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Getting close to opera, flying with the Dutchman

Peking University, Mar. 17, 2011: Professor Jiang Yimin of the Academy of Opera, Peking University, gave PKU students a speech on "Wagner and His Operas" in South Wing Hall of PKU Library on March 9.



It was one part of the lecture series "Opera Performing Arts," a public elective course held by the Academy of Opera for undergraduate students.


Based on 10 years' study and personal experience in Bayreuth, Professor Jiang Yimin analyzed The Flying Dutchman, starting from the life background of its composer, Wilhelm Richard Wagner. The Flying Dutchman was based on Wagner's own miserable experience as a vagrant drifting about on the sea. “Wagner got inspiration from the story of a ghost ship in Heinrich Heine's satire ‘The Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski’ (Aus den Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelewopski),” said Professor Jiang.


Professor Jiang chose the overture portion of the opera to analyze and guided students in interpreting the meaning of the piece, while enjoying the overture. Thanks to the professor’s profound interpretation in simple approach, students left with a deeper understanding of the overture as well as the composer's original intent.


Background info:

Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was a German composer, conductor, theater director, and essayist, primarily known for his operas. Wagner's compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex texture, rich harmonies and orchestration, and the elaborate use of leitmotifs: musical themes associated with individual characters, places, ideas or plot elements. Unlike most other opera composers, Wagner wrote both the music and libretto for every one of his stage works.


Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works such as The Flying Dutchman and Tannhauser which were in the romantic traditions of Weber and Meyerbeer, Wagner transformed operatic thought through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk ("total work of art"). This would achieve the synthesis of all the poetic, visual, musical, and dramatic arts, and was announced in a series of essays between 1849 and 1852. Wagner realized this concept most fully in the first half of the monumental four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. However, his thoughts on the relative importance of music and drama were to change again and he reintroduced some traditional operatic forms into his last few stage works including Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.


Wagner pioneered advances in musical language, such as extreme chromaticism and quickly shifting tonal centers, which greatly influenced the development of European classical music. His Tristan und Isolde is sometimes described as marking the start of modern music. Wagner's influence spread beyond music into philosophy, literature, the visual arts and theatre. He had his own opera house built, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which contained many novel design features. It was here that the Ring and Parsifal received their premieres and where his most important stage works continue to be performed today in an annual festival run by his descendants. Wagner's views on conducting were also highly influential. His extensive writings on music, drama and politics have all attracted extensive comment; in recent decades, especially where they have anti-Semitic content.


Wagner achieved all of this despite a life characterized, until his last decades, by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty, and repeated flight from his creditors. His pugnacious personality and often outspoken views on music, politics, and society made him a controversial figure during his life. He has remained one to this day. The impact of his ideas can be traced in many of the arts throughout the 20th century.


The Flying Dutchman
The legend of the Flying Dutchman concerns a ghost ship that can never make port, doomed to sail the oceans forever. It probably originates from 17th century nautical folklore. The oldest extant version dates to the late 18th century.


Sightings in the 19th and 20th centuries report the ship to be glowing with ghostly light. It is said that if hailed by another ship, its crew will try to send messages to land or to people long dead. In ocean lore, the sight of this phantom ship is a portent of doom.


Extended reading:

"Shining stars" over Beida



Translated by: Chen Meng

Edited by: Jacques

Source: PKU News (Chinese)