The Path to the Project, part 2; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Strauss as a Theater Historian

When I switched my graduate school track from stage management to musicology, I had been a dyed-in-the-wool Wagnerian for as long I can remember. Wagner (for all his foibles and figurative warts) was the first person and subject that inspired me to do “research” as a young amateur. As I wrote previously, my late approach to music as an academic discipline came amid the Wagner bicentenary, and the glut of scholarship on Leipzig’s most cantankerous son meant that a new topic for my academic and (hopefully) professional career had to be chosen.

This process, however, was not easy. The totalizing legacy of Wagner’s life and work imparts arrogance and chauvinism to varying shades in those who follow its path. In my case, I can say that being a Wagnerian demands an arduous path of experiencing and amending cultural myopia within yourself. The prognosis is all the more acute for the auto-didact who navigates the landscape independently, as I did. As in the rest of life, however, one exists to improve, to see the errors of the past as opportunities for growth, and to recognize new vistas for understanding.

For myself, Strauss was part of this expansion. He was a longtime blind spot, especially among twentieth-century composers. The most I knew of him at this point were the orchestral works and a handful of the operas. In my junior year of high school, I remember purchasing a CD of Rudolf Kempe’s outings with the tone poems. Till Eulenspiegel made a strong impression, as did the excerpt of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome. Here, as elsewhere, Strauss wielded irony with a Mephistophelean elegance few have equaled. Within that year, I had my hands on Solti’s recording of Salome with Decca, and going off to undergrad meant more recordings, more scores, and more literature to devour. Bizarrely—or maybe presciently—Elektra was the first opera I ever had to stop listening to midway through because I found the music and scenario too intense to continue. My aversion, thankfully, did not last long.

My reading on Strauss, however, progressed more slowly. As a first-year master’s student in musicology at the University of Illinois, I took advantage of my coursework to address my deficiencies. Mentions of Strauss’s control over stage productions prompted my exploration of the staging manual crafted for Der Rosenkavalier, and a seminar on music and politics offered a chance to dive into the perennially impugned Friedenstag. I found my appreciation growing deeper for not only the compositions but also Strauss’s life and career. Completing my master’s work dovetailed with my application and acceptance into the Ph.D. program in musicology at Duke University. This adventure only lasted a year before I moved back west to the Theatre Studies program at Illinois. The project I envisioned was inclining ever more towards a theatrical approach to Strauss, and the variables at my one-time alma mater were favorable.

Of course, the summary of these years leaves out plenty of unpleasant details better withheld for the moment. It is sufficient to say that for all the peaks in my relationship with certain academic disciplines, there have been plenty of troughs. Regrettably, to some in the academy, there is no sin like not knowing everything. Case in point: I was once told that I could not hope to make any adequate study of Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s operas unless I was fluent in French and Italian and had read the entire corpus of Moliere’s plays. I fully admit—and openly regret—that my life’s course has not led to greater proficiency in instruments, extensive theoretical study, or multiple languages. My autodidact’s path—which I am fiercely proud of for all of its failings—wended its way through backstages and library shelves, probably the best teachers I ever had. To some individuals at the top of the heap, those who approach higher degrees via unconventional routes will only ever be nagging interlopers, persistent dilettantes, or worse. Educators of this ilk, if they can truly be called “educators,” remind me of the loathsome mother from Samuel Beckett’s short story “The End”: “A small boy, stretching out his hands and looking up at the blue sky, asked his mother how such a thing was possible. Fuck off, she said.” I can only hope there is a special place hereafter for educators with the same mindset, especially those who use students as pawns in inter-faculty catfights.

This is all to say that I was incredibly lucky to have strong mentorship and assistance throughout my research. Many acknowledgments will be made in this series of posts, but several should be mentioned here. Like any Straussian writing in English, much was, is, and will always be owed to Dr. Bryan Gilliam of Duke University for blazing many trails intellectually and intercontinentally. His gracious support after my short time at Duke remains a blessing. I also found a true scholastic sibling in Dr. Matthew Werley of Salzburg, whose knowledge and connections across Europe are a wonder. Finally, the entire project would have been impossible without my advisor Dr. Katherine Syer. From my master’s thesis through to the dissertation, her example made so much possible. It is a hard business to have one academic foot in the world of music and the other in the world of theater. Dr. Syer has kept her balance between them (and much else besides), and I can only marvel at her tenacity, enthusiasm, and belief in opera as a sum above the parts into which the academy frequently divides it.

Addressing such rifts between music and theatre became part of my search for an appropriate Strauss dissertation topic. As a doctoral student in music, I had considered pursuing work on Friedenstag, but I put that aside out of a need for something new. I tried to formulate a scheme for a production history focused on specific works and periods, but no meaningful ideas coalesced. (I had considered a post-1949 study, and it is something I shall be pursuing further.) New ideas, however, emerged with rumination. While production histories and analyses of Strauss’s works are in their way robust, they have yet to spotlight specific theatrical collaborators with any great depth. The regular exception is the superlative artist and stage designer Alfred Roller, who worked with Strauss and his operas for decades. (Roller is a significant presence in my dissertation, but I take a more critical perspective distinct from the regular hagiographic assessments.) Glancing back at my accumulated seminar papers, I observed that in my discussions of Strauss as a theatrical artist, there were a number of theatrical collaborators in existing literature who were little more than passing references. A select handful received more glorified mentions, the most regular being stage director Max Reinhardt, whom I shall address in a separate outing. The list of the theatrically overlooked soon began to take a greater heft in my mind, and it offered me a cross-section not only of different theatrical fields (administration, stage direction, design, and technology) but also time periods of Strauss’s career, from the earliest days of Strauss’s career to its final stages before his death in 1949.

With plenty of doubt and toil, I managed to hammer out a prospectus for this idea. I never felt more stupid than when I was writing that document, but it was a well-fought and well-faced challenge. The end result sketched out four chapters prefaced by an introduction exploring Strauss as a theatrical collaborator in practice and in existing literature. As initially conceived, chapter one would focus on Strauss’s approach to theatrical practices and his early collaborators and influences. The final version favors the latter topic since collaborators proved fundamental to Strauss’s burgeoning stage aesthetic. Chapter two took as its subject Count Nicolaus von Seebach, the intendant in Dresden before the First World War. The count’s contentions with Strauss about the details for the world premiere of Der Rosenkavalier in 1911 as a springboard. Chapters three and four altered substantially between conception and execution. Chapter three would have explored stage direction with Max Reinhardt as a case study. Four would tackle stage designers through the somewhat ungainly lens of three important early productions of Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s Die ägyptische Helena. My later posts will cover the transformation to the final versions in more detail.

While my prospectus was approved during my preliminary exams, a far more intense task awaited: securing funding for research abroad. I launched headlong into the application processes for the Fulbright and the Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst (DAAD) with the gracious offer of support and hosting from the Richard Strauss Edition research office in Munich, attached to the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Anyone pursuing major long-term grants knows that the process is grueling and seemingly endless. One works for weeks and months to perfect single-spaced proposals that condense what seems like a universe of research into just a few pages. Then, they are vetted through various mills and interviews before going off into the bureaucratic ether for many more months before any hint of update appears. I was lucky that my DAAD application was successful and was proud of myself for at least being named a Fulbright Alternate. I can only advise those who follow the same path not to lose themselves scouring Slack channels for information or endlessly refreshing inboxes. It is injurious to one’s health.

Dissertations: I. The Path to the Project

Back from the Land of Dissertations with thoughts on it all.

On Friday, February 26, I successfully defended my dissertation “The Theatrical Collaborators of Richard Strauss: Networks, Materials, and Cultural Politics.” As I am long overdue to resume blogging, this post is the first in a series about my research, as well as the process of completing a dissertation during the era of COVID-19. As always on this blog, I embrace the format of the fragment, which is also the prevailing mentality after so much work. I state at the outset that I only write to and from my own experiences.

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Having reached my destination, it is only natural to reflect and wonder how it all (miraculously) came about and came together. For me, this is mostly an act of endless cringing, as I am always inclined to see most successes as “almost-were-failures” saved by pluck and luck. Perhaps, once upon a time, I read too much into an anecdote that stuck. The Roman generals awarded triumphs were accompanied in their processional chariots by slaves who warded off the “evil eye” by whispering into their masters’ ears: “Look behind you, and remember that you are a mortal.” Success is never a sure thing, and (chalk it up to a Catholic upbringing) relishing in it is dangerous. I would do well, however, to remember the Stoic Epictetus’s related observation: “Whenever you grow attached to something, do not act as though it were one of those things that cannot be taken away, but as though it were something like a jar or a crystal goblet, so that when it breaks you will remember what it was like, and not be troubled.”[1]

***

I vividly remember in my final year of undergrad informing a professor who asked that I had no interest whatsoever in getting a Ph.D. Now it seems to be the most obvious course, but back then, I would have none of it. The path of the ensuing decade led to work as a professional stage manager, opera house intern, professional theater apprentice, a marketing and events assistant, more odd jobs than I care to count or remember, plus one year of a stage management M.F.A. program, then jump into a musicology master’s, one year of a musicology Ph.D., five cross country moves, one international move, and a pandemic. Fortunately, I can say that all of it was valuable. Finally, none of it would have been possible without my husband Robert’s love and support, the constant through it all.

***

Blame opera. The nerdish hobby became the scholastic occupation. It was not, however, clear that it would be Strauss. I went into my master’s wanting to go after Wagner, but 2013/2014 was Wagner hot for the anniversary year. Strauss, however, stood me well in two first semester musicology seminars, and there was plenty to keep me going. Robert Graves once commented on the success of his I, Clavdivs books that since he was good to Claudius, Claudius was good to him. I would like to feel that Strauss and I operate the same way.

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Ten Observations for Dissertators:  

  1. You, your research, and your writing are all worth it, and never concede that to anyone. My academic path was blessed (the only time I will ever use this adjective without irony) with so many encouraging figures. It also had its share of antagonistic malefactors, who are better left nameless and forgotten. Sadly, hazing in all branches of the academy can at times border on psychological warfare. While some can claim this is done in the service of higher goals and betterment, I politely deem that line of thinking to be patent tripe. You cultivate gardens. You do not steamroll them. The roster of adversaries also includes people outside the academy who think that writing carries none of the worth or strain of conventional labor. I encourage you to ask them to write over 200 pages sometime.
  2. Belief in worth does not preclude self-criticism and your own sense of (hopefully rigorous) standards. You owe it to yourself and your subject to make your thinking and writing as robust as possible. Nothing is less enjoyable to read than something written in a mediocre or slapdash manner unless that be your intention. Grasp what is effective and keep asking yourself to be better. Commit to improvement in all its facets as much as it is possible.
  3. You are nothing without the help of the staffs of your department and university library. These people are the ones who get so many thankless tasks done. Value and praise them.
  4. Write the kind of scholarly writing that pleases you. Myself, I like accessible writing that tells a good story with lots of concrete and cited evidence without getting bogged down in jargon or dubious theoretical constructs. The voice I always have in my head is that of Frederic Spotts in his history of the Bayreuth Festival, which I highly recommend everyone read. It is valuable to general readers and experts alike.
  5. Find writing methods and habits that give you the time and headspace to work effectively. This is often the most formidable task for graduate students whose time, even before they move into the full dissertation phase, is substantially occupied by their own course work, whatever job(s)/appointment(s)/funding they have to see them through, to say nothing of their own private lives. (I used the term “work” above since dissertating involves not only writing but reading, searching, thinking, among other tasks.) Early on, I found it helpful to identify how long a reasonable period of work can last and where it fell in the day or week. I am generally best with three-hour blocks early in the morning, but on days when I am on my own, I could squeeze in up to three of these blocks in a day. Coupled with this is the need to identify when you reach the point of diminishing returns. Your mind, as well as your body, will let you know when to call it a day. For me, this happens in the evenings when I feel my nose go cold after hours staring at a computer screen.
  6. But still, write something every day. I admire the goal Shirley Jackson set for herself to write one thousand words a day and am thankful on the odd days when that actually happens. I am also grateful for days when I can only get down a few sentences. At least they are a few sentences more than the day before and a day without sentences. Like stretches, writing only gains efficacy when it is done regularly.
  7. Write what is in your mind to get it out of your mind. One of the biggest lessons I learned was the value of being flexible about what I was putting to paper. Just because I was writing on one topic in a chapter did not mean I had to stick at it to the exclusion of everything else.
  8. Plans are there to be changed. This applies from everything to internal chapter outlines to the entire scope of the dissertation. While matching the result with the initial idea would be a pleasure in itself, genuine discoveries—the greatest of academic pleasures to my thinking—are genuine blessings.
  9. Assemble reliable playlists, especially for challenging moments. My go-to’s for when I need to stay focused are Russian symphonies, Shostakovich’s Eighth and Twelfth, and Prokofiev’s Fourth (the revised version) at the top of the list. Though I authored a dissertation about Strauss, I (un)surprisingly listened to Strauss’s music sparingly while writing, at least not the operas. Since I tend to get caught up in the dramatic action, I avoid working with texted music in the background (For Strauss, this meant relying on the tone poems, generally Kempe’s recordings with the Dresden Staatskapelle). There were, however, some significant exceptions to this rule. About mid-autumn of 2020, with inspiration flagging, I found bizarre solace in Apple Music’s 90s Soft Rock playlist, mostly because these were songs I heard on the radio growing up, and they helped put me in a more childlike (read: open and playful) state of mind. And because sometimes you just need undemanding music for its beat, RuPaul’s albums were in regular circulation.
  10. Stop what you are doing and stretch, take a walk, and while you are at it, get a massage and have a nap. Nothing is more lethal to your anatomy and posture than writing at a machine. Even with the most ergonomically ideal accoutrements, your musculature needs help. You also do no favors

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Finally, I can only urge those who have begun to finish. Circumstances, naturally, will arise to make completion improbable, impractical, or impossible. Only you know your limits. Where you can, overcome them. Onward, true believer.


[1] Epictetus, Discourses, Books 3–4; Fragments; The Encheiridion, trans. W. A. Oldfather, Loeb Classical Library 218 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1928), 213.