This month, the Washington National Opera has brought back Stephen Lawless’s production of “The Flying Dutchman.” In my review, I talked about some of the things I didn’t like about the production: the awkward movements of the chorus, not quite stylized but certainly not naturalistic; the way the director seemed to strand the performers at key moments in the plot. I didn’t, though, mention the spinning wheels.
A stage director’s job is thankless. He, or she (but usually he), has to find ways to realize composers’ visions, some of them a century or two old, in ways that will be compelling to a modern audience. I have nothing against poetic license. When you’re trying to depict ancient Babylon, you can dress up the chorus like giant bees, a la John Belushi. When you’re seeking to portray the libertine Don Giovanni, you can make him a drug dealer in Spanish Harlem. And when the story calls for you to show a room full of women spinning at their wheels, you’re perfectly free to go in an entirely different direction. In her 2002 Würzburg production of “The Flying Dutchman,” Katharina Wagner — the composer’s great-granddaughter and now one of the heads of the Bayreuth Festival — had the women plugged into their portable music players, rocking back and forth in an almost drugged stupor, which fit the music perfectly.
Lawless, though, falls back on a compromise in his WNO production. He has the women carry actual spinning wheels onto the stage, and then deploy them, without having any idea how they work.
I know this because I happen to be among the .001 percent of the population who are both opera lovers and own spinning wheels. I can safely say that I am the only full-time music critic in America who can sit down and sing Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade” while spinning yarn. I hasten to make clear that this is not an attainment one particularly wants to encourage, either in music critics or the general populace. (Nor do you want to hear me sing “Gretchen am Spinnrade.”) But it does make me all the more potentially annoying to opera directors, because on any given night I am probably the only person in the audience who knows, or cares, that the performers are doing the spinning wrong. A quick perusal of videos of “The Flying Dutchman” on YouTube shows that nobody, in fact, seems to understand how to make this thing go. Everyone has certainly grasped that the wheel is supposed to go around, but exactly what that has to do with making yarn remains a mystery. A common misconception is that the women are supposed to pull the yarn out of the wheel’s innards and wind it around their hands. For the record, the wheel works like a bicycle gear, with a drive band connecting it to the bobbin that does the actual spinning work, and rather than pulling the yarn out of the wheel, you hold the fleece in your hand and let the bobbin draw it in, and wind it up.
I don’t claim that understanding the correct operation of a spinning wheel is even remotely a factor in the success of a “Dutchman” production. It is far less important than, say, a knowledge of constitutional law might be to the writers of a television show about politics in Washington, and yet “House of Cards” manages to do just fine.
I do, though, wonder why, if you’re going to go to the trouble of obtaining or constructing spinning wheels, and of instructing a chorus to use them onstage, you can’t be bothered to go on YouTube — which, in addition to opera videos, you may be surprised to hear, has a number of videos on other subjects — and see if you can learn how it’s actually done.
This isn’t really about spinning. It’s about going though the motions, without even realizing you’re going through the motions. It’s about seeing a stage direction that says “spinning wheel” and blindly following it without really thinking it through, because you think this is what the situation calls for. This is a problem in all of opera — with singers who don’t actually speak the languages they’re singing in, with directors who see libretti as puzzles to be solved rather than stories to be told, and with audience members who sit and listen and clap, because it’s opera, without stopping to say to themselves: Hey, nothing is actually happening up there.
A lot of energy is given, these days, to protesting the excesses of interpretive stage directing, but we should focus, instead, on the spinning-wheel problem. Opera should never become merely the rote execution of arcane gestures, removed from any actual meaning or purpose. This is equally true of spinning — and of singing. After all, nothing is arcane if you actually know how to do it.
The Flying Dutchman
The Washington National Opera production continues at the Kennedy Center through March 24.