Sunday, November 15, 2009


The family spent a long late afternoon at the opera today with the Strauss/Hofmannsthal Frau ohne Schatten, which I had not heard since college. It's a monster of a piece, a Märchenoper (fairytale opera) in which the orchestra really gets to show off, pulling out all the stops, and the Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra under Sebastian Weigle is sounding very good these days indeed, which alone made going worthwhile. Also, listening this time was a reminder that the breadth of vocal technique required suggested that Strauss was less distant to the extended techniques of the late 20th century than one would reflexively suppose. But all that said, there was something a bit embarrassing about spending time with the piece as a work of theatre. Does anyone know of a repertoire opera that is more retrograde about the role of women? (Stockhausen's Montag comes close, but it's not repertoire.) Between its essentialist reduction of women to child-bearers (in the logic of the opera, humans require shadows, but women who cannot bear children have no shadows, thus...) and the closing choruses sung by "unborn children", I now have a small terror that Die Frau ohne Schatten is going to be taken up as a pageant piece by the religious right.


sfmike said...

I actually got to hear Karl Bohm conduct "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" at the San Francisco Opera back in the late 1970s, and the opera really is something. Not something I particularly enjoy, but it is definitely Something. The only repertory opera that's as openly retrogade about the role of women is "Cosi Fan Tutte." The chorus of unborn children/fish singing "Mother" from the frying pan may be Hofmannsthal's weirdest moment of his entire odd career.

Just like "Cosi," however, the women get almost all the best music which subverts the libretto every step of the way. Thank the goddess for that, because "Die Frau" really would be the perfect poster opera for the pro-life crowd, though of course the music is way too sophisticated. I'm reminded of Geraldine Chaplin as Opal from the BBC in Altman's "Nashville" movie where she crashes a party in the lush suburbs and mutters, "It's pure Bergman, isn't it? Of course the people are all wrong."

Lisa Hirsch said...

Just as Gone with the Wind is the best movie with the worst politics - happy slaves! - Frau is the best opera with the worst politics. Honestly, the libretto...well, that's what you get when you take the framework of The Magic Flute, double the size of the cast, quadruple the volume, and make it portentous. That said, I love the music even while cringing though the final scene and much else. I do think the Empress's monologue at the end, the one where she refuses the shadow belonging to the Dyer's Wife, and, having developed empathy, becomes human, is one of the great moments in all opera. Especially when it's Rysanek: Ich will NICHT!!!!

Anonymous said...

"I now have a small terror that Die Frau ohne Schatten is going to be taken up as a pageant piece by the religious right."

What a silly and nonsensical remark. Though a Jew myself, I find little to fear from the so-called religious right, but much to fear from those forces which brought the world National Socialism in Germany, and a Holocaust for Jews. A pageant piece for the religious right? Get a grip on your politics, please. It does not mix well with the musical art.

Daniel Wolf said...

Dear Anonymous,

It's neither silly nor nonsensical. I was at the opera with my seven-year-old daughter and an opera that tells her of women who cannot have children and are thus not fully human or that women will be haunted by their unborn children _is_ a real problem.

Silly and nonsensical, however, is your non-sequitor bringing National Socialism and the Holocaust into the discussion. However culpable in whatever small way Hofmannsthal and Strauss may have been for historical developments, the greater concern is what this work means, or can mean, for us now.