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Ghosties and ghoulies and krakens, oh my!

By Christie Franke

A captain doomed to sail the seas for eternity seeking a woman to save him with her love. A romantic young woman who has heard all sorts of ghostly tales. A young man who would have the girl as his wife.

Surprisingly, this is not “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Well, not quite.

Richard Wagner’s “Die Fleigende Hollander,” or “The Flying Dutchman,” is in fact the basis for the last two “Pirates” movies, but is itself far older (think more than 150 years). Set in Norway, the action centers around a doomed sea captain whom the devil has cursed to sail the seas, and who can only set foot on land once every seven years. He must use this time to find a woman whose fidelity will free him from his curse. When the Captain runs into a ship lost in a storm, he offers the captain, Daland, gold in return for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Daland, something of a greedy bastard, agrees.

Fortunately for the Captain (not to mention Daland), Senta is all for marrying the doomed sea captain, to the point that it worries the people around her and, naturally, overjoys the Dutchman. Unfortunately, the local hunter Erik is totally not for it. Erik, Senta’s ex, wants her to come back to him and stages a trap wherein the Dutchman believes Senta has betrayed him, thereby dooming him forever. The Dutchman bleakly declares that he is The Flying Dutchman — the ship itself — and prepares to sail off.

And then Senta jumps off a cliff.

Having sworn to be true to the Dutchman, even in the face of death, her suicide redeems them both. The ghost ship disappears and the two lovers are carried off to heaven.

See? Nothing like “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Wagner wrote the opera in 1843 after the original concept was taken from him and given to a different librettist and composer. The opera marked a turning point in his career and has been very popular for decades but was not very well received at the time. This is because of the fact that Wagner was messing around with operatic styles.

Opera at the time was following an Italian pattern. Recitatives, which carry the majority of the plot, abound in “Dutchman,” as do duets and trios and choruses (all the trimmings of an opera of the period). But with “Dutchman,” we first get a glimpse of the hellfire and damnation prevalent in other Wagner operas (his later work is what typically frightens the casual observer at the mention of “opera”). Leitmotifs — melodic ideas that are the theme of a character or mood — are evident throughout “Dutchman” in the rolling of the seas and in Senta’s ballad. Leitmotifs are, in a way, the predecessors to the themes we hear in modern movie soundtracks.

At the time of its premiere, “The Flying Dutchman” received mixed reviews. Some thought it was a frightful mess. Others thought it was magnificent. Wagner saw it as his official entrance into poetry.

“From here begins my career as poet, and my farewell to the mere concoctor of opera texts,” he wrote to friends. Detect the smugness in that statement: It is the satisfaction of a man who knows he’s done a hard job well.

The idea for “The Flying Dutchman” came to Wagner from legend and a deeply intense sea voyage that at one point left his ship moored in a fjord off the Norwegian coast. The legend of the flying Dutchman had been around for about 50 years by the time Wagner made use of it. There are two versions: that the captain blasphemed and was cursed by the devil — which is the more popular — and that the Dutchman was a plagued ship whose entire crew died after being driven from port to port — which is the more realistic. Plays and poems proliferated, rendering the story into one of those urban legends that never quite got cleared up. Many have reported seeing the Dutchman while at sea, and sailors swore that the tale was true for years.

Is it superstition or are the stories true? No one knows, but the tales continue to spark the imagination.

“The Flying Dutchman” is being put on by the Utah Opera and runs Oct. 13 through Oct. 21. Call 1-888-451-ARTS (2787) and ask for student tickets, which cost $8. Visit for more information.

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