Deconstructing the Dutchman

Published on 27 September 2016

Singapore’s top artists join forces to give Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman an Asian twist.


Romance. Sacrifice. Ghosts. The idea that a man can be redeemed only by love has captured our imagination for centuries. Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman is all this, and more.


This October, The Flying Dutchman will be the first Wagnerian opera (believed to be the most complex operas to perform) to be produced and staged in Singapore. And if you think it’s a Euro-centric opera with Euro-centric sets and period costumes, think again. With theatre heavyweights Glen Goei and Chong Tze Chien helming the creative team, you know it will be one-of-a-kind.

In fact, it promises to be a world’s first.


This is the first time Chong (artistic director, The Finger Players) and Goei (associate artistic director, W!ld Rice) are collaborating as co-directors, and also the first time they’re directing an opera.


Juliana Lim, president of the Richard Wagner Association Singapore (RWAS), is inspired by how these award-winning directors are seeing this German opera with Asian eyes. “What is kept intact are the story, the music, the libretto [text], and the original orchestration. But the form, staging, and psyche of the characters are conceived from scratch,” she says. “It’s a European opera, with an Asian slant.”


“From the get-go, we wanted to create multiple entry points for Asian and European audiences who will fly here to watch it,” says Chong. “We set our ideas on two things: the Malay Archipelago and Chinese opera. By bringing together the minimalist aesthetics of Chinese opera and elements of Southeast Asia — such as colours, textiles, movements, and art forms like wayang kulit [shadow puppetry] — we came up with a very Asian look to the entire mise en scène.”


As theatre practitioners, Goei and Chong have also explored the characters’ psyche extensively — something not commonly practised in opera. “Senta’s fascination with the Dutchman has never been clearly explained [see sidebar]. We’re taking a psychological approach and seeing things through her eyes. She’s the protagonist, the real hero who saves him,” reveals Chong. “Hopefully, we’ll finally get to understand what he — as a metaphor — means to her and to us, in this Southeast Asian context.”

BIG VOICES The Singapore/Asian leads — (clockwise from top left) Julian Lo, Martin Ng, Kee Loi Seng and Nancy Yuen — will perform for one night only on 27 October.


Presented by RWAS and OperaViva, in association with The Finger Players, this production brings together an impressive creative team that includes renowned Singaporean conductor Darrell Ang as music director, award-winning set designer Wong Chee Wai, and costume designer MAX.TAN.


Goei puts the scale of the production in perspective. “It’s a 50-piece orchestra, a 40-strong chorus and six opera singers — that’s close to 100 people on stage! It’s larger than any musical staged.”

The production will also be a runway for the winners of the Richard Wagner International Singing Competition held triennially in Karlsruhe, Germany. Joining the four international leads — Ukrainian Oleksandr Pushniak (The Dutchman), Australian Kathleen Parker (Senta), Czech Jakub Pustina (Erik), and German Andreas Hörl (Daland) — are Singaporeans Candice de Rozario (Mary), Jonathan Tay and Melvin Tan (Steersmen).


They will also be part of a special performance by Singapore/Asian leads featuring Singapore Lyric Opera’s honorary artistic director, Nancy Yuen (Senta), Martin Ng (The Dutchman), Julian Lo (Daland) and Kee Loi Seng (Erik).


The hope is that this project will be a vehicle to nurture an opera arts community in Singapore. Casting their eyes further, the directors also hope overseas audiences will come and experience Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in a way that’s never been done before.


“I think they will be surprised by how we made a 170-year-old story so contemporary and so Asian. We’re updating it. We’re bringing Wagner into the 21st century and to an Asian context,” says Goei. “I think it’s quite ground-breaking! I’d like to believe that there will be more Wagner operas to be staged in the region as a result.”


The Flying Dutchman plays at the Victoria Theatre on 23, 25, 27, 28 & 30 October (27 October with Singapore/Asian leads). For more information, visit

SUPERPOWERS ACTIVATE! Singapore’s top talents, co-directors Glen Goei (left) and Chong Tze Chien (right), and music director Darrell Ang (top), unite to helm this ambitious project.


Richard Wagner (1813-1883) is one of the most influential — and controversial — composers of all time. The German is best known for creating the ‘total work of art’: he wrote the music for his operas, the text (libretto), designed the visual elements, and directed.


In movies like Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, you’ll often hear a short, constantly-recurring musical phrase that’s tagged to characters, places or objects. Think Darth Vader. That’s Wagner’s leitmotif — a concept that inspired many film composers, including John Williams.


Wagner’s famous operas include The Flying Dutchman (1843), Tannhäuser (1845), Tristan and Isolde (1865), and The Ring Cycle, an epic 18-hour saga first performed in its entirety in 1876. Because of the demands of performing a Wagnerian opera, singers are only permitted to sing on alternate nights!



The Flying Dutchman is cursed to sail the seven seas forever — the result of a pact he made with the Devil. His only hope of redemption is to find true love. But he can only return to land once in seven years. The opera is set in the seventh year, when the Dutchman chances upon a ship stalled after a storm. He offers the merchant Daland his treasures for the hand of his daughter. Daland agrees.


Back in the village, the women are happily spinning as they await the return of the menfolk, all except Daland’s daughter Senta, who is dreaming of the legendary Dutchman, whom she has never met but is in love with. However, she’s betrothed to a huntsman, Erik. Senta is happy to marry the Dutchman; but he thinks she has betrayed him, after overhearing an exchange between Senta and Erik. He flees back to his ship, but spares Senta’s life (as the fate of women who betray him is death). As he leaves, Senta throws herself into the sea.

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