August 18, 2023

A tale with sea legs

The story of a ghostly ship wandering the oceans captures the imagination across a wide range of genres.

The legendary tale of the Flying Dutchman is said to have originated amongst sailors in Dutch territories and trading posts in the 17th century. The first known written reference to the ship is found in John MacDonald's Travels in various parts of Europe, Asia and Africa during a series of thirty years and upward (1790), where he recounts that sailors saw a ship sailing in stormy weather. The prevailing story was that a Dutchman was unable to dock his vessel during a bad storm and got lost at sea — and ever since then, the Flying Dutchman appears on the waters during turbulent weather.

The details of the legend varied as it spread throughout the years. The Dutchman evolved from a lost craft sailing in bad weather to a ghost ship with crewmates stuck on the sea as punishment for murder and piracy. According to some accounts, the Dutchman's captain was inspired by 17th-century Dutch captain Bernard Fokke, who was said to have made a deal with the devil because of how quickly he made trips from the Netherlands to Java. There were many reported sightings of the vessel in the 19th and 20th centuries — most notably by Prince George of Wales in his July 11, 1991 log while off the coast of Australia.

Although the presence of the eerie boat has long been written off as merely an optical illusion (or just a nifty ghost story), the notion of a ghostly ship doomed to sail the open seas for eternity has caught the imaginations of scores of authors, screenwriters, composers, and other creators. Before we bring Wagner's towering interpretation of the mythical captain and his doomed love to Lyric's stage, see where else this spooky story appears in pop culture.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)

Fans of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series may recall the Flying Dutchman and her grim captain Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006). Jones was tasked by sea goddess and soulmate Calypso to command the Flying Dutchman and collect the souls of all who died at sea. In exchange, Jones was promised eternal life – with one day every decade to spend with Calypso. When Calypso fails to meet Jones at the shore, he abandons his duties, swears to roam the deadly Seven Seas, and evolves into a monstrous being feared by seafarers. 

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) Trailer

SpongeBob SquarePants (1999-present)

The Flying Dutchman even makes an appearance in Bikini Bottom, the underwater city of Nickelodon's hit TV series SpongeBob SquarePants. The ghostly figure is first mentioned in "Squidward the Unfriendly Ghost" (S1, E11b) when Spongebob and Patrick read about the story. The captain himself (Brian Doyle-Murray) makes his first full appearance in "Scardey Pants" (S1, E13a) at a Halloween Party in the Krusty Krab restaurant, warning party attendees about the consequences of mocking him with their costumes.

Ardent fans of the show are sure to recall the "Shanghaied" (S2, E33a) episode. When a giant anchor damages their homes, SpongeBob, Patrick, and Squidward find themselves on the Flying Dutchman's ghost ship. Terrified of being thrown into the "Fly of Despair" like their neighbor Squidward, SpongeBob and Patrick reluctantly agree to work as Dutchman's crewmates to terrorize the citizens of Bikini Bottom.

SpongeBob Meets the Flying Dutchman!

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) is a technicolor romantic fantasy based on the legendary tale of a cursed sailor in search of love. Set in coastal Spain, the film follows Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner), an American singer and femme fatale, who becomes infatuated with a mysterious sailor, Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason). As their relationship unfolds, it becomes clear that Henrik has a supernatural connection to the Flying Dutchman, causing one of Pandora's jealous lovers to murder Henrik — but to no avail. Pandora's devotion to Henrik is put to the test as she is forced to sacrifice her life in exchange for loving a doomed sea traveler.

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman | Official US Trailer

"The Flying Dutchman," The Jolly Rogers (2016)

The Jolly Rogers, an American folk-rock band, is known for blending traditional maritime music with contemporary rock and a love for shanties and sea songs. Their fascination with nautical tales did not fall short in their 2016 song "The Flying Dutchman". The song tells the tale of a crew caught in a storm at sea, fleeing from an encroaching ghostly ship with "rage that fills her sails." With lively melodies and vivid lyrics, the singing pirates of The Jolly Rogers capture the mystery of maritime folklore through musical storytelling.

The Jolly Rogers - The Flying Dutchman

Immersed in maritime lore, the enthralling tale of the Flying Dutchman has stirred imaginations covering many genres and eras. From its origins among Dutch sailors to the many forms it takes in pop culture, fascination with the supernatural ship and an eerie captain endures. This spooky adventure continues at the Lyric Opera House with Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman — on stage September 23 - October 7.

September 23 - October 7, 2023

The Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman

Lyric Opera of Chicago presents Wagner's masterpiece The Flying Dutchman, a story of a young woman's obsession with a cursed wanderer who seeks a faithful companion. This production is led by Enrique Mazzola and features Tomasz Konieczny and Tamara Wilson in leading roles.

Header photo: Canadian Opera Company's 2022/23 Season production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. Credit: Michael Cooper