Glyn Maxwell's Flying Dutchman sets sail

Live Canon are enormously proud to be publishing the libretto for Opera UpClose's new production of The Flying Dutchman, written by poet Glyn Maxwell. As the cast and crew prepare for tonight's premiere at Turner Sims, Southampton, Glyn shares his reflections on resurrecting the tale of a 19th century ghost ship for contemporary Britain. 

Writing this libretto for Opera UpClose’s new version of The Flying Dutchman is the third time in my life that I’ve encountered the story. I came across it as a child, in a book of sea mysteries and ghostly tales, and was pleasantly horrified by the thought of a sailor losing a bet with the Devil, being cursed to haunt the sea, trying forever in vain to round the Cape of Good Hope. In my mid-thirties I decided to write it as an epic poem, which became Time’s Fool, ten thousand lines of terza rima inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. For that novel hellscape, I swapped the death-ship for a mysterious empty train. It brings the protagonist to his home town for one night every seven years, as he tries to find the solution that will free him from the curse.

In preparing Time’s Fool I realised that there is no essential source for the legend of the ghost-ship called the Flying Dutchman, just various disputed fragments and reports of sightings from shocked sailors across the oceans and the centuries. In some versions all the ghosts are plague-victims, which is why they could never land, in others they are trying to deliver letters from a hundred years ago. The ship’s sails are always full though there’s no wind; it glows with a ghastly light. In one French telling the spectral ship is so vast it takes years to change its course.

The ‘one night in seven years’ idea came to Wagner from a Heinrich Heine story, as did the idea that only true love would redeem the Mariner from the curse. I kept the ‘one night in seven years’, making it a Christmas Eve, but I added the twist that my Mariner, or Passenger – a somewhat autobiographical teenager who falls foul of a ghostly stranger – stays seventeen forever, as everyone around him ages seven years each time he comes home. And true love is no more the solution to the unearthly bewitching than suicide or murder or desperate flight.

By the time I was commissioned to write this new libretto, I was thirty years older. I put out to sea again with a new Mariner, but I had no appetite for a tale of undying love, or any supernatural intervention. I set this in my contemporary England, a land which, at its borders with the rest of humanity, seems to be putrefying into a realm of fear and cruelty. My first stage direction sets the story 'Here, Soon'. What I conceived of as a dystopian near-future for England - after four years of work, along with the delays and calamities of the Covid-19 pandemic - now feels more like a contemporary documentary. The monstrous Wave with which the England of this libretto threatens to capsize the boats of women and children fleeing terror was not my idea but emanated from the actual Home Office.

So we have a sailor at the end of his rope, alone and exhausted and hearing voices in his head – which are not ghosts at all but real people in the hold of his boat, his terrified passengers who’ve paid him to get them to the English coast. That English coast is bristling with fortifications, with an army of citizen-spotters on the white cliffs, ready to call the Border Police and set the Wave in murderous motion. Wagner’s Captain Daaland is not the father of the beautiful Senta, but a grasping naval professional only too ready to take the Mariner’s money and run. And Senta here is Starlight, the one dreamer among the brainwashed mobile-swiping vigilantes of the Watch. The refugee she dreams of is an idealized victim, yet the man who stumbles ashore is a wretched people-smuggler who has lost his mind. No one sees anything for what it is. Nor do we see them for what they are until they’re faced with the arrival of the Other – and the choice of destroying it or saving it. It being a desperate stranger. It being the soul of a people. You could say this is a political telling. I say artists have the right to pass judgement on their own Here and Now.

‘Oh, is there light up ahead

is there God

is there good

is there you?’

Reproduced from The Flying Dutchman, a new English libretto by Glyn Maxwell after Richard Wagner (Live Canon, 2023) with design by Laura Whitehouse.

Opera UpClose & Manchester Camerata's The Flying Dutchman, opens on June 28th in Southampton and tours to port cities nationwide until July 23rd. Tickets and more information are available here:

Glyn Maxwell's libretto is published by Live Canon and available to purchase from our store:

Glyn Maxwell is a poet, playwright, librettist and teacher. His latest collection The Big Calls was published by Live Canon in 2023. His other poetry books include How The Hell Are You, Pluto, Hide Now, and The Breakage, all of which were shortlisted for the Forward or T. S. Eliot Prizes, and The Nerve, which won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. His Selected Poems, One Thousand Nights and Counting, was published on both sides of the Atlantic in 2011, and his epic poem Time’s Fool is in development as a feature-length film with Fox Searchlight.

On Poetry, a guidebook for the general reader, was published in 2012. The Spectator called it ‘a modern classic’ and The Guardian’s Adam Newey described it as ‘the best book about poetry I’ve ever read.’ Drinks With Dead Poets, a fictional sequel, followed in 2016. Maxwell is working on a philosophical amplification of On Poetry titled Silly Games To Save the World.

His plays have been staged widely in the UK and the US. His opera libretti include The Firework Maker’s Daughter, which was nominated for ‘Best New Opera’ at the Oliviers in 2014, and Nothing (also for composer David Bruce) which was nominated for the same prize in the Sky Arts Awards in 2017. He has also written libretti for Elena Langer and Luke Bedford, and for Mozart’s The Magic Flute

Maxwell has taught at the Universities of Warwick and Essex in the UK, at Columbia, Princeton, NYU, The New School and Amherst College in the USA, and now teaches on the Writing Poetry MA at The Poetry School.

Glyn's latest collection, The Big Calls, is available to purchase from the Live Canon store