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Music with Ease > Operas of Richard Wagner > The Flying Dutchman (Wagner) - Plot

The Plot of 'The Flying Dutchman'
(German title: Der fliegende Holländer)
An Opera by
Richard Wagner


DALAND, Captain of the Norwegian Ship (Bass)
SENTA, Daland’s Daughter (Soprano)
MARY, Senta’s Nurse (Contralto)
ERIK, forester (Tenor)

Crew of the Norwegian Vessel. Crew of the Flying Dutchman. Village Maidens.

A German stamp from 1933 showing a scene from Richard Wagner's opera, The Flying Dutchman


The curtain rises to disclose a rocky cove on a wild and rugged part of the Norwegian coast. A violent storm is raging, and skipper Daland has cast anchor in the shelter. The temporary haven is near his own home, where his daughter Senta is waiting and watching for him. The skipper, hoping for fairer weather, goes below, leaving his steersman to keep watch. Presently, the gloomy vessel of the Flying Dutchman is seen approaching weirdly through the darkness, its blood-red sails piercing the curtain of night. The Dutchman is "that mariner who boasted that his skill would steer him safely in spite of Heaven itself, and who was doomed, because of that blasphemy, to sail the seas for ever." Nothing can free him from the curse but a true woman willing to give her own life for his salvation. The devil has no belief in the virtue of women, and therefore consents to the captain’s going ashore once every seven years for the purpose of taking a wife on trial. Seven years have passed since he last set foot on land. His time has returned, and now he is about to avail himself of his privilege, leaving his ship anchored beside the Norwegian barque.

Meanwhile, he indulges in a gloomy soliloquy. Despair has taken complete possession of him. Hope of mortal aid he has almost entirely abandoned. In a burst of frenzy he prays for death, and pleads for the judgment day to put an end to his wanderings. The crew of the phantom ship echo his piteous wail. At this point Daland issues from his vessel and gives the stranger a cordial greeting. Senta’s name is mentioned. Naturally it arrests his attention. What if this should prove to be the self-sacrificing maiden he has so long been searching for? Nursing that idea, he tempts Daland by a glimpse of the untold wealth which lies in the coffers of the eerie vessel, amassed during the endless voyage. Daland is something of a miser, and permission to woo Senta is the result of this flaunting of the Dutchman’s gold. Meanwhile, the wind has shifted, and the two skippers hasten their departure for the port.


Now we are at Daland’s home. The old housekeeper and a group of light-hearted, merry-making girls are chattering over their spinning-wheels. Senta sits apart, her eyes dreamily fixed on a mystifying picture on the wall -- a portrait of "a pale man clad in black," the legendary Flying Dutchman. "What are you thinking about?" demand the merry-makers, in solution of Senta’s abstraction. Senta replied by singing the ballad of the ill-fated mariner. Her emotion deepens during the effort, and in a burst of enthusiasm she declares that she will be the woman to free the weary wanderer of the main, and find him eternal peace. True, she is already betrothed; and Erik, her lover, enters while she speaks. He reminds her of old vows. But, before she has had time to look seriously at the situation, Daland brings in the Dutchman, and Senta, seeing before her the living embodiment of that mysterious portrait on the wall, falls a helpless victim to the accursed nomad of the deep. Left alone with him, she vows her life to this deliverance, and the curtain falls as the pair are plighting their troth.


In this Act we are once more on the seashore, the sailors rejoicing at the harbour. The two vessels of the First Act are again moored side by side. But, while the Norwegian’s crew are rioting and feasting, the Dutchman’s crew are gloomy and irresponsive. Gay damsels present baskets of food and wine; but no answering appreciation comes from the fated vessel. The Dutchman’s ship is silent as the tomb.

Suddenly the visionary sailors appear on the deck under a supernatural light. They sing a weird song, taunting their skipper with his failure as a lover. The Norwegian sailors, stricken by the uncanny scene, hurry under deck; the giddy girls vanish; and silence once more falls upon the two vessels.

Then Senta appears, accompanied by Erik. Erik pleads his love, but Senta is deaf to his entreaties. Has she not vowed that she will give herself as a sacrifice for the hapless Dutchman? But the Dutchman overhears and misunderstands. He comes forward in great excitement to bid Senta farewell, and to reproach her with having forgotten her promise to him; while Senta at the same time tries to convince him that she still means to be true. He does not wish to undo her, and therefore warns her of the awful punishment of those who break their troth once given to him -- death and damnation. She may, he says, still be spared such a fate, inasmuch as she has not yet sworn "before the Eternal One" to be his.

Senta declares that she knows his name and history, and is nevertheless ready to bring him deliverance. But the Dutchman cannot believe in his good fortune, cannot believe that her love will go so far; and proclaiming his baleful name, he rushes on board his ship, which immediately leaves the shore. Senta attempts to follow him, but is held back by her father, Erik, and Mary. Then, breaking from them, she runs to the edge of the cliff near by and throws herself into the sea, calling out to the Dutchman --

Thank thou thine angel with every breath!
Here see me, true, yea true till death!

At the same moment the phantom ship sinks with all hands. In the glow of the rising sun, above the wreck, are seen the glorified forms of Senta and the Dutchman, held in each other’s embrace, rising heavenwards out of the sea.

The legend thus humanised becomes the vehicle for the expression of those intense yet simple feelings and situations which popular myth, according to Wagner, has the property of condensing into universal types. "Immerse unhappiness drawn by magnetic attraction to immense love, tried by heart-rending doubt and uncertainly, and crowned with fidelity and triumphant love, the whole embodied in a clear, simple story, summed up in a few situations of terrible strength and inexorable truth" -- such is Wagner’s conception of the legend of "The Flying Dutchman."

Here and there, no doubt, his working out is a trifle stagey -- for example, in the comings and goings of Daland, and in the Dutchman’s anchoring his vessel against the rocks in a tempest: the last thing an experienced seaman would think of doing. A cynical critic imagines in this latter connection, that Wagner was too sea-sick to observe what happened during his week of roughing it in the North Sea! On the other hand, the dramatic characterisation is not unworthy of the later and more developed Wagner. The figures of the Dutchman and of Senta (dreamful and devoted) are living figures, and one would not willingly have missed them -- the latter especially -- from the Wagner portrait-gallery.

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