Jan Philipp Gloger’s ‘Holländer’ at Bayreuth

Jan Philipp Gloger’s ‘Holländer’ at Bayreuth

In his splendid essay on the influences giving rise to Richard Wagner’s tale of the Dutch sea captain condemned to wander the earth through the ages in search of redemption for the sin of violating the natural order, Mike Ashman makes the important observation that ‘it is no accident that the first vampire tales of Polidori and Byron, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, are the exact contemporaries of these maritime ghost narratives of the Dutchman’ (‘How Wagner Found the Flying Dutchman’, ‘Der fliegende Holländer’: Richard Wagner, Overture Opera Guides in association with English National Opera, series ed. Gary Kahn, London, 2012, 42–7). Common to all of these gothic ‘horror’ stories is the centrally important notion of unnatural life, exhibited either by reanimation of the dead or by characters unable to die and come to peace until some primal guilt is properly atoned. The Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century was a moment in history marked by a rapidly spiralling reliance on and confidence in science and technology to explain the world and provide solutions to its problems, and this has been a trend which has continued without pause into our own time. These narratives of science gone awry or natural processes thwarted held and still retain powerful sway over audiences by virtue of their ever-relevant caution about our misguided efforts to control nature and their recounting of the often disastrous consequences of our hubris. In our own time, one need only think of the international controversy about what constitutes acceptable applications of our ability to split the atom – a controversy that began as soon as the first atomic bomb fell in 1945, and continues unabated today to be among the dominant ethical debates and sources of political tension within the global community.

To go back in time to the origin of these concerns about what is ‘natural’ and beneficial to society as opposed to what is ‘unnatural’ and ultimately destructive to our humanity, perhaps no one summarised this dilemma better than Mary Shelley in her introductory chapter of Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, the touchstone classic for this entire literary genre (first published 1818, republished by Wordsworth Classics, Ware, 1999, 4). There she recounts for the reader her own reaction to her imagined tale of reanimation of the dead through the newly discovered and dimly understood force of ‘galvanism’ as she contemplates the dark side of Dr Frankenstein’s success in reversing the natural order: ‘Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the creator of the world.’ One need not invoke belief in a ‘creator’ to understand her horror as it is tapping fears intrinsic in our universal human nature – anyone who has read her book can feel that terror, regardless of personal religious creed. Nearly two hundred years after she wrote these prophetic words, they now define the bioethical debate as a global public finds itself at the dawn of a posthuman future following the conclusion of the International Human Genome project, in which life can already be created (albeit in a laboratory), artificially enhanced and extended, and theorists and policy–makers alike argue about the definition of ‘life’ and the essence of ‘personhood’ in a near future which some fear could closely resemble a Huxleian ‘Brave New World’, if our scientific and technologic prowess are not tempered with heightened consideration for and regulation of their potentially negative effects downstream. (1)

Wagner has provided a powerfully evocative frame for his parable on the universal human quest for individuality yet meaningful connectivity with others and ultimate harmony with the natural order, embodied by both of the ‘outsider’ characters of the Dutchman and Senta, through the depiction of the surging, storm-tossed sea as metaphor for the endless ebb and flow of the challenges of life. It is a quest that has been foundational to the individual in society throughout the ages, but it has been brought into new prominence by the success of modern technology and science and the resultant pressures to rethink earlier concepts of ‘personhood’ and community. The ultimate destination of that quest, the natural trajectory of life, remains the same – death. Animation can ultimately only be comprehended as the polar opposite of in-animation, and the mystery of birth is matched only by the even greater one of death. Improved longevity, thanks to our biomedical prowess, is welcomed to an extent, but any measure that profoundly distorts that natural trajectory and unduly delays the release provided by death (or, as Shakespeare has Prospero in The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1, 156–8, so perfectly sum up the universal human journey, ‘our little life is rounded with a sleep’) risks being viewed, at first, as unnatural, and eventually as overtly ‘supernatural’ and terrifying. Leaving the turbulent sea of existence too early is horrible, but so is staying too long. Redefining this balance is at the core of the current transhumanist and posthumanist bioethical debate, just as it was at the centre of the controversy over the fictional experimentation of Dr Victor Frankenstein, and it is the essential plight of Wagner’s deathless Holländer.

The Dutchman is certainly the earliest and probably the clearest portrait of the Eternal Wanderer in the entire Wagnerian gallery of heroes, just as the determined, clairvoyant Senta is the purest representation of the soulmate redeeming ‘angel’ among all the heroines in the Bayreuth canon. These are the two societal ‘outsiders’ in the drama, and together they delineate a new reality of freedom and emotional fulfilment in contra-distinction to that of the ominously restrictive and sterile worlds in which they are forced to live – they are destined to complete, liberate and, ultimately, redeem each other. The clarity of this central premise of the work, and this specific interdependence of the two protagonists, account for much of the dramatic power of the piece regardless of the manner of production encountered, whether staunchly traditional or highly interpretive. No matter how ‘colourful’ and masterfully realised by Wagner, it is not the clash of the supernatural realm of the damned Dutch mariners with that of the natural world of the Norwegian sailors and village folk that propels the drama forward and marks it as a revolutionary advance over earlier Romantic models of the demonic/angelic struggle from the pens of Marschner, Meyerbeer and Weber. Rather, it is the combined quest of the Dutchman and Senta to realise their common dream of a future free from the tyranny of their respective existences that signals Der fliegende Holländer as the first Wagnerian ‘Artwork of the Future’ and the opening salvo for a new era in lyric theatre. As Carl Dahlhaus observed, they are an early model for Tristan and Isolde’s flight from the delusions of the ‘Day’ into the fulfilment of a desperately desired higher reality in a ‘Night’ created and defined by their spiritual union (Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas, tr. Mary Whittall, Cambridge, 1979, 12).

The often quoted remark of an early conductor of Holländer that ‘wherever you open the score, the wind blows out at you’ was literally correct with reference to the then, as now, usually encountered nautical stage pictures with traditional settings of the opera, but was more profoundly figuratively on target in describing the bracing novelty of the drama regardless of how staged (Deryck Cooke, ‘Wagner: Der fliegende Hollander: The Background to the Opera’s Composition’, liner notes, Decca CD 470 792-2, 1977, 7–18). In the current Bayreuth production by director Jan Philipp Gloger and dramaturg Sophie Becker, this three-way tension between the normal, paranormal and visionary alternative universe dreamed by the protagonists is recast as the current struggle in our commercially dominated and technology- and science-driven era as the bioethical question about the essence of what is ‘human’: the transhuman quest for an ideal of success tied to continued reliance on current models (the businessman Daland and the Norwegian capitalists), the alienation and emptiness of a postmodern extreme future state (the Dutchman Chief Executive Officer and his corporation of cyborg clones), and the alternative visions of both the Dutchman and Senta of a higher existence centred on emotional fulfilment, individuality and human passion. Wagner’s endlessly wandering sea-captain is now a captain of posthuman industry at a point in our near future; he is still figuratively tossed by the wild winds and rough seas of a late 21st-century posthuman unnatural life, and he is still a study in depression, albeit now a cyborg victim of posthuman ennui rather than a Romantic figure weighed down by the wages of Judeo-Christian sin. This Dutchman is a symbol of the heavy price of biological and social evolutionary ‘success’ to be paid in a posthuman society in which citizens have become robotic, undifferentiated, emotionally empty cogs in the endlessly spinning machine of that society, hypothesised by social critics, including Richard Wagner, beginning during the Industrial Revolution and continuing to C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley in the 20th century, and the social philosopher and bioethicist Francis Fukuyama in our own time. It is a dark view of our near future which Gloger and his colleagues ask us to ponder through his staging of the opera, and is a concept closely allied to the remarkable Tannhäuser (new in 2011) of the Baumgarten/Hegemann team. As Richard Wagner himself noted in ‘A Communication to my Friends’, ‘the figure of the ‘Flying Dutchman’ is a mythical creation of the Folk: a primal trait of human nature speaks out from it with heart-enthralling force. This trait, in its most universal meaning, is the longing after rest from amid the storms of life’ (Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, tr. and ed. William Ashton Ellis, 8 vols, London, 1892–9; facsimile repr. 1993–5, i.307).

To this description of the core ‘meaning’ of the work as framed by its author at the time of its creation nearly two hundred years ago, a bioethicist today would add, consistent with both Wagner’s own Weltanschauung and elucidated by the conceptual basis of the Gloger/Becker production, that this longing for release from the turmoil of life in the context of the rapidly dawning posthuman future is our drive to maintain or regain the essence of our personhood and our essential human qualities of empathy and the ability to love and be loved. These grand themes of the importance of ‘Mitleid’ (i.e. empathy/bonding with the suffering of others) as the pathway to wisdom and full realisation of human potential, and the philosophical struggle between the function of love as a redeeming force operating according to a Feuerbachian model versus a Schopenhauerian–Buddhist one (i.e. does surrender to love between humans liberate them or is it the resistance to such surrender that saves them?), are the themes that occupied Wagner throughout his entire creative life. They made their debut in Holländer with the elemental force of the fierce north wind that seems to blow through the opera and are reflected in the vivid stage pictures and characterisations seen in this new Bayreuth production. (2)

As the overture is not staged by Gloger at Bayreuth, the action begins with the raising of the curtain on a vast, sterile, digital world of flashing streams of numbers and white lights reflected on smooth black metallic walls and floors, akin to an inky black sea – it is the standardised efficiency and anonymity of any large international airport or the circuit board inside a mainframe computer. Daland and the Steersman are viewed at the side of this scene as businessmen in grey suits stranded in a small, fragile oar-less boat representing a failing, insignificant, business enterprise in this relentlessly data-driven New World posthuman commercial landscape. In contradistinction to Lewis Carroll’s fantasy ‘Wonderland’, this is the near-future technology-dominated ‘Data Land’, and the Daland company is adrift in it. Daland and his Chief Operations Officer (i.e. a corporate ‘Steersman’, literally) sleep off their business exertions, but it is a troubled, chemically induced, jet-lag ‘rest’.

The tortured figure of the Dutchman exists in this system as the representation of perfection and success in the posthuman future: the cyborg Chief Executive Officer of a dominant global business. His opening monologue (‘Die Frist ist um’) powerfully presents his dilemma: he is the ultimate alienated posthuman technocrat, emotionally dead yet kept physically viable beyond his natural time by computer chip biologics with obvious electronic ports covering his body, and flush with paper money, to which he no longer attaches any value, in the pockets of his impeccable, if nondescript, black business suit. This worn-out and wandering corporate warrior yearns for what he has lost in the transhuman to posthuman transition: a mortal spark (i.e. ‘soul’, in the terminology of many world religions), and, as with his kindred spirit Kundry, in Parsifal, a sense of meaningful human connectivity to and acceptance by his fellow man. He is hopelessly alienated by his supremacy in this system. He is the Frankenstein monster of our posthuman future; the biologically and socially successful ‘Citizen Cyborg’ anticipated by technoprogressive bioethicists such as James Hughes, but suffering from the profound alienation which worry neoconservative bioethicists such as Francis Fukuyama (James Hughes, Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future, Cambridge, MA, 2004; Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future).

This is the posthuman equivalent of a 19th-century vampire – an undead creature endlessly condemned to feed off the life-force of others but unable to share in their humanity. His plight is vividly shown by the pantomime during his opening monologue as the characters that float in and out of his path in his heavy march through time are seen to interact with him only through the exchange of money. Significantly, he now again attempts suicide, just as he relates in his narrative that he has done many times before, but he cannot bleed from the gash that he makes on his arm. His bloodless state illustrates his profound isolation from the society of men and identifies the source of his status as the posthuman tragic anti-hero. Like the water-bound Rusalki described in Slavic mythology (and the subject of Dvořák’s opera Rusalka), the Gloger Dutchman is a posthuman demigod, contained in a customised prison, who yearns to feel the pains and pleasures of humankind. This captain of the industry of tomorrow is emotionally and spiritually shipwrecked and doomed to wander the sterile, dark, posthuman seas until he finds the loving and redeeming ‘angel’ who will emotionally bond to him and be his bridge back to the humanity from which he long ago separated. He exists, but he does not ‘live’; his success as an organism and his power in this near-future society is inversely correlated with the ability of his fellow man to connect to him on a meaningful personal level. His crew-mates are similarly encumbered as his robotic corporate subordinates or prisoners’ in his technologically advanced company, reminding us that the Czech root of the term ‘robot’ means ‘slave labourer’ (Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture, New Brunswick, NJ, and Manchester, 2002, fn, 102).

The rival corporate executive, Daland, and his Chief Operating Officer/Steersman, crave a strategic partnership with the Dutchman and his high-tech, ultramodern organisation, and this points us to the operation of Wahn (i.e. delusion, madness, or illusion) in this production of Holländer. In place of the Wahn of the senseless and sudden breakdown of social harmony on a midsummer’s night in Wagner’s Nuremberg, or the Wahnsinn (i.e. folly, ill-logic) of the endless torment of the wounded Amfortas, who is denied the healing sleep of death by his duties to the Grail and by his grievously ailing spiritual state in Wagner’s final masterpiece, for Holländer Gloger interpreted this core Wagnerian concept as the illogical yet inexorable march of Daland and the Norwegians toward the hollow ‘perfection’ of the posthuman state exemplified by the Dutch crew. These Norwegians are human lemmings drawn forward by their urge for commercial success, even if it means the doom of alienation and spiritual ‘death’ suffered by the Dutchman and his minions who have already reached the ‘Brave New World’. Their leader, Daland, is willing to forge the strategic alliance that will get them to this dark future by the gift of all that is still uniquely human in him, as represented by the offer of his visionary, free-willed, child, Senta, as collateral in the bargain. As Wagner clearly prescribed, it should not be seen as a bargain of malicious intent, but it is nonetheless a tragic and ill-advised one in the posthuman time period of the Gloger production just as it had been in the Romantic era of the initial staging of the work. Gloger has elucidated the very essence of Wahn within Holländer, and he raises our sensitivity to it as another thematic and conceptual leitmotif within the entire Wagnerian canon, just as are the more commonly cited repeated core themes of fellow-suffering, empathy and redemption through love.

Senta is the life-force in this production: she is the reminder of all that makes us uniquely human and she is the torch-bearer of freedom, both figuratively and (particularly apparent in the original 2012 staging of this production) literally, for all that can reanimate the human spirit. Her independence of thought is first shown by her affection for her fellow outsider, and kindred spirit as dreamer, Erik, portrayed as a ‘natural man’ and simple labourer outside the mainstream in this world of grey-suited male executives. Senta is presented to us throughout the drama in vivid blood red in 2012, and in black in 2013 – in both cases in stark contrast to her dull blue-uniformed female companions on the factory floor of her father’s fan manufacturing business. She is the redeeming angel of death for whom the Dutchman yearns. Although her angel wings are fashioned by her from the cardboard elements in her factory environment, and the physical effigy of the Dutchman upon which she fixes her gaze and her hopes before his arrival is her own crude figure created from packing cardboard, she has achieved the remarkable feat of transforming her dull, near-posthuman environment into something of real personal meaning. Senta is the only truly creative being onstage, and she is to the tormented posthuman Dutchman what Dr Victor Frankenstein was to his Gothic graveyard monster at the dawn of the scientific and technological revolution: Prometheus, the re-animator. It is because of Senta’s love, as represented by her acceptance and recharging of the human spirit still resonating deep within him, that the Dutchman’s ancient self-inflicted wounds can finally bleed at the end of the opera and, at long last, his ‘little life is rounded with a sleep’. The natural course of life is finally resumed, and the grand order in all of nature is restored. The Dutchman’s blood is the symbol of his longed-for redemption; it is the return of his humanity and his final escape from the brittle sterility of his posthuman undead existence. In this manner, it is synonymous with the opening up of Amfortas’s wound at the redeeming touch of Parsifal through the agency of the ‘heiliger Speer’ or, as in some of the source material for Wagner’s Holländer, such as Wilhelm Hauff’s version of the Flying Dutchman tale, ‘Die Geschichte von dem Gespensterschiff’, in which the tormented seaman’s wound actively bleeds once healed (Wilhelm Hauff, ‘The Caravan Tales: The Story of the Haunted Ship’, Tales of Wilhelm Hauff, tr. S. Mendel, London, 1900, 14–24). Perhaps the most moving image of the entire production, and the ultimate symbol of the Senta–Dutchman bond, occurs just prior to the final tableau during the brief orchestral interlude in which we are shown a posthuman Pietà with Senta cradling the completely relaxed body of the reanimated and redeemed (and still living) Dutchman in her arms as she sits atop the pedestal of boxes on the factory floor: the posthuman ‘God’ comforted by his human Angel, akin to the Christian Son of God being caressed in death by his Virgin Mother.

Just as the production gives us hope that the individual posthuman of the future can, with great effort and sacrifice, be re-connected to the essence of his humanity and therefore be ‘saved’, it presents a more chilling vision of our evolution as a society in the futuristic world feared by some that could be dominated by extremes of technologic competition and marketplace forces. The remarkable double chorus of the penultimate scene of the opera, traditionally staged as the celebration of the Norwegian crew set against the Walpurgis Night of the vampire revellers aboard the Dutch ghost ship, here becomes a joint ‘product launch meeting’ for the newly merged transhuman (i.e. incompletely technologically evolved) Norwegian company with the technologically superior and dominant merger partner Dutch company of posthuman cyborgs. The Dutchman’s posthuman robots win the day, just as the Dutch phantoms have the last word musically, as a promotional banner showing an image of the new model fan coming out of Daland’s factory, complete with prominent serial numbers, eerily burns. The jaunty ‘Steuermann lass die Wacht!’ of the Norwegians becomes the marketing propaganda theme song led by the Steersman Chief Operating Officer as he is cheered on and it is fervently sung in unison by his grey-suited, obedient employees. The aggressive forward movement of the black-suited Dutch cyborgs, all with implanted chips and ports on their heads and bodies just like their Chief Executive Officer, mirror the escalating thrust of their opposing musical theme as they overwhelm their merger partners and crowd them off the stage, just as their digital super-advanced technology will dwarf the outmoded analogue technology of the fans produced by Daland’s factory. This is not a merger of equals and an orderly and gentle transition of the old into the new. Instead, it is posthuman mayhem. It is a cautionary scene for us as a global society which some social critics feel is veering perilously close to this reality, and the Dutchman and Senta, having escaped the Wahn onstage through their love, look on from the wings of the stage in seeming amazement at this all-consuming battle for corporate dominance. They alone have gained the wisdom to recognise this struggle for what it actually is: pure posthuman Wahn. The scenic postlude to the drama during the final curtain shows just how opportunistic posthuman society could become, and, as some might argue, our own society already is, as the self–inflicted deaths of the lovers have been memorialised by the survivors as a new model of the mass-produced product, complete with a wedding cake statue of the tragic pair worked into the design, doubtless a new bestseller among a buying public that has never understood the meaning of the struggles and sacrifices of Senta and the Dutchman – she to retain her humanity and he to regain it.

With the Gloger Holländer production, the Bayreuth Festival has again confirmed its preeminence among theatres as a social evolutionary and bioethics laboratory. It has once again given its international audience a startling vision of our possible posthuman future, as reflected in the ever fresh and ever socially conscious works of the visionary social critic, Richard Wagner. The 19th-century genius of the music drama has not only provided the theatrical substrate for presentation of the ongoing problem of defining and maintaining our personhood during the scientific and technological revolution and consequent social change that began in his time and has escalated during our own, but he also provided the keys to the solution through explorations of concepts and phenomena such as irrationality (Wahn), sense of community and empathy (Mitleid), and the function of love as a redemptive force. As we proceed into the third century of Wagner’s influence on the world stage, we are reminded by productions such as the Gloger Holländer at Bayreuth that these problems and these components of possible solutions are as viable and vital to us today as they were two hundred years years ago.


1. Posthumanism can be defined as the state of over-reliance on the unrestrained use of technology and science to the point where individual human characteristics and values are altered, as portrayed in Aldous Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World (1932), and in the social critiques of C.S. Lewis and Feodor Dostoyevsky. Many contemporary philosophers and bioethicists view the ‘posthuman’ condition as the near future negative extreme of our current, generally positive, emphasis on life extending and life enhancing biotechnology, commonly referred to as the ‘Transhuman’ Movement (or transhumanism). For an excellent, comprehensive discussion of posthumanism, and the threat that some hypothesise it will pose to our current concepts of social integration and ‘personhood’, see Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York, 2002).

2. For a succinct, excellent description of the unifying philosophical theme of Mitleid in Wagner’s works, including its presence in the Holländer, see Robert W. Gutman, Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music (New York, 1968), 97. For a stimulating discussion of Wagner’s life-long dialectic between a Feuerbachian and Schopenhauerian view of the function of love as a redemptive power, see Urs App, Richard Wagner and Buddhism (Rorschach and Kyoto, 2011), 22–31.

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