Review: Nicholas Brownlee, Elza van den Heever Lead a Vocally Splendid Cast for Director David Alden’s New Production of “Flying Dutchman” – Santa Fe Opera, July 1, 2023

The second night of the Santa Fe Opera’s 2023 season was devoted to a new David Alden production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer)”, last performed by the company 35 years ago.

Nicholas Brownlee’s Dutchman)

Alabama bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee is cast as the mysterious Dutchman. The role’s dark first aria Die frist ist um revealed Brownlee’s committed acting and large voice with power throughout its range. Brownlee’s projected an intensity that increased the believability of a basically surreal character.

[Below: Nicholas Brownlee as the Dutchman; edited image, basedon a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Brownlee, a Santa Fe Opera Apprentice singer in 2013 and 2014 has built up an impressive resume that includes a win in the 2016 international Operalia contest and the 2015 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Grand Prize.

Previously, Brownlee has displayed excellence in the vocal performance of such varied styles as those comprising the operas of Mozart, Wagner, Bizet and Puccini. I have been an admirer of his Los Angeles Opera performances in six different operas, including as Nourabad [Review: Los Angeles Opera’s Beautifully Sung “Pearl Fishers” – October 15, 2017] and as Colline [Review: A Beautifully Sung “La Boheme” with Saimir Pirgu and Marina Costa-Jackson – Los Angeles Opera, September 14, 2019].

For Santa Fe Opera Brownlee in each of the last three seasons has had principal assignments. These include Figaro [Review: A Clockwork “Marriage of Figaro” Delights – Santa Fe Opera, July 23, 2021] and Kurwenal [Review: A Praiseworthy New Mexico “Tristan und Isolde” – Santa Fe Opera, August 5, 2022.]

Elza van den Heever’s Senta

South Africa born French resident Elza van den Heever is a vocally expressive Senta, memorably performing the role’s great aria Traft ihr das Shiff. Van den Heever effectively portrayed the intensity of the character, whose commitment to self-sacrifice to break the spell of the verdammt Dutchman, seems to those around her to be an act of madness.

[Below: Elza van den Heever as Senta; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

I was fortunate to be present 16 years ago for van den Heever’s breakout role at the San Francisco Opera [Review: Kwiecien Excels in McVicar’s Dark Side “Don Giovanni” – San Francisco Opera, June 2, 2007] in which on opening night without a dress rehearsal, she replaced another artist in the role of Donna Anna with great success.

In more recent years I have appreciated van den Heever’s excellence in performing iconic roles of Bellini [Review: The Dallas Opera’s “Norma” – Vocally Outstanding, Dramatically Persuasive, April 21, 2017] and Beethoven [Review: Beethoven’s “Fidelio”, An Excellent Cast for Matthew Ozawa’s Powerful Production – San Francisco Opera, October 17, 2021].

The pairing of Brownlee and van den Heever proved felicitous. Both artists have demonstrated vocal prowess and dramatic instinct in a range of operatic roles.

[Below: the Dutchman (Nicholas Brownlee, left) and Senta (Elza van den Heever, right) have found one another; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

See also: Rising Stars: An Interview with Elza van den Heever, Part 1 and Rising Stars: an Interview with Elza van den Heever, Part 2.

Morris Robinson’s Daland

The role of the Norwegian ship captain Daland was performed by Georgia bass Morris Robinson. Finding the ship “Flying Dutchman” moored next to his own vessel, the aquisitive Daland meets the Dutchman, who offers him incomparable riches for his daughter’s hand in marriage (a bargain Daland has no problem accepting).

Robinson’s sonorous bass voice and imposing stage presence made for a memorable Daland.

[Below: Daland (Morris Robrinson, left) engages a ghost crew member of the “Flying Dutchman” (Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Artist); edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courteesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Robinson has had a long association with Los Angeles Opera and its musical director, Maestro James Conlon [Review: Achim Freyer’s Fascinating “Rheingold” Begins Los Angeles Opera “Ring”, March 11, 2009 and Review: An All-Star “Don Carlo” from Plácido Domingo and Friends – Los Angeles Opera, September 29, 2018].

I have reviewed also Robinson’s impressive performances in the principal opera companies of Chicago [Review: Team Zambello Shows off “Show Boat” to Chicago’s Lyric Opera – March 14, 2012], San Francisco, [Review: House of Puccini: Jun Kaneko’s Enchanting “Madama Butterfly” Soars at War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, June 15, 2014], Houston [Review: O’Neill, Pérez and Vratogna Impressive in Houston Grand Opera’s “Otello” – November 1, 2014] and Dallas [Review: Craig Verm Leads The Dallas Opera’s Compelling “Don Giovanni” Cast, April 27, 2018].

See also: Rising Stars – An Interview with Morris Robinson and Return to Los Angeles Opera – A Conversation with Basso Morris Robinson

Chad Shelton’s Erik

Texas tenor Chad Shelton was an ardent Erik. Shelton delivered Erik’s heartfelt aria Willst jenes tag’s du nicht stylishly. His character is in despair because of the sudden, strange behavior of Senta, whom Erik has loved since childhood and assumed would become his bride.

[Below: Chad Shelton as Erik; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera]

Shelton, an alumnus of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, took part in two HGO world premieres that I reviewed of operas by Carlisle Floyd [World Premiere Review: A Triumphant “Prince of Players” for Composer Carlisle Floyd, Baritone Ben Edquist – Houston Grand Opera, March 5, 2016] and Tarik O’Regan [World Premiere Review: Superb Performances from Thomas Hampson and Luca Pisaroni in O’Regan and Caird’s “The Phoenix” – Houston Grand Opera, April 26, 2019.]

In addition, I have praised his performances in standard repertory roles as unalike as Pollione [Review: Beautifully Sung “Norma” at HGO Resilience Theater – Houston Grand Opera, April 29, 2018] and Mao-Tse Tung [Review: San Diego Opera’s “Nixon in China” with Pomponi, Kanyova, Kim and Shelton – March 20, 2015.].

Bille Bruley’s Steerman and Gretchen Krupp’s Mary

Texas tenor Bille Bruley was a bright-voiced Steersman, performing the dreamy ballad Mit Gewitter und Sturm with distinction. In Alden’s production the Steersman is a physically demanding role, who is onstage much of the evening.

[Beleow: Bille Bruley as the Steersman; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Bruley was a Santa Fe Apprentice singer during th 2018 and 2019 seasons. As an Apprentice, he created of the role of Benjamin in a 2019 Poul Ruders’ world premiere [World Premiere Review: Poul Ruders’ “Thirteenth Child” – Santa Fe Opera, July 27, 2019].

The role of Mary was entrusted to Virginia soprano Gretchen Krupp. Mary supervises the spinning chorus of the busy women employees of Daland’s household. Quick to judge Senta’s behavior, it is her criticisms that lead van den Heever’s Senta to sing her soulful ballad, Traft ihr das Shiff.

The role of Mary in traditional productions is centered between the Wagner’s vivid music accompanying the humming of spinning wheels and the visual image of a chorus of women operating them. No audience should have trouble appreciating what “traditional” Mary is about. In Alden’s staging, Krupp’s Mary is an industrial manager bossing around yellow-coated women. Krupp does what she is asked to do, even if it might confuse the audience.

[Below: Gretchen Krupp (at top) as Mary; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

I had previously reported on Gretchen Krupp’s roles at both the 2018 and 2019 Glimmerglass (New York) Festivals, especially noting her performance as Samira [Review: An Elegant New Production of “Ghosts of Versailles”, Glimmerglass Festival, July 13, 2019].

Maestro Thomas Guggeis and the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra

The Santa Fe Opera’s rousing performance of the opera’s overture, conducted by 30-year German Maestro Thomas Guggeis confirmed that the young maestro’s rapidly growing reputation as a world-class Wagnerian conductor is fully justified.

[Below: Maestro Thomas Guggeis, here at the Halle de Grains in Toulouse, France; edited image from Facebook/Thomas Guggeis.]

Susanne Sheston and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus of Apprentices

Utah conductor and chorus master Susanne Sheston made her Santa Fe Opera debut in 2008. Over the past decade and a half Sheston has had responsibility for transforming each year’s group of Santa Fe Apprentices into a working chorus.

Managing artists whose career tracks are as operatic principals rather than members of a standing chorus obviously departs from the usual expectations of a chorus master. The results that Sheston has produced over the years are extraordinary.

[Below: Santa Fe Opera Chorus Master Susanne Sheston; edited image, based on a publicity photograph from]

David Alden’s production makes spectacular demands on the chorus, not only the singing and occasional dancing that take place in traditional productions of the opera, but requires complex, choreographed physical movement on the chorus’ part. The results are worthy of high praise.

[Below: Members of the Santa Fe Apprentice Artists provide the chorus for the beginning of “The Flying Dutchnman’s” third act.]

David Alden’s Production, Paul Stenberg’s and Brendan Gonzales Boston’s Scenic Designs

New York director David Alden, whose association with the Santa Fe Opera includes a 2017 production starring Elza van den Heever [see Handel [Review: Santa Fe Opera’s “Alcina”: Beautifully Sung Enchantment – July 29, 2017], offered a strikingly non-traditional take on Wagner’s sea fable.

His production enlisted the assistence of New York Scenic Designer Paul Steinberg and (making his Santa Fe Opera debut) Illinois Associate Scenic Designer Brendan Gonzales Boston.

[Below: Director David Alden; resized image, based on an Intermusica publicity photograph.]

The opening scenes of Alden’s production reveals several of its recurring visual images. A structure is seen, consisting of barred windows with blurred ghost characters attempting to enter. The young Senta draws a sketch of the Dutchman. The windows separate, then a giant cog wheel (a steersman’s wheel?) rolls across the stage. A man with a model of a square-rigger appears, as do sailors roped together.

[Below: Senta as a child (below right) has drawn a image of the legendary Dutchman as members of a ghost crew are seen through the windows behind her; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Although such nautical symbols as the steering wheel and model sailing ship appear, there is minimal \attempt to portray the on-deck and interior spaces of Daland’s ship and none for that of the Dutchman’s.

The ghost ship’s crew does appear prominently, busily transferring boxes of wealth from the Dutchman’s ship to Daland’s home. The spinning wheels which one expects to be visible during the second act’s Spinning Chorus are replaced with mysterious tubular machinery.

[Below: A member of the “Flying Dutchman’s” ghost crew; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

[See also a review of David Alden’s most recent prior Santa Fe Opera production: Review: Wilde, Racette, Lewis in Dramatically Intense, Melodic “Jenufa” – Santa Fe Opera, July 24, 2019.]

Constance Hoffman’s Costumes and Other Crew Members

New York designer Constance Hoffman designed colorful costumes for Daland’s sailors and the citizens of the surrounding community, and yellow hazmat-like uniforms with goggles for the “spinners”. The clothing for the principal artists tended towards modern business attire.

[Below: the women of the spinning chorus (Santa Fe Apprentice Artists); edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Wisconsin designer Duane Schuler created the lighting, British choreographer Maxine Braham the choreography.


I recommend the cast and production of the Santa Fe Opera’s 2023 production of Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” both to the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.