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.

Farrago for April 5–April 11

This week, some riddle-me-this, Lady Day, and why Shirley Walker should be a name in your household if she is not already.

farrago, n. — A confused group; a medley, mixture, hotchpotch.


APRIL 5

1803: Beethoven leads a deluxe concert of his works at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna; in retrospect, a trial run for his later marathon program in December 1808. On the docket in 1803: the debuts of the Second Symphony, Third Piano Concerto, and Christus am Ölberge.


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1933: Impressionist extraordinaire and the only Riddler—in any medium—Frank Gorshin is born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In many ways it is demeaning to define an actor by a single role, but Gorshin’s portrayal remains a stand out from the live-action Batman series, part of its great central villain quartet of Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Julie Newmar. With his infectious laugh and balletic glee, Gorshin’s characterization helped obviate the restricting intellectualism of the character with a nigh-impish sexuality (yes, you read that right and I admit it) that is always a thrill to watch.


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1941: Verklungene Feste, Richard Strauss’s last balletic stage work, premieres at the Nationaltheater in Munich. Conceived by Strauss’s colleagues Clemens Krauss and Pino Mlakar and choreographed by Mlakar and his wife Pia, it offered an expansion of the composer’s earlier “Tanzsuite” after pieces by Couperin. The fuller score depicted an elaborate panorama of impeccably costumed dance history, all credit to designer Rochus Gliese, perhaps more famous for his Expressionist film designs in the 1920s. As its title suggests, the ballet was in every sense a farewell to fading festivities of a bygone age. There are plenty of connections with Strauss’s Capriccio, which premiered the following year, but it also continued projects that reach back to Ariadne auf Naxos: a broad metatheatrical conceit and a self-conscious appropriation of historical gestures and styles spanning centuries. As it was not an original score, but rather a glorious canvas of many layers, it has, appropriately enough, faded into history itself, a temporal delight figuratively—and literally—blown into the past with the bombing of the opera house in 1943.

Strauss later published the bulk of the added pieces to the Couperin suite as the Divertimento, op. 86.

APRIL 6

1826: Painter Gustave Moreau is born in Paris. Among his many immortal (and, to some, immoral) canvases are the definitive depictions of Salome in art.

Salome Dancing before Herod, (1876). Oil on canvas. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

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1913: Dame Felicity Palmer is born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.

APRIL 7

1915: Lady Day, Eleanora Fagan—known to eternity as Billie Holiday—is born in Philadelphia. This footage was taken not long before her premature death at age 44, but the voice still inspires in “Strange Fruit,” a song which helped define Holiday’s career for two decades.


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1934: Actor Ian Richardson is born in Edinburgh, Scotland. A stalwart of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Richardson gained acting immortality as Francis Urquhart in the BBC series House of Cards. Of course, one might think that. I could not possibly comment.

APRIL 8

1876: Amilcare Ponchielli and Arrigo Boito’s La Gioconda premieres at La Scala in Milan. Known today more for the famous Dance of the Hours (Danza delle ore) from act 3, the opera is in fact far more serious and bleak than the ballet’s whimsy would imply. Here is a young Callas ripping her way through Gioconda’s act 4 showstopper.


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1928: Lyricist Fred Ebb is born in New York City. In partnership with John Kander, Ebb gave the American musical one of its best jolts in the 1960s and 70s.

APRIL 9

1887: Composer and musician Florence Price is born in Little Rock, Arkansas. The recent discovery of a trove of her manuscripts has lead to a decade of overdue reexamination of her life, career, and catalog, with decades more to come.


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1898: Actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson is born in Princeton, New Jersey. A critical and crucial voice in every sense of the phrase, here is the ever-eloquent Robeson taking questions from an Australian panel, reading colonialism and colonizers, and inspiring in spades. (CW: period language on race.)


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1939: Marian Anderson sings her historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. after being shut out of Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Here is audio of the event held in the National Archives, including some rather over essentialized statements from Harold Ickes but easily the gold standard of National Anthems.


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1948: Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 premieres, sung by its commissioner Eleanor Steber, with the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky. All interpreters must reckon, however, with the Empress Leontyne.

APRIL 10

“Was träumte mir von Isoldes Schmach?”

1865: Richard Wagner’s first and, to most accounts, favorite child, Isolde is born in Munich. Conceived during a trip to Lake Starnberg, Isolde was born to Cosima (at that time Hans von Bülow’s wife) on the day of the first orchestral rehearsal of Tristan und Isolde, hence her name. (Cosima, like Wagner, had about as much tact as a tree stump.) Isolde was baptized Catholic and bore her legal father’s name until her marriage to the conductor Franz Beidler. Like her elder sisters from the Bülow marriage, she worked as a costume designer at the Festival after her younger brother Siegfried acceded to the festival leadership. Isolde’s union, however, was continually frowned upon by her family since Beidler was a notorious womanizer, and the family’s hands were always full elsewhere cleaning up Siegfried’s literal gay escapades. The continued exclusion of Beidler and their son Wilhelm (at the time the only grandchild of Wagner) from the Festival conducting staff eventually led Isolde to instigate litigation to be recognized as Wagner’s heir. The gambit failed, and she died in estrangement from her family in 1919.

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1945: Composer, orchestrator, and conductor Shirley Walker is born in Napa, California. A regular collaborator of Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer, Walker possessed a musical talent and genius which gained a wider audience through her work on Batman: The Animated Series. While episodes were scored by a cadre of composers, Walker took the lion’s share and crafted its thematic building blocks, each of which were just as memorable as Nelson Riddle’s for the Adam West series.

The creators of Batman TAS were always adamant that the episodes should be treated like dramas, a choice that always came out in Walker’s scores. Full of great suspenseful effects, they were also full of pathos. Always memorable to me is this sequence from the second part of “Feat of Clay” when Batman tries to subdue Clayface with images of his former career as movie star Matt Hagen.

Also, your main titles will never be this good:


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“That look of horror spoils your lovely face. What if it should show even through the wax?”

1953: House of Wax—the original, not that shitty schlock remake—is released in New York City at the Paramount Theatre. Itself a remake of Warner’s earlier Mystery of the Wax Museum, HoW was the first full-length 3D color film from a major Hollywood studio that also featured a stereophonic soundtrack. (Always qualify your “firsts.”) Full of amazing set pieces and 3D diversions (love that paddleball man!), the movie has one of Vincent Price’s finest performances. A great art connoisseur, he was always at his best with creative figures. The 3D process meant that Price did the majority of his own stunts, including the collapse of the staircase in the conflagration sequence at the top of the film.

The revelation scene below has a certain hokeyness in Price’s wax mask effect but it is expertly chilly in the lighting and Phyllis Kirk’s priceless line: “It’s Cathy’s body under the wax! I knew it! I knew it all the time!”

APRIL 11

“For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.”

1722: Poet Christopher Smart is born in Shipbourne, England. A prolific literatus of the Augustan period, he was (in)famously installed at St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics and later Mr. Potter’s Private Asylum on the alleged grounds of religious mania. His poetic opus Jubilate Agno, finally published in 1939, became the basis of Benjamin Britten’s sensitively-set and equally idiosyncratic cantata Rejoice in the Lamb.

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1961: The trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann begins in Jerusalem. It would adjourn in August with the final verdict delivered in December and Eichmann’s execution on June 1, 1962. Hannah Arendt’s account of the proceedings, while problematic, provides a number of meditations on the circumstances by which the trial would even come to be: “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied — as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels — that this new type of criminal, who is in actual fact ‘hostis generis humani,’ commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.”


Until next week!