It would not be a stretch to set a story about a ghost ship along the coast of Maine.

But when Richard Wagner wrote his famous ghost ship opera “The Flying Dutchman” in the 1840s, Maine had been a U.S. state for just a little over 20 years. So maybe it wasn’t foremost on Wagner’s mind. Instead, the German composer set the action off of Norway.

But now Opera Maine is giving “The Flying Dutchman” a Maine makeover, with two performances scheduled for Merrill Auditorium in Portland on July 27 and 29. The German-language opera is being relocated to the state’s coast, with sets inspired by Maine maritime history, including a ghost ship legend.

“We want to celebrate Maine’s seafaring history with this,” said Caroline Koelker, executive director of Opera Maine. “It’s being set now about 200 years ago in a seaside town in Maine.”

Opera Maine had originally scheduled its version of “The Flying Dutchman” for the summer of 2020, to coincide with the state’s bicentennial celebration. But the pandemic shut down everything that summer.

With COVID restrictions still somewhat in place last summer, Opera Maine decided to hold off on “The Flying Dutchman” because it requires a fairly large number of singers and musicians – nearly 100, Koelker said. Instead Opera Maine in 2021 put on “The Elixir of Love,” which required a much smaller cast.


Maestro Israel Gursky, right, the conductor, and Dona D. Vaughn, the artistic director of Opera Maine, during a rehearsal of “The Flying Dutchman.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

To give “The Flying Dutchman” a Maine feel, Opera Maine designers worked with the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath to learn about the state’s maritime history and have shot film along the Maine coast and in Casco Bay to use as visual inspiration, Koelker said.  The opera’s projection designer, Alex Basco Koch, lives in Newcastle.

“The Flying Dutchman” is about the cursed captain of a ghostly ship that comes ashore every seven years, searching for love. Only finding true love will set the captain free.

Opera Maine has also been using a Maine ghost ship story – about the Dash, built in 1813 in Freeport – as inspiration. The Dash was a privateer that attacked and evaded British ships in the War of 1812, but disappeared in a storm after leaving Portland Harbor in 1815, said Sarah Timm, manager of education for the Maine Maritime Museum.

Eyewitnesses began claiming to see a ship once in a while that kept disappearing. Sightings were recorded mostly around Casco Bay in the 19th century, and the ship became the stuff of legends.

“The legend began taking on many forms, including a female scapegoat, the captain’s wife, who it is claimed took too long saying goodbye before the fateful journey and brought bad luck,” said Timm about the Dash. “The female scapegoat is a common motif in ghost ship stories, including in ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ who is doomed to roam the oceans until he can find true love. ”

“The Flying Dutchman” is the main production of Opera Maine’s 27th season. It’s first production, “Carmen,” was performed in 1995 at the State Theatre in Portland. In 1997, the company relocated to the renovated Merrill Auditorium.


Maine resident, opera singer and boat captain Jonathan Boyd plays the Steersman in “The Flying Dutchman.” Photo courtesy of Opera Maine

The opera’s cast features veteran singers from all over, including Mark Delavan in the title role of the Dutchman, the cursed captain. A violent storm brings him to the coast of Maine, where he finds Senta, a woman who longs to break his curse. Maestro Israel Gurksy will conduct the Opera Maine Orchestra, making his fifth appearance with the company.

The Steersman – literally the person who steers the boat – is played by international opera singer and Maine resident Jonathan Boyd. Boyd also has Coast Guard certification to captain vessels. During the pandemic, when singing gigs were hard to find, he spent time captaining vessels for Broad Reach Sailing, a sailing excursion company based in Saco.

Boyd then is in a unique position to see how Maine’s coast makes sense as a setting for “The Flying Dutchman.”

“It was inspired by Wagner’s trip to England in very stormy weather, and you can see how the coast of Norway is similar to Maine’s, with all the rocky cliffs,” said Boyd, who moved to Gorham a few years ago when his wife, Malinda Haslett, became director of vocal studies at the University of Southern Maine. “There is so much sea lore hovering over the coast of Maine, including dramatic storm and wrecks.”

Boyd also likes “The Flying Dutchman” because he says it’s one of Wagner’s shorter operas, with music and a story that’s easily accessible to listeners. The opera is about two and a half hours, with one intermission. It will be sung in German with English supertitles.

“I tell people it’s sort of like the story in ‘The Pirates of the Caribbean,’ ” said Boyd, referring to the popular movies with Johnny Depp as an adventurous and quirky pirate captain. “They’re always looking for treasure; in ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ the captain is looking for true love.”

Opera Maine is doing its best to make the performance accessible, especially to young people. It’s Opera for All! program provides free tickets to anyone aged 25 and younger.

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