Opera on the Couch: The Flying Dutchman

Opera on the Couch: The Flying Dutchman

by Milton Schaefer, Ph.D., Opera on the Couch, Chair


Drs. Eileen Keller and Lee Rather were discussants for the Opera-on-the-Couch discussion of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman immediately following the November 3 performance at the San Francisco Opera. Their presentations led to a lively back and forth, which was moderated by Dr. Steve Goldberg, between the 80 or more participants.

Wagner’s first great opera concerns a phantom boat captained by one doomed to wander at sea until Judgment Day, unless he finds a woman who gives him faithful, absolute love. Every 7 years he can set ashore and search for her; he finds such a one in Senta, a young woman who has fallen in love with him. Though he first believes he has found his salvation, he then mistakenly concludes that she has betrayed him and he scorns her. Senta jumps to her death, and the opera ends with the two of them in heaven. He has been saved by her love, loyalty and sacrifice.

With reference to Aristophanes’ explanation of Romantic Life in Plato’s Symposium, Dr. Rather discussed the Flying Dutchman as a mythic drama encapsulating the psychological dynamics of “masculine” and “feminine” gender construction. From this perspective, the Dutchman and Senta are each searching for his/her “other half”: that part of the self that was split off in childhood as part of individuation and identification processes. As a man, the Dutchman is searching for his lost capacity for love, dependence, and vulnerability; as a woman, Senta is searching for her lost creativity, power and independence. The final scene, in which they are shown transfigured and rising from the ocean into the sky, symbolizes the reintegration of these split off aspects.

Dr. Keller chose to focus on the character of Senta, the girl who dreams romantically of the Dutchman, pities him and longs to be the one special woman who can save him. She elaborated that we can better understand Senta’s longing to save the Dutchman and her ultimate sacrifice by recognizing her wish to escape the limits of her life as a girl, on sale to the highest bidder, and destined for an ordinary life spinning and toiling. Senta’s dreams and hopes and her pity for the Dutchman burst into the fantasy that she can be the one true woman who will save him. While it is easy, from a modern and secular perspective, to write off her suicidal leap from the cliffs as masochistic, Dr. Keller explained that, for Senta, the good of the other far outweighed the loss of her life. Indeed, her sacrifice not only freed the Dutchman and his crew, but assured her ascension to heaven as well. Dr. Keller likened Senta’s capacity to put the Dutchman’s sorrow and misery above her own interests as indicating a capacity for surrender, not submission. This was a joyful, ecstatic abandonment of the self into a heroic act, resulting in the ultimate romantic and spiritual resolution and redemption.

In the ensuing exchange with the audience, there was a lively discussion of the dark tone of the opera and the relation between death and transcendence. There was also much discussion about martyrdom, masochism and the societal oppression of women.

Opera on the Couch will be discussing two other operas this year. Dr. Steve Goldberg and Dr. Sue Saperstein will be discussing Madame Butterfly on June 15, 2014, and Dr. Jeanne Harasemovitch and Dr. Israel Katz will be discussing La Traviata on July 13, 2014. We now have a core of analysts who have been participating with us in these discussions, but we remain open to hearing from other members who might be interested in being discussants for future performances. Our discussants have found this to be an enjoyable experience with a lively and engaged audience. In addition, the discussants get two free orchestra seats to the performance as well as a tickets to the final dress rehearsal. Please contact either Steve Goldberg or Milton Schaefer if you are interested or have any questions.

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