It’s 1981 in a bleak English fishing village, and Senta, a seamstress at a fishermen’s garment factory, looks to the Dutchman to transport her across the threshold of time, to an era of romance and wealth. This time-bending Flying Dutchman concept — the work of director Luke Harlan, scenic designer Alexander Woodward, projection designer Rasean Davonte Johnson, costume designer Fabian Fidel Aguilar and lighting designer Andrew F. Griffin — is now on exhibit at the National Opera Center as part of OA’s Robert L.B. Tobin Director-Designer Showcase (see opposite page for more information about the program).
“The poverty, depression and defeatism of Senta’s 20th-century life is invaded by the dark, romantic, eternal hope of the Dutchman,” explains Harlan. “It’s realism confronting Romanticism.” The temporal divide between the two central characters is emphasized through the scenic design and projections: Senta’s environment is composed of industrial, rectilinear forms, whereas the Dutchman’s world is conjured through atmospheric projections evoking 19th-century seascapes. Lighting effects and projections transform two metal walkways suspended above the stage, at various moments, into ships at sea and fluorescent light fixtures in the garment factory.
The costumes for Senta and her fellow villagers match the gritty realism of the sets. For the Dutchman’s crew, Aguilar drew upon diverse cultural and historic references, imagining that the crew members come from ports around the world, and from different eras. For the opera’s title character, he looked to two 18th-century figures for inspiration — Jean-Baptiste Belley, a former slave from the West Indies who was elected to office in France, and Toussaint Louverture, a leader of the Haitian Revolution — choices that paint the Dutchman as both hero and outsider.
The exhibition is the final of three from the 2017 round of the Director- Designer Showcase. It runs through July, when it will be succeeded by the first exhibition from the 2019 Director- Designer Showcase. The Dutchman concept was also featured in a presentation at Opera Conference 2017 that can be viewed on OPERA America’s YouTube channel.