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The Shipping Cues: Why ships on stage make great drama

Building a ship on stage might be a stage designer’s nightmare, but life on or by the sea has made ideal material for some of opera’s greatest stories.

By John Snelson (Head of Publishing and Interpretation)

17 February 2015 at 12.40pm | Comment on this article

Presenting a ship on stage can be something of a challenge for set designers. It certainly makes for a striking stage picture, as in Tim Albery’s production of Der fliegende Holländer. But why include a ship in a drama in the first place?

One aspect comes from a ship’s most basic function: travel. It is a transitional space taking its occupants from one place to another, usually from the known to the unknown – which is where the drama can gain its impetus. One example is Act I of Tristan und Isolde, set on board the ship transporting the Irish princess Isolde to Cornwall to marry King Marke. Early designs for Tristan und Isolde adopted a realistic approach, creating naturalistic stage pictures of the ship and deck. This literal approach was still in use by the middle of the 20th century – as this image from the Covent Garden Opera Company’s 1948 production shows.

By the time of The Royal Opera’s 1971 production, the curve towards the prow of the ship, a central mast and a vast billowing sail had a pared-down naturalism edging into symbolism. Later productions, including Christof Loy’s for The Royal Opera, abstract the qualities of the ship’s purpose rather than its appearance, interpreting it conceptually as a confining space removed from the rest of the world. Indeed, a ship is in essence a contained world of its own, which amplifies the moods and emotions of the characters trapped in it. Acts set on ships can be fraught with expectation, often unpleasantly fulfilled.

Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd is probably the most familiar of the few operas set entirely on ships. E.M. Forster’s libretto is based on Herman Melville’s recounting of events on a British man-o’-war in 1797. The atmosphere on-board becomes intensely claustrophobic as mutiny threatens. The set for the 1951 premiere gives an idea of this cramped space, created naturalistically on the large stage of the Royal Opera House. The ship stands for a sealed microcosm of mankind, in which Captain Vere, all too human, is caught between the goodness of able seaman Billy Budd and the evil of the Master-at-arms, Claggart. When Vere sings of being ‘lost on the infinite sea’, the metaphor for life itself is clear. Vere’s personal isolation and search for direction is compared to a ship in the middle of an ocean – he is ‘all at sea’.

Britten’s Peter Grimes evokes the atmosphere and the life of a fishing village, but while boats and events on and around them figure in the story, we never go out with the characters to sea – most poignantly at the end, when Peter sails out alone for the last time. Nonetheless, the curved wood of boats so often finds its way into designs for the opera – as in Peter’s hut in the Royal Opera production from 1975.

With the current production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, the ship is present in vast form. The whole drama is played out on a sleek and curved rising, iron hull of a large ship rolled onto its side, with hints of rusted metal. Whereas Billy Budd is literally set on a ship, this production of Der fliegende Holländer has the nautical connection pervade the atmosphere through a subtle, constant, physical presence. And like a talisman, Senta has a model ship as a sign of her identification with the myth of the Dutchman and its story of a redeeming love. The combination of a lit candle and the model boat alongside her intense passion for the story give the image a devotional feel, with a sense of hope. But by the end of the opera, the image of Senta is entirely different as she retreats into a solitary world, focussed on the model ship. It is all she has – the Dutchman has gone, leaving her alone with her futile imaginings.

Der fliegende Holländer runs 5–24 February 2015. Tickets are still available.
The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 24 February 2015. Find your nearest cinema.

The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Marina Hobson OBE and the Wagner Production Syndicate.

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