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.

How you were, how you are: Thoughts on the new Munich Rosenkavalier

Elegance is often confused with opulence, and possibly no opera has suffered from this misconception more than Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s Der Rosenkavalier. The concocted atmosphere of the “old Vienna” of Maria Theresa in this “comedy for music” rightly conjures up delightful visions of period-piece-delight, but between idea and the stage reality, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, lies a great shadow, often one of vacuous kitsch. (A comparable situation exists for Broadway’s golden age blockbuster My Fair Lady, which, in its film incarnation and later stage life, became an orgy of grandiose sets and extravagant Edwardian couture to the detriment of the story.) One can sense the roots of the issue already in Alfred Roller’s celebrated designs for the 1911 Dresden world premiere, which achieved the delicate balance between these two poles with their deceptively restrained spaces, even in the crowded tavern room in act 3. Subsequent derivations from the Roller models, however, acquired more literal and figurative mass. The designer himself indirectly contributed to the trend by altering the design for act 2 in 1929 for conductor Clemens Krauss and director Lothar Wallerstein. The Saal in Faninal’s city palace was opened up with inlaid glass windows and doors to reveal a sweeping staircase beyond.

The famous contractual obligation for Roller’s designs did much to stabilize Der Rosenkavalier as an recognizable artistic product, but often at the expense of the original’s freshness. Munich Strauss doyen Rudolf Hartmann later lamented how an obligatory respect for Roller’s designs endured even as more independent and imaginative solutions for staging the opera began to appear. Ironically, Hartmann himself helped to crystalize (or, as more cynical commentators might say, calcify) the tradition in 1960, with the staging of a mammoth new production to inaugurate the newly finished Grosses Festspielhaus at the Salzburg Festival with designs by Teo Otto. Similar Rococo grandeur reached North America in 1969 with the debut of Nathaniel Merrill and Robert O’Hearn’s lavish production for the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, after a five-year absence from the company’s roster. It lasted in the repertory until 2013, after which it was replaced by Robert Carsen’s new staging in 2017, which embraced the period of the work’s composition, showing a pre-World War One Vienna at the height of decadence. In Munich, the announcement that the renowned and well-toured Otto Schenk/Jürgen Rose production at the Bayerische Staatsoper, first introduced in 1972, would be replaced prompted a “rescue” petition to the office of the intendant Nikolaus Bachler.

Despite such protestations, the fêted staging was finally superseded at the Staatsoper this past weekend, with a new production conducted by the house’s music director designate Vladimir Jurowski and staged by Barrie Kosky, the intendant of the Komische Oper Berlin. (The livestream is available on until April 19 here.) Taking a unique route between opulence and elegance, Kosky’s Der Rosenkavalier reimagines a repertory warhorse in Munich with evocative ideas. While some elements of the concept play out less successfully than others, it nevertheless achieves a unique piquancy, smiling through one eye and crying through the other.

One must first commend Jurowski’s handling of the Staatsoper orchestra in a reduced configuration necessitated by pandemic restrictions. While reduced orchestrations for Salome and Elektra were licensed through his publisher Fürstner, Strauss never sanctioned such an edition for Rosenkavalier in his lifetime. Thankfully, Eberhard Kloke’s 2019 arrangement of the score, published by Boosey and Hawkes and utilized by the Staatsoper, succeeds in its own reimagining of Strauss’s original orchestration of 100+ players down to the scale of the instrumentation used in Ariadne auf Naxos, a minimum of 43 players, maximum 50. One senses here, however, a wise move on the part of Boosey & Hawkes to keep some vestige of control and profit from the Strauss catalog after the expiration of its copyrights in 2020. Kloke also has arrangements of Salome and Elektra for reduced orchestras as well. The similarities of the Kloke Rosenkavalier arrangement to Ariadne are especially pronounced in the addition of piano and harmonium, imparting a chamber feel throughout to what has arguably always been a Mozart opera flirting with Wagnerian dress. The effect in no way diminishes the score, which still packs its wallop while never overpowering the singers, a lifelong bugbear for Strauss himself.

In Kosky’s dramaturgy, with scenic design by regular collaborator Rufus Didwiszus and costumes by Victoria Behr, the crucial motif of time dominates the stage. Time, its passage, and human reactions/resignations to it are, of course, famous elements of the Marschallin’s character, as expressed in her monologues in act 1. The primary dramatic symbols of time onstage are a series of extra-musical chiming clocks that open each act before the respective prelude. For the first, a large grandfather’s clock strikes 6 o’clock (the same hour as the Dresden premiere on Thursday, January 26, 1911) before spinning in a clockwise frenzy the mimics the music’s infamous depiction of raucous sexual congress. For act 2, a more utilitarian alarm clock mounted on the prompter’s box awakes Sophie at 8 o’clock for her fateful ceremony with Octavian and Baron Ochs. For act 3, a more whimsical cuckoo clock heralds midnight and the start of the nocturnal farce that humiliates Baron Ochs and unites Octavian and Sophie. It is the act 1 clock, however, that recurs throughout the staging. Following the prelude, the Marschallin and Octavian emerge from the case through pendulum door in a state of afterglow. The gesture is effectively inverted in the final moments of the act, when the Marschallin, left alone by Octavian to make her way towards mass, climbs inside the clock case from the rear and pensively sits on the pendulum as it swings back and forth.

The prop clock returns at the end of the opera, in conjunction with the production’s other reigning dramaturgical device, that of love in the allegorical embodiment of Cupid. The stage is not menaced by a mischievous putto, but rather a comically-antiquated winged sprite more akin to Father Time, played by Ingmar Thilo. He first appears during the Frühstuck section of act 1, which here is staged as a playful chase between the Marschallin and Octavian amid sliver topiary. As they kiss, Cupid flings a handful of silver sequin confetti into the air. He returns to observe, participate in, and trigger the stage action. Notably, Cupid plays the panpipe to summon the Marschallin’s memories of the Italian Singer, drives Octavian’s silver carriage in act 2 for the Presentation of the Rose, flings his sequins over Octavian and Sophie during their first kiss, and witnesses the final bedroom farce, staged on a miniature theater stage oriented in reverse with a nondescript auditorium upstage. In the final moments, Cupid returns seated atop the grandfather clock. He watches over the duet of Octavian and Sophie and the Marschallin’s poignant “Ja, ja” of renunciation. As lingers in front of the clock case, Octavian and Sophie reenter for their final strophe, now taking literal flight with the silver rose. Left alone after the others exit, Cupid leans over the clock face, opens the glass, and removes the minute hand, leaving the hour hand at 6. He impishly holds it aloft as the clock sinks below the stage. (The bit replaces the page Mohammad’s whimsical search for Sophie’s handkerchief in the original scenario.) Like the Marschallin in the middle of the night, it seems that love can temporarily stop time, at least as long as it wants. While the initial Cupid appearance seems heavy-handed—here is love doing want it will do—there is a “nudge-nudge” quality to the entire interpolation that grows in strength over the course of the production.

Eschewing the familiar Rosenkavalier-realism, Didwiszus’s designs pursue three distinct worlds following the production’s conception of each act as an opera in and of itself based on the dominating characters: the Marschallin, Sophie, and Octavian. (A helpful discussion of this appears in the Online-Matinee for the production.) The world of the Marschallin in act 1 takes place in shadowy chambers etched in silver, aided by Alessandro Carletti’s lighting design. Gone is the infamous bed that incensed many in 1911. Instead, anchored by an upstage wall evoking an eighteenth-century palatial salon, a kaleidoscopic sequence of spaces, defined by wall units and other properties, moves across the stage throughout the act. Unfortunately, these constant shifts occasionally upstage the action in what is an extended dialogue between the Marschallin and Ochs, though some of the tableau, such as a series of Cupid statuettes, provide for effective staging bits. The often hackneyed leveé scene takes on a new level of chaos, with characters rushing in and out of the Marschallin’s mental and emotional space. Various gestures towards earlier historical periods are also introduced amid the transitions. The aria of the Italian Singer is staged as a wistful Baroque opera flashback with costumes recalling Ernst Stern’s designs for the world premiere of Ariadne auf Naxos in 1912. (Hofmannsthal adapted the text of the Singer’s aria from Le bourgeois gentilhomme, which later became the Ariadne framing device.)

Act 2 is conceived as an elaborate gallery of paintings, a fantasy world for the virginal Sophie, complete with her brass bed and scrapbook of Octavian clippings. Kosky stages the Presentation of the Rose as the entrance of the Knight of the Rose’s elaborate silver carriage, alluding to the golden coaches of Bavaria’s Wittelsbach dynasty. More extreme is the theater configuration for the final act, which adds a metatheatrical layer to what is already elaborate “performance” to ape Ochs. Some components of the original scenario are translated with lessened effect in such a setting. Hofmannsthal’s device of the pranksters laying in wait is reinterpreted somewhat awkwardly as agents of Valzacchi and Annina dressed as doubles of Ochs. Others, however, deliver stronger results. The curtain for the mock theater is drawn during the buffoonery, hiding the upstage auditorium space from view, but at the proper moment, the panels part to reveal the black-attired Marschallin as a lone observer in the theater seats and Cupid now serving as prompter.

Marlis Petersen, once a Sophie in the previous Schenk Rosenkavalier, makes her role debut as the Marschallin with this production. Fitting her extraordinary dramatic gifts, she imbues the role with, to borrow from Roland Barthes in another context, a bittersweet punctum that vividly renders innumerable nuances of both text and music. Samantha Hankey gives a vigorous edge to Octavian while registering the character’s latent self-awareness of his impetuosity. This plays out poignantly in act 3 when Octavian realizes his relationship with the Marschallin is over. Katharina Konradi’s Sophie was something of a revelation dramatically. Like Asmik Grigorian’s Chrysothemis in Salzburg last summer, Konradi flipped a habitual swooning ingenue role into one of agency and perspicacity. More ambivalent is Christof Fischesser’s interpretation of Ochs. While exhibiting a clear command of comedic skill, particularly in the Mariandel scenes of act 1 and the duel in act 2, which is staged as a minuscule finger prick, Fischesser’s Ochs lacks something of the brusqueness that makes the character both endearing and repulsive. Strauss once described the Baron as, fittingly, Don Juan “translated into the comic,” so an impulse akin to forwardness is necessary. Johannes Martin Kränzle did yeoman’s work as a delightfully avuncular Faninal, and the remainder of the supporting roles were well filled out.

Plaudits are due to the Staatsoper for producing one of the largest operas in the repertoire in the era of social distancing without a hint of diminishment. One looks forward to seeing how the production evolves in a post-Covid landscape.