Quick Questions: Lucy Bradley, Director of ‘The Flying Dutchman’, in conversation with Flora McIntosh

The premiere of  The Flying Dutchman, the stunning new production from OperaUpClose, in partnership with Manchester Camerata, is at Turner Sims on Wednesday 28 June, with two more performances on Friday 30 June and Saturday 1 July.

Directing this exciting new version of Wagner’s classic tale is Lucy Bradley, who also wrote the original concept for this adaptation. Find out more about her creative process and the ideas behind the production as she talks to Flora McIntosh…

FM: Why Wagner?

LB: Wagner has always felt intimidating to me, perhaps because of the huge scale, and the reverence with which it is held or just the name and the weight of his music and complex reputation. The Flying Dutchman, though, feels like his most accessible piece, the gateway to his other music. It was also the first Wagner I ever really explored, and I was immediately drawn to the mysterious tale and captured by Wagner’s enigmatic music.

FM: Why The Flying Dutchman?

LB: The story of stormy seas, sailors trying to get home, a remote community and a figure coming from the sea looking to find his place feels both mythic and timeless. I was interested in finding the drive within The Flying Dutchman, enabling us to move from ‘ghost story’ to political charge, and therefore finding the purpose for a contemporary re-telling. I’ll be honest, I’ve also found the piece a bit boring at times in performance, so I’ve loved the opportunity to re-shape it and have felt energised by breathing new life into it.

FM: Why now?

LB: Early in 2019 I started talking with Opera Up Close about the idea of reframing The Flying Dutchman as a refugee tale for our times. Our team of collaborators was assembled and we explored the notion of identity and home within the piece.

The polarising issue of small boats of refugees reaching our shores has come to the fore over the last few years, but while the ‘refugee crisis’ was in full swing when we began our work, it was only just reaching our own waters. We found an article about a group of Kent residents taking to the cliffs to watch the ocean, and to call the border force when they spotted boats; the premise of The Watch and our world, was born.

Back then, before Rishi Sunak was PM, before the Pandemic, and in the wake of the Brexit vote, we started imagining a hostile dystopian England. Now, in 2023 we find ourselves deep in the performative cruelty of the current conservative government’s refugee policy, which has outstripped our imaginings; and yet vulnerable people continue to put their lives at risk by getting into small boats to cross the English Channel, or the Mediterranean.

Fortress Europe, in its desire to close down borders and build walls, has turned the waters surrounding our island and our continent into a graveyard, with refugee boats used as bargaining chips between nations arguing about whose responsibility they should be before they step in to save lives. Governments continue to find ever more draconian methods to make refugees unwelcome, to create hostility, but in the words of Starlight, ‘still they sail.’

These figures haven’t been sailing the waters for 7 years looking for redemption like Wagner’s original Dutchman, but they have frequently been on an odyssey before they even step foot into a boat, crossing treacherous terrain, war-torn countries and facing untold hardships, dangers, and threats of violence and imprisonment. A sense of prolonged statelessness, limbo and torment alike to Wagner’s original protagonist, they truly understand the search for a safe harbour.

As the effects of climate change, conflict and food scarcity are felt and more people globally are displaced, the numbers of people leaving home to seek safety overseas will continue to rise. Our Flying Dutchman asks at what cost we protect our borders, what does home mean and who deserves it, and how do we keep hold of our humanity in the darkness?

FM: Tell us about working with Manchester Camerata.

LB: The Camerata are an exceptional group of musicians and it has been really thrilling to work with them over the last years. They are bold, courageous, collaborative and great fun to be around. I continue to be in total awe of them and their ability to do many things at once.

FM: Tell us about the design.

LB: We wanted to bring the sea into the space, to find ways to bring the elemental into our performance language in the way that Laura has done in her orchestration and that Wagner does in the original. To create a poetic island landscape in which our characters could exist, whilst finding the logic of three different locations – a bay off the coast of England, a cliff and a harbour. We were inspired by the Maunsell forts off the coast of Kent and used these to imagine what a fortified England of the near future might look like.

We wanted to acknowledge the inherent theatricality of a group of performers telling this story; of our instrumentalists who provide the music, but also sing and take on the characters of the piece. This extends out to our Captain Dee, Mariner, Starlight and Mari/ Helm, our tremendous singers who take on this story, but also exist in our space outside of their characters.

FM: This piece has been in development over a number of years – give us 5 key words that encapsulate the process.

LB: Collaborative, invigorating, eye opening, challenging, provocative

Find out more and book your ticket for The Flying Dutchman

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