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Wagner's sea of eternity

China Daily| Updated: May 12, 2023 L M S


Produced by the Shanghai Opera House and the Theater Erfurt in Germany, Richard Wagner's opera The Flying Dutchman will be staged at the fifth China Opera Festival in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, on Monday. It features widely praised stage design with a dramatic giant red ghost ship. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Opera house revives a symbolic production that highlights struggle against a doomed fate, Zhang Kun reports.

The Flying Dutchman, a Richard Wagner's opera coproduced by the Shanghai Opera House, will be staged on Monday, as one of 24 productions being showcased at the fifth China Opera Festival in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. The opera will also be performed at the Shangyin Opera House in Shanghai, on May 20-21.

Performed in German with Chinese and English subtitles, it premiered in China at the Guangzhou Opera House in Guangdong province on May 5. The opera was jointly produced by the Shanghai Opera House and the Theater Erfurt in Germany in 2018.

The revival this year features the widely praised stage design with a giant red ghost ship and a cold atmospherically chilly cabin, with the same leading male actor American baritone Todd Thomas.

The premiere at the Guangzhou Opera House marked the first performance of Chinese soprano He Hui as a Wagner heroine in a full-size opera production.

"In the past two decades of my opera career I have always tried to make new breakthroughs, but at the same time I have carefully protected my voice," He said before a rehearsal in Shanghai.

"I am very cautious in selecting my roles and productions. By now I believe I can make the bold step to embrace Wagner," He says.

She adds that in some Italian operas, you feel as if the orchestra plays to accompany the singer, while in a Wagner's opera, the human voice is like an instrument, whose sound intertwines with that of the orchestra.

"This makes a huge demand on the strength, fortitude and technique of voice control. To use your voice as an instrument, you need to constantly know yourself and tap your potential to use it well.

"I am glad that with my age and experience, I now have the opportunity to present a most dramatic Wagner's opera. I think my voice is bigger, heavier and more penetrating than ever, and more appropriate for the performance of a Wagner piece," she says.


[Photo provided to China Daily]

In the past three years, the soprano presented a series of opera productions with the Shanghai Opera House, such as Aida, Turandot, Tosca, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci.

"I am very honored to be able to present my first Wagner opera with the Shanghai Opera House in the 25th year of my career," she says.

The leading actor, Thomas, recalls his first visit to China in 2018, as it was the first time he played the Dutchman (the ship's captain) in the Wagner's opera. The audience's rapturous applause encouraged him.

"Every night, in the restroom I remembered there were people congregating for autographs and that doesn't happen a lot in the United States," he says.

This time he canceled the plan for a new Donizetti production in the US to make the China tour. Playing the revival is different from five years ago, he says. "Live theater is not like the movies. … This is what's exciting about live theater. It is the same opera and same music, but the chemistry is different."


He goes on to praise the Shanghai Opera House for the "magnificent" sound of the chorus and says the soloists are "wonderful singers with strong work ethics". [Photo provided to China Daily]

Composed in 1841, The Flying Dutchman is based on German author Heinrich Heine's novel The Memoir of Mister von Schnabelewopski, which retells the European maritime legend about a doomed ship that sails forever. Heine added to the tale a key plot that the Dutch captain can only be redeemed by the love of a faithful woman. Wagner took the theme that Heine used as irony and satire to create an opera about redemption and faithful love.

In the opera, the heroine Senta lunges off the cliff to fulfill her vow to be faithful to the Dutchman, and successfully redeems him from the curse.

The opera marked a turning point in Wagner's career, ushering in more maturity in his works. It is also one of the most popular Wagner operas.

This year being the 210th anniversary of the birth of Wagner, the Shanghai Opera House decided to revive the production and take it on a tour of three Chinese cities, with five shows in May.

"Wagner is a genius in music history who started an opera revolution," Xu Zhong, president of the Shanghai Opera House and conductor of the production, says.

"Meanwhile, his masterpieces demand expert technique, persistence and the physical prowess of singers and instrumentalists, as well as the control of the conductor.

"Producing a Wagner's opera brings challenges to the stage design and hardware equipment of an opera house, too. All of this means a Wagner production poses challenges for producers, performers and audiences. It takes a strong team to make a quality Wagner production," Xu says.

While having top-level international artists, such as Thomas and He, is important to a successful production, Xu says it is equally important to push emerging artists to develop rapidly.

"We have grown into a stronger company and accumulated more experience in big international productions. We are more confident than five years ago when we collaborated with the Theater Erfurt to make the first production of The Flying Dutchman.

"In September, we will collaborate with the Bayerische Staatsoper to create another Wagner's opera, Lohengrin, which is even more challenging," Xu says.

Contact the writer at zhangkun@chinadaily.com.cn

If you go

The Flying Dutchman

7:30 pm, May 15

Linping Grand Theater, the crossing of Wangmei Road and Xinghe Road South, Linping district, Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.


7:30 pm, May 20-21

Shangyin Opera House, 10 Fenyang Road, Xuhui district, Shanghai.