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Who is The Steersman in The Flying Dutchman

Der Fliegende Holländer
The Flying Dutchman in rough waters.
The next role I am at about to play is that of The Steersman (Der Steuermann) in Theater Augsburg’s open-air production of Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (in German Der Fliegende Holländer).

This is a very special role for me on a personal level: The Flying Dutchman was the first opera I ever appeared in (professionally or otherwise). It was back in 2004 when I sang in the three minute offstage chorus of ghostly sailors with Opera Australia. I still remember how exciting it was to be backstage in the State Theater of the Victorian Arts Centre in Melbourne and how I kept getting lost to the stage because the place is a maze.

I was always going out to watch the Steersman sing his big aria in the first act and being mesmerised by the music. I remember straight after this, taking the aria to my teacher and being told, "No... don't sing this one."

Well... now I get to finally perform the Steersman in The Flying Dutchman, whilst preparing to do Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni straight afterwards. Two roles that were on my "must-perform-before-I-die" list.

So now I will discuss, who exactly is the Steersman in The Flying Dutchman, why he is important to the story and how I play the character.

Der Fliegende Holländer
The Steersman of the Norwegian ship.
What is a Steersman exactly?

The Steersman’s job (back in the 17th century and in the present day) is to navigate and to steer the vessel. So apart from the Captain he is the most important man in the crew – a number two if you like. On a real crew in the 17th century, his rank would have only been preceded by the Quartermaster and then the Captain.

What is his story in the Flying Dutchman?

The Steersman is part of a crew of Norwegian sailors returning home from a long voyage. It is not specifically mentioned what the sailors were doing, but it can be assumed that they are trading, since it is mentioned that they are bringing back gold, presumably from selling their wares.

The crew have been sailing for a long voyage and as they are nearing home, a great storm sweeps the ship seven miles off course. They end up being forced to drop anchor at Sandwike for the night to wait for the storm to abate.

The Captain, Daland, orders the crew to rest and, although it is perfectly safe, he asks the Steersman to take first watch. The Steersman agrees, even though the struggle with the storm has left him completely exhausted.

To try and stay awake, he sings to himself about his girlfriend who is waiting for the south wind to blow him back at home and who eagerly awaits his return and the gift he has brought for her. Unfortunately, he is simply too tired and falls asleep.

The Flying Dutchman’s ship arrives while he is asleep and he is awoken by Daland, who berates him for not seeing the forboding ship sail in. The Steersman calls out to the ship several times and finally the Dutchman himself appears, offering great riches for shelter and offering even more if Daland offers his daughter as his wife. Daland agrees and then suddenly the south wind blows and they can head back home.

Der Fliegende Holländer
Daland's crew meet the Flying Dutchman's ship.
They head home and finally arrive on shore with the Flying Dutchman’s ship following. Naturally there is a big party on board and they invite all the girls to join them – who playfully refuse. Neither the Steersman, the women, nor the rest of the Norwegian crew have not yet seen the crew of the Flying Dutchman and call out to them to try and get them to join them on their ship. However, they are slightly fearful as they have heard of the legend of the captain, doomed by Satan to sail around the Cape of Good Hope for eternity, whose only hope is to seek a faithful wife when he anchors his boat every seventh year... whom he has never found. Then suddenly the crew of the Flying Dutchman sing and the Norwegians realise that the crew are ghosts.

Suddenly, Daland’s daughter Senta appears with her now ex-fiancé Erik the hunter. Erik pleas with her to keep her pledge to him and the Dutchman believes he has now lost her. He attempts to save her by leaving, but to prove her faithfulness she jumps into the sea to follow him.

If you want the full plot, I recommend the Wikipedia entry.

Why is the Steersman important in The Flying Dutchman?

He has two main functions in the opera. The first one is simply that Daland has another character to play with in the first scene. Having Daland speak only to himself or to communicate only with the chorus as a whole would be dramatically unsatisfying, so the Steersman is a device to keep the story flowing from Daland.

The second one, I believe, is as a mirror to the character of the Dutchman.

Der Fliegende Holländer
Stage shot of Theater Augsburg's Der Fliegende Holländer.
His rather difficult first act aria Mit Gewitter und Sturm (with thunder and storm) has two themes in it: hope and fidelity. The first is that through all the hardship and danger of the crew’s experience at sea, he has always had the hope of returning back to shore, while the Dutchman cannot.

He also talks about his girlfriend longing for him, waiting for him, being faithful. In contrast, the Dutchman, who long ago had such hopes and beliefs, has them no longer.

In this sense, perhaps he represents who the Flying Dutchman was before he was cursed.

Interpreting the role

As I’ve mentioned, I believe he is the youthful idealist, desperately and lustfully in love and a dreamer. He is playful, energetic and enthusiastic to his work. This is the core of his personality. Yet he leads a rough life and so, despite his nature, he has toughened up.

The other element you need to consider is the situation they are. They have come through very dangerous waters and very dangerous territory, so the entire crew have been under enormous stress and are lucky to be alive. Some of the crew may have ended up overboard and drowned. This plays out very strongly with his relationship with Daland: he totally trusts and respects his captain, who gives the sailors orders that could mean life or death.

Der Fliegende Holländer
The Steersmann underneath Theater Augsburg's Open-air stage.
So certainly in the first act, he is tired to the point of delirium which is also mixed with utter relief and joy that they are almost home.

In the third act, they have actually arrived home from this great journey and finally get the chance to party down. After a situation like that, with a mix of alcohol and the sudden inclusion of women into the mix, a man could go pretty crazy. So the more energy, drunkenness and sexuality you can throw into this scene the better. As a chorister, and even more so as the Steersman.

Theater Augsburg’s production of The Flying Dutchman opens at the Freilichtbühne am Rotes Tor, Augsburg on Saturday 23rd June 2012!

Links:
  1. Libretto (Deutsch | English)
  2. Opera's Wikipedia Page (English | Deutsch | Francais)
  3. The Pirate King: Information on different vessels, crews and pirates from the 17th century.
  4. Vasa (Sweden 1625): Example of a 17th Century ship.

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