On Saturday, Opera Carolina heralds composer Richard Wagner’s 200th birthday by mounting the first Wagner production they’ve staged in 20 years.
“The Flying Dutchman” – the first of Wagner’s operas exhibiting what became his signature musical style – is perhaps the only Wagner work Opera Carolina can produce; they don’t have the resources for most of the German megalomaniac’s characteristically gargantuan works.
While they may not have the capacity for the most quintessential Wagnerian programs, Opera Carolina does boast the quintessential Wagnerian in their production.
Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley – considered by many to be the best Dutchman in the world – will play the title character. Grimsley recently performed as Wotan in the Metropolitan Opera’s “Ring” cycle, earning praise from Opera News for “iron power with a sumptuously beautiful voice, smooth as silk, precise of text.”
These are the qualities associated with the Wagnerian singer. Wagner wrote long, taxing phrases, requiring great power, stamina and maturity; he also wrote both the music and words – usually split between two people – securing an unprecedented integration of the two and requiring great insight from the singer.
“These Wagnerian roles require a refinement that only the finest singers possess,” said James Meena, Opera Carolina’s general director. “… (Grimsley) is at the height of his artistic powers right now and will elevate the level of the production by leaps and bounds.”
In the opera, the phantom Dutchman lives a cursed life wandering the sea, allowed to come ashore once every seven years to seek true love; until he finds it, he is condemned to deathless roaming. When another ship tries to brave a tricky cape, the Dutchman boards and relates his miserable fate to the Captain Daland, who promises his daughter Senta’s hand in marriage. Senta is amenable to the arrangement, having a preoccupation with the Dutchman legend, but a huntsman, Erik, pursues her, eventually causing the Dutchman to think Senta double-crossed him.
Soprano Elizabeth Beers Kataria plays Senta, bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter portrays Daland, and tenor Jason Wickson will take on Erik, a role for which he is quickly becoming known, with recent performances at Piedmont Opera in Winston-Salem and The Princeton Festival. Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee joins the cast as Mary, Senta’s nurse and voice of reason. Fenlon Lamb will direct, replacing Bernard Uzan. The Gay Men’s Chorus of Charlotte will join the Opera Carolina Chorus, totaling 90 singers; the Charlotte Symphony will perform the lush, complex score.
While Wagner is responsible for some of the most famous dramatic music – such as “Ride of the Valkyries” – his music is polarizing.
“I love when we do audience surveys,” Meena said. “There are only extremes with Wagner. They say ‘Perform anything but Wagner!’ or ‘Perform anything by Wagner!’ His music requires a lot of the audience, and those who want the story and music to waft effortlessly over them are challenged. They say, ‘I’m not going to bother.’ When they do bother, they get sucked in. It’s so hyper-romantic and hyper-expressive, you can’t help but get sucked into Wagner’s world if you let yourself go there.”
Bybee once considered herself a member of the anti-Wagner camp but changed her mind when she was cast in a Wagnerian role and forced to listen thoroughly during her preparation.
“To me, it’s like seeing something in Technicolor instead of black and white,” Bybee said. “The texture is so much more lush.”
While the complexity of the music and length of many of Wagner’s later works serve as barriers to some, “The Flying Dutchman” maintains some of the tunefulness of the earlier Italian tradition, a moderate length, and an intriguing story, Grimsley said.
“The furthest thing from everyone’s stereotypical idea of a Wagner opera is a real Wagner performance,” Grimsley said. “Dutchman is very much a passionate, drama-filled evening.”