When Richard Wagner, sailing to England in 1839, was caught in several storms, the fear he felt of the raging sea left a deep impression on him. Allegedly it was then that he heard the sailors relating the legend of the flying Dutchman. Subsequently, Heinrich Heine’s adaptation of the legend in his Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski provided irresistible inspiration. In Paris, Wagner began drafting an opera on this subject, submitting it to the Opéra with three completed numbers. Although the idea met with praise, another composer was commissioned. At least the draft earned Wagner enough money to make ends meet and buy a piano, on which he then composed his own version. In mid-November 1841, his first version, set off the coast of Scotland, was complete. In this version each act flows seamlessly into the next, since it was Wagner’s intention that the opera be played without an intermission, like a relentless tempest, so to speak. Der fliegende Holländer is Wagner’s fourth opera and with it he clearly adopts the style of romantic opera in the tradition of Spohr, Weber and Marschner.
As a punishment for his arrogance towards God – he swore not to stop sailing round the Cape of Good Hope despite the appalling weather – the flying Dutchman has been condemned to sail aimlessly around the seas for all eternity. Every seven years he is permitted to go ashore. If he finds a woman there who is prepared to be faithful to him, he may find redemption. So far he has not succeeded. Shortly before he is next due to make landfall, the Dutchman meets the merchant Donald who promises the hand of his daughter Senta in marriage in exchange for a sum of money. Amazingly, Senta has always loved the Dutchman, because there is a portrait of him in the family home that she has worshipped since childhood. Her suitor, the hunter Georg, has always been jealous on account of the painting. Consequently, things bode well for the union initiated by Donald: Senta is delighted to be engaged to the man of her dreams. Georg, however, is furious. When the Dutchman happens to overhear part of a quarrel between Senta and Georg, he believes that Senta has been unfaithful to him and sails away. But Senta is able to prove that she is true to him by plunging into the sea after the departing ship.