Richard Wagner was on the lam.
Always one for an extravagant lifestyle, the composer had run up huge debts that he couldn’t repay by age 26. Knowing he was at risk of fleeing the city of Riga, Wagner’s creditors had his passport seized, causing him and his wife to make a dangerous and illegal crossing over the Prussian border, during which she miscarried.
The couple boarded a ship that agreed to carry them without passports, but storms and high seas turned what was normally an eight-day journey to London into one that lasted three weeks. It was this harrowing trek that inspired Wagner to write his early opera “The Flying Dutchman.” This weekend, Virginia Opera’s production comes to the Dominion Arts Center, formerly CenterStage.
Like the 17th-century nautical legend on which it’s based, “The Flying Dutchman” tells the tale of a ghost ship that’s doomed to haunt the oceans forever. The ship supposedly glowed or floated, and mortals who encountered it were said to be doomed.
In Wagner’s version, the Dutchman’s captain — also called the Dutchman — can break the curse only by finding a love when he is allowed to return to land every seven years.
“He’s a tormented character,” says Wayne Tigges, who plays the Dutchman in Virginia Opera’s production. “He got cocky and made a deal with the devil and it didn’t go too well for him, so the devil gave him a curse. The character of the Dutchman is a very serious role full of pathos and angst. He’s a very tormented soul.”
In the opera, the Dutchman seeks the hand of Senta, the daughter of a Norwegian sea captain. Though a mortal huntsman is in love with her, Senta can’t ignore the Dutchman’s draw.
“She has grown up hearing the legend her whole life, and has become fixated and obsessed with the Dutchman and this idea of being his redemption,” says Christina Pier, who plays Senta. “I think it reminds a lot of people of their teenage years when they had a poster of a celebrity on their wall, or they became fixated on someone in their school. It’s a very universal feeling.”
Unlike some of Wagner’s later operas that last nearly five hours, “The Flying Dutchman” is only two and a half hours long, Tigges says, making it a good introduction to Wagner.
“The duets between Senta and the Dutchman are unbelievable,” he says — “some of the best Wagner music around.”
Though this is his fifth time in the role, Tigges stresses how demanding it is vocally.
“Not many people can do Wagner roles, particularly in the bass-baritone area,” Tigges says. “It’s very intense. It’s not for younger singers. You have to have a technique that’s really solid and in your body a good decade before you try it.”
Pier says that the set is so integral to the show that it’s almost a character itself. She adds that the opera has a lot of action, and practically every character swings from the set’s ropes. But ultimately, it all comes back to the music.
“[Conductor] Adam Turner is really bringing so much attention to detail and so many colors out of the score,” she says. “It’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s just beautiful, the colors in the orchestra, the drama is right there in the score.” S
Virginia Opera’s “The Flying Dutchman” plays April 15 and 17 at the Dominion Arts Center at 600 E. Grace St. Visit vaopera.org or call 1-866-OPERA-VA.