Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Story Behind Senta in The Flying Dutchman


Senta and her Father – The “Real” Story behind the Story
R. Lawrence St. Clair, MD

The BLO’s exciting new production of The Flying Dutchman is not your grandmother’s Dutchman. Michael Cavanagh, the director, has a bold, new approach to this opera. He wants us to look deeper into Senta and Daland’s (Donald in Wagner’s original) minds. Why is Senta so fixated on the Dutchman? Why does she sacrifice her life to save him? Why does Donald so quickly sell his daughter to a stranger?

The creative team of Michael Cavanagh and John Conklin teamed up with three psychotherapists (Carol Rubin, PhD, Ira Lable, MD, and myself) to construct a compelling saga for Senta and Donald’s lives that would lead to the events in the opera itself. Our version of Senta’s story is meant to stimulate the audience to have their own ideas about Senta and Donald as realistic people. Michael hopes that everyone leaves the theater with their own explanation.

We started with Michael’s suggestion that the Dutchman is Senta and Donald’s shared fantasy, that the events in the opera are their shared delusion. The concept of the Dutchman figure as a fantasy or dream is not new and has been presented in other productions, notably at Bayreuth in 1985.  We wanted a more complete and plausible story. So what happened to them that was so traumatic?

Our explanation starts when Senta’s mother commits suicide when Senta is seven. Donald becomes so stricken with grief that he is completely unresponsive to his young daughter. Thus Senta grows up in an emotionally barren environment and copes by retreating into her own fantasy world. Donald, in his grief, spends all his time at sea. He returns when Senta is 14. She doesn’t really recognize or trust her father. This first reunion is particularly painful for both of them, as Donald is angered by his daughter’s rejection.

Donald retreats from reality into the Dutchman myth and, having lost his wife, he becomes the Dutchman, wandering the seas looking for love from a perfect angel to bring him back to life. For Senta, the Dutchman is the more noble side of her depressed father. Her love will end his curse. By jumping to join the Dutchman, she is both rescuing her father and symbolically joining her mother.

This production has many wonderful details. The sets, the video projections, the images, and the costumes all reflect Senta’s inner world. We hope you leave the performance feeling that you know Senta, Donald and the Dutchman a bit better.

Georgia Harper, playing Senta at age 7,
on The Flying Dutchman rehearsals, playing tragedy, and the joy of a perfectly-fitted costume

On April 26, BLO opens the US Premiere of the 1841 critical edition of The Flying Dutchman in honor of Wagner’s bicentennial.  In a new production, BLO presents the opera through the eyes of Senta, a yearning heroine desperate to escape her restricting world.  We see her throughout the opera at ages 7, 14, and 21.  For a look at the rehearsal process through the eyes of Senta, BLO interviewed Georgia Harper, the young performer playing the supernumerary role of Senta at age 7.

BLO: Before being cast in The Flying Dutchman had you seen or listened to an opera before? If so, which one? 
Georgia:  Before The Flying Dutchman, I had not been exposed to opera. I had never listened to it…mostly because I couldn’t understand the true meaning of what the singers were singing.

Do you like listening to the opera?  What do you like or not like about it? 

Because I’m fairly new to this genre, I’m not really sure yet how I feel about it. It’s frustrating that so many operas seem to be in other languages. I do like how well-trained opera singers are—their voices have amazing range. No auto-tune, it’s all real.

What kind of music do you like to listen to on your own? Do you take music, dance, or acting classes at school?
I really enjoy listening to show tunes, though I do like pop music too. I take voice lessons every week, and I am trying to find some “beginners” dance classes (I’m not the best dancer). At my school, I take drama classes and I am joining the chorus.

What does your character do in the opera?  What kind of a person is she?
Young Senta is a 7 year-old girl, who is traumatized by her mother’s death. She is lonely because her father has shut her out of his life. She is imaginative and very artistic. In the very beginning of the opera, she finds her mother’s dead body and that’s where the madness truly begins. This is the first time I’ve gotten to act out a really tragic, sad story. My favorite part in the show is when I put my hands in my mother’s blood (since I’m  seven, I am still a bit confused as to  what the blood is).

Do you think you would be friends with Senta in real life?
Though I think Young Senta lives a very troubled life, she seems like a very imaginative kid. I think we could have fun doing something creative, like art, or watch a movie together.

What do you do during the rehearsals? 
In rehearsals, we stage the scenes. I’ve had the pleasure to work with people as fantastic as the directors [Michael Cavanagh and Music Director, David Angus] and also Olivia Duvall (Teen Senta) and Allison Oakes (Singing Senta). Also we brainstorm on how to make this seem as realistic as possible. We try to make the movements cohesive and smooth as Senta gets older.

What is your favorite part of being part of this production?
One of my favorite parts of the production is the costumes and the people. Everyone is so nice and warm, and it makes it easier to be the youngest one in the production. I have never been in a show where I get to wear such a professional and perfectly fitted costume. In my previous productions, I’m almost always wearing pants and now I get to try wearing a full-length skirt.

How did you get the part of Senta?  What was the audition process like?
I heard about the auditions from my singing teacher, Dana Schnitzer. She’s a singer in the show. I was a nervous wreck before the audition. But when I walked into the door and met the directors I started to relax. They asked me a few questions about my resume and the shows I’ve done. We then worked on some small scenes that Young Senta performs in the show. I had heard about this role before hand and I really tried to show a girl living a very sad life. A few days later, my mom got the call that I got the part. When I got home from school I heard the good news. I was OVERJOYED!

How do you get ready to play Senta?  Have you read more about the story of The Flying Dutchman?
I get ready to play Young Senta by trying to channel her thoughts and experiences. I think of some sad times in my life and I try to bring it to the scene. I have read some more things about The Flying Dutchman, such as a synopsis and some poems. Also, people in the show have been great about explaining parts I’m confused about or don’t understand.

What are you going to do after The Flying Dutchman?

After the opera, I will audition for more shows at school and in community theater, and I will continue to do more productions. I would love to find more professional companies like BLO since I have learned so much and had such a fantastic experience, and I cant wait to do more.


 Olivia Dundon-Duvall, playing Senta at age 14,

on The Flying Dutchman rehearsals, falling in love with opera, and the excitement of landing a role


On April 26, BLO opens the US Premiere of the 1841 critical edition of The Flying Dutchman in honor of Wagner’s bicentennial.  In a new production, BLO presents the opera through the eyes of Senta, a yearning heroine desperate to escape her restricting world.  We see her throughout the opera at ages 7, 14, and 21.  For a look at the rehearsal process through the eyes of Senta, BLO interviewed Olivia Dundon-Duvall, the young performer playing the supernumerary role of Senta at age 14.

BLO: Before being cast in The Flying Dutchman had you seen or listened to an opera before? If so, which one? 
Olivia: No. The Flying Dutchman is my first exposure to opera music.

Do you like listening to the opera?  What do you like or not like about it?
Yes!! I love to hear the passion behind the words, even if they are in a different language. Through The Flying Dutchman, I’ve discovered how moving and beautiful opera music can be. I love it!

What kind of music do you like to listen to on your own? Do you take music, dance, or acting classes at school?
I’ve recently gotten really into indie pop and alternative music. My favorites right now are Regina Spector, Ingrid Michaelson, and Sufjan Stevens. I also like listening to Broadway musicals! At school, I sing in chorus and take drama class.

What does your character do in the opera?  What kind of a person is she?
I play Senta at age 14. The relationship between my character and her father at this age is especially important. Their relationship has really ruined her life, because he is so distant after her mother’s suicide. My character is shown resorting to activities like writing and praying. I’ve interpreted Senta at 14 as being a confused and internally angry teenager who has difficulty trusting people.

Do you think you would be friends with Senta in real life?
I don’t think Senta would make a very good friend at all. She hasn’t gotten her own life figured out at all and has so many emotions and struggles to deal with. Although, I do think Senta could use a friend. She’s focused all of her pain internally, without anybody to help her through her many struggles.

What do you do during the rehearsals? 
Rehearsals are always really fun! In the beginning, Mr. Cavanagh introduced Georgia and me to our roles and helped us “become one person” with Allison (she plays the oldest Senta). We focused a lot on having similar reactions to situations, which I thought was really fun to develop with them. Then, we met everybody else in the cast and were integrated into our scenes. We just had the final room run-through and now we are moving into the theater!


What is your favorite part of being part of this production?
Aside from getting to work on stage with really talented performers, I am enjoying getting to know people off-stage as well. I’ve especially bonded with Georgia, who plays Young Senta. It’s so fun getting to know her (we are the only kids in the cast) and everybody else involved in the production. I love seeing how everybody’s parts on-stage and off-stage come together to produce the show! When we move into the theatre, I am very excited to perform on the set.

How did you get the part of Senta?  What was the audition process like?
I heard about the audition through the Boston Children’s Chorus, which I have been a part of for the past 4 years. I had no idea what to expect, but I went on a whim and signed up for an audition. At the audition, I was SO nervous. I did two acting exercises with the assistant director, Peter, playing another role. It ended up being kind of fun! After that, I worried about my audition for the whole weekend, which felt like a year! On Monday, Peter called and told me that they wanted me to play the role. It happened, to be April Fool’s Day, so I was a bit skeptical at first...but I was so excited to get the role! I was so excited that I ran around my house screaming and jumping up and down for a while..I am so glad I decided to audition!!

How do you get ready to play Senta?  Have you read more about the story of The Flying Dutchman?
I did a little research on The Flying Dutchman and the music before we started rehearsing. I listen to the music from the opera whenever I can (like when I’m doing homework!) so I can get into my head. I also like watching Allison and Georgia playing Senta, so that I can make the idea of all of us being the same person more real.

What are you going to do after The Flying Dutchman?
After the opera closes, I am graduating middle school! Also, I am performing in the world premiere of a choral/dance work at the Institute of Contemporary Art called A Boy Called King, composed by Daniel Roumain. Also with the Boston Children’s Chorus, I will be touring to Southeast Asia with about 50 other singers this summer for 2 weeks!

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