans under a demonic curse. The thriller ends with Senta leaping off a cliff, singing high C's en route to glorious death on the high seas.

Entry level

``This is the ideal opera to experience Wagner for the first time,'' says Michael Tilson Thomas, who will conduct each performance on a rigged-up Davies set that will include a place for supertitles. ``This is his first opera where he's absolutely on top of his form.''

There are three reasons ``Dutchman'' serves as the perfect introduction to Wagner. It's short, the story is easy, and the score, premiered in 1843, mixes conventional operatic forms and the first glimpses of the extraordinary, uncharted territory Wagner was about to take the musical world to.

Punching in at 2 1/2 hours, ``Dutchman'' is about half as long as some of Wagner's glorious and heavy later works. The Dutchman-Senta Act 2 love duet takes 14 minutes. In ``Tristan und Isolde,'' the two title characters slobber over each other for 45.

``I don't think that Wagner is as scary as he used to be,'' Berger says. ```What's hard for people with Wagner is just to sit there that long.''

In addition to its brevity, the story is easy, and the characters are clear. In real life, goes the tale, the Dutchman swore to sail around the Cape of Good Hope at whatever cost. Well, as luck would have it, Satan was listening in and takes him up on his offer. The Dutchman is condemned to sail the seas with his phantom crew until he can find a woman whose love redeems him from his wandering exile.

During the opera he hooks up with Senta, who -- after hearing the legend -- had already vowed to sacrifice her life to save his soul. Senta, obviously, is a few notes shy of a full octave.

Wagner depicts this basic story with incredibly descriptive, intense music. But most of it is in the forms used by many popular opera composers -- arias, duets, songs, rollicking choruses.

``The music is very approachable,'' said soprano Eaglen, who sings the lead role of Senta in these performances. ``It's early Wagner, and more of what people expect from opera.''

At the same time, Wagner introduces completely fresh elements that lay the groundwork for the massive re-haul of the medium, reaching unparalleled and still controversial heights with ``Tristan'' and the four-opera epic ``The Ring of the Nibelung.''

Front and center are his use of leading themes (``leitmotifs'') that are used throughout the opera to represent characters or ideas. In ``Dutchman'' these themes are laid out simply and sparingly; for example, the Dutchman's theme is introduced right away in the overture and repeated throughout the opera.

``Dutchman'' contains about six important themes. In ``Tristan'' there are at least 40, and he uses 80 to 120, depending on how one identifies them, in the ``Ring'' cycle. He developed his ``leitmotif'' idea into a complex, fascinating musical style. The orchestra becomes an actual character in many of the operas, rewarding the attentive listener over and over again.

Begging for more

With ``Dutchman,'' you get a little of everything from Wagner. And it might leave you longing for more.

``Where the piece needs to be traditional, it is,'' says Stephen Hinton, chairman of the music department at Stanford University. Hinton is giving the pre-concert talks one hour before each Davies performance.

``When it needs to do something out of the ordinary, it does,'' Hinton adds. ``And that's what makes it work.''

The Flying Dutchman

By Richard Wagner


Company: San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Soloists include Jane Eaglen, Mark Delavan, Mark Baker and Stephen Milling.

Where: Davies Symphony Hall,

201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; 8 p.m. June 19;

7 p.m. June 21

Tickets: $34-$97; (415) 864-6000;

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, plus one intermission

Contact Mike Guersch at or at (408) 920-5648. Fax (408) 271-3786.

© 2003 Mercury News and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.