It is easy to overlook – this side of The Ring and Tristan und Isolde – quite how radical Wagner’s first distinctly Wagnerian opera, The Flying Dutchman, really was. Written in Paris, where grand opera was utterly dominant, the opera broke with the form, style, and subject matter of grand opera and introduced Wagner’s own concepts.
In 1839 Wagner had gone to Paris, the nineteenth-century ‘capital of Europe’, to make his fortune. Rienzi, the opera before the Dutchman, explicitly set out to be the grandest of grand operas – Hans von Bülow cruelly called it Meyerbeer’s best opera – but with The Flying Dutchman, he set out on his own course. Later, he wrote that his true career as an artist dated from the time he stopped working from the head and put his trust in his intuitions, and that this happened for the first time with Dutchman.