Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer in the age of Netflix, Inflation and Climate Change
Article commissioned by Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisboa
Der fliegende Holländer (Temporada 2022/23) Programa de Sala
Imagine that the composer Richard Wagner comes back from the dead and acquires a time
machine. He travels to our crisis-ridden year of 2023 to direct a new production of Der fliegende
Holländer. Let us suppose he falls to earth on the famed Green Hill of Bayreuth where his
beloved Festspielhaus still stands. His great-granddaughter, Katharina Wagner, still in charge of
the annual Bayreuth festival, fills him in on the theatrical and technological developments of the
last 140 years since the composer’s death. He begins tentatively to sketch out his ideas for the
production. What would he do?
Would he stay true to his status as an innovator and pioneer, embrace the latest developments
in virtual reality and create an enormously expensive production set in the metaverse where
audiences travel round the space with 3D headsets? Would he reject the increasingly
impoverished world of live theatre and ally himself to the wealth of Netflix or another modern
entertainment platform to create a completely new version?
Many decades before the advent of cinema and air travel, Wagner’s opera promised
nineteenth-century audiences an epic spectacle of phantasmagoria set in the Norwegian fjords.
The stage history of the opera in the twentieth-century includes many examples of designer-led
coup-de-théatres to achieve the special effects Wagner’s opera requires. But the technical costs
involved in theatre have changed enormously in recent times. In the current post-pandemic
economic context, the cost of wood has soared to shocking proportions and the overall
operating costs of an opera company have risen significantly. Even if Wagner wanted to build a
large, imposing set to depict two ships and the Norwegian coast, he would struggle currently to
find a theatre today with the financial capacity to do so.
In the face of all these difficulties, would Wagner give up and decide to conduct a concert
performance? Audiences would have the freedom to conjure up a theatre of the mind in
response to the great visceral excitement the orchestra can generate in this particular opera.
Wagner would no doubt take heart from the fact that Der fliegende Holländer is not a mere
blockbuster, but an opera about the power of the imagination. The narrative boils down to a
woman’s obsession with a picture and the legend behind it of the Flying Dutchman, doomed to
sail the seas forever. The complete immersion in a story, set far away from our daily existence,
and the thrills associated with a tale of horror and suspense - these are familiar to any child and
any parent telling a good-night story. The young woman in the opera, Senta, is old enough to
consider marriage, but remains addicted to the wonder of storytelling - fatally so. Like an opera
director or designer playing with their model boxes, she is still a child at heart. Wagner grew up
devouring the stories of E.T. A. Hoffmann (author of The Nutcracker and The Sandman) and
adored Weber’s supernatural opera Der Freischütz. His Der fliegende Holländer is a
continuation of this childhood fascination, born in the shadow of romanticism and gothic
literature. There is a strong degree of self-identification between the composer and Senta’s
absorption in the tale of the Dutchman.
Providing it does not infantilise the material or the audience, a child-like approach to the opera
feels authentic. The imaginative leaps a child is capable of making within the confines of their
bedroom are not so dissimilar to those required of a director and designer in conjuring up the
sea and a ghost ship from very simple materials. Particularly in the age of Netflix and home
entertainment, theatre and opera have to be more proactive in providing a very different quality
of experience: one that takes pride in the craftsmanship of handmade creativity and in the
performing arts’ ability to use mystery and metaphor to enhance the live human connection
between the stage and an audience.
Would Wagner go green? Alongside inflation, theatres are also forming their response to the
climate emergency, focusing on recycling and adapting existing materials and set pieces. The
natural world plays a hugely important role in this opera. Mankind is powerless in the face of the
sea and the supernatural. Later Wagner imagined the end of the world or at least “the old world”
in his Götterdämerung when the banks of the Rhine overflow and Valhalla burns down. It is hard
to imagine him alive today and staying indifferent to the existential threat posed to humanity by
What would Wagner make of the Theatre Greenbook, a new, invaluable methodology for
making more sustainable productions, published during the pandemic? It does not ask artistic
directors and workshops to spend more money in finding more ecologically-friendly materials.
Nor does it ask them to be artistically any less ambitious in an era of low budgets. The book
essentially asks for more imagination. Instead of relying on the tried-and-tested processes and
visual language that creators have become accustomed to in their professional lives, they have
to become children again and find a new way of working.
Whatever Wagner might think, an opera practitioner in 2023 might indeed look around the
world’s theatres and conclude that a new, more innovative approach is needed: one that
embraces the underlying naivety of many of his works and one that fulfils the epic demands of
his particular brand of storytelling, but sustainably and without great expense or waste.
As the composer himself said in 1852, following many years of artistic and political frustration:
“Kinder, schafft Neues!” (“Children, make something new!).
© Max Hoehn, 13th March 2023