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  • The Gestures of the Dutchman:Wagner's Staging Instructions, 1852 and Today
  • Clemens Risi (bio)
    Translated by Jake Fraser

Richard Wagner has got an itch.1 He faces a substantial dilemma: sought for arrest in Germany since taking part in Dresden's May Revolution of 1849, he knows that a return from his exile in Zurich is impossible. But how can the performances of his Der fliegende Holländer, so long desired and now, as a result of his dilemma, such a source of dread, possibly succeed in Germany without his involvement, without his direction, without his powerful presence in the rehearsals and the performances? Wagner's friend Franz Liszt has scheduled the Weimar premiere of the work for December 22, 1852. And Richard Wagner, renowned for his obsessive and meticulous rehearsals, cannot be present? What is to be done?

"There is only one," Wagner will write twenty years later in his essay "On Actors and Singers," "who can outdo the inspired mime in his self-sacrifice: the author who forgets himself completely in the joy of the mimetic achievement. . . . The power of the poet over the mime is unlimited, as soon as his work presents him with the right example."2 And precisely this—presenting the mime with the right example—becomes the solution for Wagner's 1852 dilemma. He writes an instruction manual, his "Bemerkungen zur Aufführung der Oper: Der fliegende Holländer" ("Remarks on the Performance of the Opera der Fliegende Holländer"). The intention behind this text is formulated as follows at the end of the instructions to the first scene:

I have discussed this scene at such length in order to demonstrate how I would like to see the Dutchman interpreted, and what importance I attach to the scrupulous co-ordination of action and music. . . . the success of this number will determine whether or not the audience is able to develop a sympathy and understanding for all that follows; if this monologue fully achieves its aim of reaching the audience and attuning it to the proper receptive frequency, then the most important thing has been accomplished in terms of laying a foundation for the rest. By contrast, nothing that comes after would be capable of making up for something that was neglected here.3 [End Page 159]

Wagner wished to draw up a guarantee for the success of the Holländer, some sort of insurance against the hackneyed performance conventions that made opera into a "concert in costume," as Liszt had quipped about the Italian opera scene some years before.4 The policy underwriting this guarantee consisted of precise directions, explaining (and occasionally stipulating) step by step how the singers were to behave onstage. Because Wagner was incapable, in this instance, of exerting his power over and against the caprice of the singers in person, this responsibility had to be transferred to his text.

This text presents one of the most interesting case studies for the possibility (or impossibility) of historically informed performance, and also touches upon the scenic dimension of opera. The following questions will stand at the center of my discussion: What is the nature of Wagner's instructions? What can they tell us about his conception of a scenic realization? And what relevance could these instructions have for contemporary performances?5

So, to begin: What is the nature of Wagner's instructions? A first glance at the text conveys the impression that everything is there—one need only follow what Wagner wrote. Why would one even need a director in addition to the text? Measure by measure, indeed even note by note, Wagner prescribes how the singer of the Dutchman is to move:

The first note of the aria's ritornello (the low E-sharp in the basses) corresponds to the Dutchman's first step onto land. His slow and deliberate deportment, typical of seafarers when they first set foot ashore after a long voyage, is accompanied by the wave-figure in the cellos and violas. To the first beat of the third measure he takes a second step, still with arms crossed and head bowed; the third and fourth steps correspond to the analogous notes in the eighth and tenth...


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pp. 159-171
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