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It's not over till the nutty teenager sings

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by: Jim Clark, In Portland Opera’s production of “The Flying Dutchman,” Elizabeth Byrne sings the delicate role of Senta, a girl who falls for a sailor, comes of age and hits a lot of high notes.

If you think the audience is worn out by the end of Wagner's 'The Flying Dutchman,' just imagine how the soprano feels.

Elizabeth Byrne makes her Portland Opera debut this weekend singing the role of Senta, a young girl who falls for a sailor who is condemned to sail on a ghost ship for eternity.

'I've done Brunhilde and recently learned Isolde, which are much longer, but in a funny kind of way Senta's more difficult to sing,' says Byrne, in a surprisingly thick accent of her birthplace, Manchester, England.

One difficulty is that it's a very high role.

'Birgit Nilsson, who is my hero, told George Solti that this role was too difficult for her, and that was someone who sang Turandot like falling off a log!' Byrne says.

In Wagner, song can be both redemptive or a curse, a prayer or a spell, and Senta's windy singing is at times as fierce as the storm that sets the plot in motion.

Although other Wagner roles are harder physically, Senta is one that's more emotionally intense. 'The Dutchman goes through so much agony and torment, repeated every seven years, and Senta feels a tremendous amount of compassion for him,' Byrne says. 'As a singer it's exhausting.'

Another hard part is making Senta's character seem convincing. 'You think, 'Why is this girl so obsessed with the legend of the Dutchman?' She's a teenager basically, and she's been left with a lot of time on her hands and her imagination has run riot. She's awakening to the first sexual coming of age and has got nobody to guide her. It's a tough nut to crack, is Senta.'

The string parts in this opera are known for being fiendishly difficult to play, but for the audience, the sum total of the music is a feeling of being swept away by excitement, passion and a little confusion.

Conductor David Parry says that director Christopher Alden is responding to the musical text much more than the words of the songs.

'The verbal text is only a hook for the musical text - it's the music that tells you what's happening to people,' Parry says.

He says Wagner is here still searching for his voice, offering music that looks back to Carl Maria von Weber and Giacomo Meyerbeer but, in the Dutchman's monologue and his duet with Senta, looking forward to 'The Ring' cycle opera, 'The Valkyrie.'

As gateway drugs go, this one is the perfect introduction to Wagner. 'It's accessible,' Parry says, 'but it's still about the inner conflicts that make people behave weirdly. It leads you into some dark places.'

- Joseph Gallivan