10/24/2013 12:14 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Wagner's 'The Flying Dutchman' Review At The Michigan Opera Theater

How is an opera like the Chevy Impala?

In both cases, the Michigan Opera Theater and Chevy can do everything right, offer their customers a wonderful product. And, still, people do not come to buy.

Saturday' night debut of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, the company's opening production for the 2013-2014 season, was sparsely attended despite a terrific lead performer and smart staging of a Wagner classic. True, there was a barn-burner of a University of Michigan football game ending and the Tigers were playing the Red Sox. But the empty seats probably had more to do with the choice of opera than competing entertainment.

The Flying Dutchman is a familiar story that has been adapted and altered into a number of popular works of literature and theater for centuries. A Dutch seaman is condemned by the Devil to travel the seas for eternity on a ghost ship. He is allowed to hit land once every seven years to find a woman whose faithful love could set him free.

The story originated in the late 18th century, though Richard Wagner did not finish his opera until 1843. Wagner acknowledged that he had taken the story from Henrich Heine's satirical novel The Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski, which drew upon the earlier legend.

The MOT's production starts out promising, with captivating digital projections of the ship being tossed about the waves, while the orchestra's fine overture set the audience up for the story ahead. Behind the screen, we see Senta, who will become the focus of the Dutchman's salvation, playing with the toy ship. The scene foretells the sacrifice she will make at the end and climax of the story.

Vocal performances in the Dutchman are mostly fine, with the lead being exceptional. The problem here is that the story is doleful. Opera fans love a good tragedy, of course, but the arias in Dutchman tend to draw more sighs than tears. Hard core Wagner fans, I suspect, will be just fine with this. But it's one of those operas that can be inaccessible and just not very interesting to broad opera fans or the merely opera-curious whose friends might be trying to lure them into the art form. There were times I was thinking of The Flying Dutchman character who appears in episodes of SpongeBob Squarepants, and hoping for an appearance by Patrick or Mr. Crabs to lighten things up even for a few minutes.

MOT executive director Dr. David DiChiera has a long stated philosophy of staging a seldom staged or even obscure opera, and one crowd pleaser in the Fall, as well as the Spring. It' admirable to try and illuminate less-performed operas. And the MOT has a high batting average for these choices. But coming off a year in which the MOT beat the bushes to raise $9 million from private donors to pay down its debt, it seems a questionable choice to start the year with a half-empty house that legitimately could have been full with a sunnier choice of show.

La Traviata opens next month, and hopefully will solve some of the attendance issues.

Bass Baritone Thomas Gazheli's Dutchman was spot-on, and his rich vocal textures lived up to the title role. His acting delivered on a tormented soul seeking redemption. His tender, expressive voice played well off and at times carried Soprano Lori Phillips's Senta, who seemed not always comfortable in her upper range. One of the brighter and most welcome parts of the performance was the MOT's male chorus.

The Flying Dutchman will perform October 23, 25, 26 and 27th. La Traviata starts November 16th, and runs the 20th, 22nd, 23rd and 24th. The spring shows will be A View from the Bridge and Turandot