Intermezzo is based on an actual — and very upsetting — incident in Richard Strauss’s life. In 1903 an Italian opera company was appearing at Berlin’s Kroll Theater. One night after a performance the conductor, Josef Stransky, the star tenor, Emilio De Marchi, (who had been Puccini’s first Cavaradossi in Tosca just three years earlier), and his manager, an American named Edgar Strakosch, went to the bar at the Bristol Hotel to unwind.
A magazine article that appeared shortly before the premier of Intermezzo describes what happened next: “[The three men] were sitting there with great enjoyment and not the least misgivings, when suddenly a female came and sat next to them. Hearing De Marchi and Strakosch talking Italian, this creature — a real Berlin tart — at once jumped to it that they came from the opera and without the slightest embarrassment asked for a ticket for the next performance. At this, De Marchi in his German-Italian double-dutch, remarked, ‘Oh, Herr Strausky will look after that.’ He always said ‘Strausky’ for ‘Stransky’ and the latter never thought any more about it. He sent her nothing.
“Brazen as she was, she looked him up in the telephone directory, and there found a ‘Kapellmeister Strauss, Joachimsthalerstrasse Nr. 17’ and took it for granted that the conductor she had seen in the Bristol Bar, the ‘ky’ in whose name she either forgot or overlooked, must be the ‘Joachimsthalerstrasse’ one.”
She promptly wrote him a note: “Darling love! Do get me the tickets. Your faithful Mitze. P.S. My address is Mitze Mücke, 5 Lüneburgerstrasse.”
Unfortunately, the conductor who lived at 17 Joachimsthalerstrasse was not Josef Stransky, but Richard Strauss, and the errant note was opened by his wife, Pauline. While Strauss was away on tour Pauline started divorce proceedings, refused even to open his frantic telegrams and letters, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that she finally was persuaded of his innocence.
Strauss used the misunderstanding, along with an incident when Pauline had a mild flirtation with a young aristocrat who then tried to get money from her, to create what he called, not an opera, but “a bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes.”
When Strauss approached his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, with the idea, the horrified poet wanted nothing to do with the project and suggested Hermann Bahr, a critic and author of a somewhat similar work called Das Konzert. But despite Bahr’s best efforts, the results were not what Strauss had in mind, so when Bahr suggested that Strauss was obviously the best person to deal with a work based on Strauss’s own private life, the composer went to work and wrote his own libretto.
In the opera, Richard Strauss, composer and conductor, became Robert Storch, composer and conductor. Pauline became Christine. The family’s maid, Anna, appeared under her own name on stage (a fact that so enraged the real-life Anna at the premier that she disappeared for two days and was only coaxed back with the greatest difficulty.) Mitze Mücke, author of the notorious note, became Mitzi Mayer. Strauss even included his beloved card game “skat” in the opera (he often claimed playing skat was the only time he was not thinking of music), as well as numerous verbal phrases typical of his and his wife’s way of speaking.
Though few opera goers would agree with biographer Michael Kennedy’s assessment that Intermezzo is one of Strauss’s three greatest operas, it is, without a doubt, an unendingly fascinating work — first purely as an evening in the theater, but also as an example of a great composer playing with different ways of setting words to music, as well as being (from all accounts) an unblinking, honest view of the notorious marriage between the Richard and Pauline.
“When I read the libretto, I realized it reads truly like a George Bernard Shaw comedy,” says Edward Berkeley, director of Aspen Opera Theater Center. “It has an early, or mid-20th Century, Shavian sort of wit to it. The eternal battle of the sexes — all the Shaw themes are there. I know it’s autobiographical, but it really reads like a George Bernard Shaw debate.”
No wonder Strauss was so proud of the comment made by the famous director Max Reinhardt after he had read Intermezzo’s libretto. “He said it was so good he could produce it as a play without altering a line,” Strauss wrote.
Intermezzo was not the first time Pauline had been the inspiration for a character in one of her husband’s operas. “I have something quite definite in mind which fascinates me very much,” Hugo von Hofmannsthal had written to the composer on March 3, 1911. “It is a magical fairy tale with two men confronting two women, and for one of the women your wife might well, in all discretion, be taken as a model — that is of course wholly entre nous, and not of any great importance. Anyway, she is a bizarre woman [the emphasis is Hofmannsthal’s] with a very beautiful soul, au fond; strange, moody, domineering and yet at the same time likeable.”
Describing Pauline as “bizarre” was putting it mildly and saying she was “likeable” was sheer sugarcoating on Hofmannsthal’s part. Like many people who knew Pauline Strauss the librettist disliked her intensely and seems to have been terrified of her, which is one of the main reasons he and Strauss met so seldom during their work together. But Hofmannsthal knew a riveting character when he encountered one, and no one ever described Pauline as dull.
The “magical fairy tale” became Die Frau ohne Schatten, and the Pauline Strauss character became known as simply “the Dyer’s Wife.” The great soprano Lotte Lehmann was the first Dyer’s Wife, just as she also created the “other” Pauline role when she sang Christine in Intermezzo at the work’s premier in Dresden on November 4th, 1924.
Strauss met Pauline de Ahna, aristocratic daughter of a famous Bavarian general, in the summer of 1887. He was 23 and romantically occupied elsewhere; she was 24, an aspiring singer, and a mutual friend suggested Strauss give her some singing lessons. Three years later Pauline was engaged at the Weimar Court Opera where Strauss was conductor, singing roles as diverse as Pamina in The Magic Flute, Elisabeth in Tannhäuser (a role she also sang at Bayreuth) and even Isolde. She was scheduled to sing the role of Hansel (under Strauss’s direction) in what turned out to be the world premier of Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, but she had injured her foot and could not go on.
Strauss was smitten and the couple married on September 10, 1894. His wedding present to her was his Opus 27 songs “Ruhe, meine Selle,” “Cäcilie” which he had written just the day before, “Heimliche Aufforderung,” and “Morgen,” four of the best — and today best-known — songs he ever wrote. After their marriage Pauline continued to sing, often appearing with Strauss and singing his music. “The model interpreter of my songs,” was her husband’s opinion. The famous Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick wrote glowingly of her “excellently trained, rich, sweet soprano voice.” Not all American critics were so admiring when the couple toured the U.S. in early 1904.
Hanslick was not a fan of Strauss’s orchestral music, and he ended a review of a concert Richard and Pauline gave in 1900 with the observations that Pauline’s performance “earned enthusiastic applause. We may surely call her his better and more beautiful half.” For the rest of her life Pauline loved quoting that last sentence, and it made its way into the libretto of Intermezzo in the fifth scene of Act One: “ ‘His better half’ that’s what the famous critic called me once, the one who cannot bear his work…that really made him angry. Ha, ha, ha, ha!” Christine sings.
Pauline’s bullying of servants — other people’s as well as her own — runs throughout Intermezzo, and Lotte Lehmann tells a story which easily could be the prototype for Act One, scene four, when Christine is inspecting a room in the Notary’s house she is renting for her young friend, Baron Lummar. According to Lehmann, Pauline once went to visit her and, upon discovering the singer was out, promptly marched into Lehmann’s home, threw upon every closet door and terrorized the servants into cleaning and rearranging all the contents to Pauline’s own exacting specifications. Lehmann claimed when she found out about it, “I laughed till I was in tears.” One wonders.
There are numerous stories of Pauline publicly belittling her husband and his music, declaring she much preferred real music like Lehár and Massenet wrote, and lamenting she had married beneath her. But much less well known were the times she went on the attack to defend him – like the time she wrote a scathing letter to the Viennese newspaper Neues Wiener Journal roundly denouncing, even threatening, its music editor who had questioned some of Strauss’s appointments as head of the Vienna State Opera.
In the 1930s, Strauss told conductor Karl Böhm, “Believe me, I really, really needed my wife. I actually have a lethargic temperament, and if it were not for Pauline, I shouldn’t have done it all.” Böhm pointed out there was often a loving underlying reason for some of Pauline’s prickly behavior. He was once visiting the Strausses when the composer said to Pauline, “I’d like a Fachinger,” to which she retorted, “Get it yourself.”
Böhm continued the story: “When I went to move the table back to stand up, she said, ‘No, stay where you are, he can climb over the bench and get it for himself.’ And then, when he was outside, she said to me, ‘It does him good to move about, you know. He sits too much and that’s not good for him.’ ”
“There are no operatic heroes in Intermezzo, but only creatures of flesh and blood,” Strauss wrote in the Preface to the score. In composing the opera, he revisited the style of music he had developed for the prologue to Ariadne experimenting with a way to blend spoken word, with secco recitative, accompanied recitative, and bits of song.
“In none of my other works is the dialogue of greater importance than it is in this bourgeois comedy which offers so few opportunities for a proper cantilena to develop,” Strauss wrote, adding he had worked and reworked the orchestration so it could not prevent “the natural conversational tone, culled and copied from everyday life, from being not only heard, but perfectly understood, both in its overall context and in terms of individual words. Only in the closing scenes of the first and second acts is the singer given a chance to indulge in an extended cantilena.”
That is not to suggest in any way that in his previous operas Strauss had not been very aware of the words he was setting, and the task of making them understandable to the audience. For instance, after the war conductor Georg Solti visited Strauss and asked about the proper tempo for some sections of Rosenkavalier. “I sent the text at the pace at which I would speak it, with a natural speed and in a natural rhythm. Just recite the text and you will find the right tempo,” Strauss said.
It is in the numerous Interludes that separate the short scenes (eight scenes in Act One, five in Act Two) where the familiar Strauss orchestral magic is thrillingly unfettered. (The small orchestra includes harp, piano, a large harmonium — and sleigh bells.) Strauss often uses the orchestral instruments more as soloists or chamber-music players, but during some of the extended interludes he can also make the orchestra sound like it is more than double its actual size. “It is generally only in the longer orchestral interludes that the lyrical element and the account of the characters’ psychological lives are more fully developed,” Strauss wrote in his Intermezzo Preface.
“As a composer, Strauss was a very good friend to his librettists,” Edward Berkeley points out. “The vocal style of Intermezzo is about communicating the text. And then he gets into the fantastic interludes and he just goes whacko. It’s wonderful.”
Decades after the premier of Intermezzo, Pauline Strauss mused to director Rudolf Hartmann, “Who knows whether there wasn’t something to that Mitze story after all?”
“It is not certain if she was joking or not,” wrote biographer Kurt Wilhelm, “because she then leaned over to Frau Hartmann and said, ‘In that respect, all men are scoundrels. And I can tell you this: I would scratch the eyes out of any hussy who was after my Richard.’ She was then eighty years old, and he seventy-nine.”
The Strauss family has always insisted — though it seems almost impossible – that Pauline Strauss had no idea her husband had turned her into Intermezzo’s major character until she saw the work at its premier in Dresden on November 4th, 1924.
It was the famous soprano Lotte Lehmann who had the unenviable task of playing Christine (the character based on Pauline) while the real-life Pauline watched as a member of the audience. Years later Lehmann recalled, “After the performance we crowded into the hotel elevator, surrounded by a mass of people who all had been to the opera and were now ogling Pauline and her famous husband with undisguised curiosity. ‘This opera,’ I said, ‘is really a marvelous present to you from your husband isn’t it?’
“Tensely, everybody waited for her answer. She looked around, cast a quick glance at her husband, then said in a loud, clear voice: ‘I don’t give a damn.’ Embarrassed silence. Strauss smiled.”
When Intermezzo was first given in Vienna, Alfred Jeger played Robert Storch, the character based on Strauss himself. “All evening I had to play, as the role prescribed, a peaceful and good-natured husband,” he recalled. “Only once, toward the end of the opera, did my patience give way. I had to become very angry, bang the table violently with my fist and storm wildly off the stage.
“At the public dress rehearsal my banging of the table was so expressive that the table top broke visibly in two and my stormy exit was greeted with laughter and applause. After the rehearsal, Strauss came round to my dressing room, cheerful and elated. ‘My dear Jeger,’ he said, ‘you played me frightfully well. That’s exactly how I imagined it. Na ja, but my wife has a trifling objection. So whatever you do, don’t let yourself be led astray. Play the role exactly as you have today.’ With which he left the room.
“After a few minutes Frau Pauline came in. ‘You did that very nicely Herr Jeger. But to my mind you have made the moment when you bang the table and storm out far too violet. My Richard would never dare bang the table so violently in my presence!’ ”
A marvelous snapshot of Pauline is found the diaries of Count Harry Kessler, a man who moved easily between the worlds of politics and the arts. Known in some circles as “The Red Count” for his liberal politics, Kessler was a close friend of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and it was while visiting Kessler that the two men first came up with the idea for Der Rosenkavalier.
In January 1926, Kessler and the famous director Max Reinhardt attended a performance of Strauss’s Elektra in Berlin. “In a box behind us were Richard Strauss, Pauline, and a family called Strauss with whom they are staying,” Kessler recorded in his diary. “Pauline invited us to supper after the performance. At table, Pauline showed herself at her best and her worst. Motherly concern that all her guests should have enough to eat, especially Max who sat next to her and whose plate she kept cramming with eggs, cold meat, and salad. But Woyzeck (Büchner’s play, not the opera) she spurns because she really cannot preoccupy herself with the troubled soul of a squalid non-commissioned officer. What affair is it of hers (the implication being, ‘me, the daughter of a general’)? Carmen is also the story of a non-commissioned officer, I observe. Yes, but romantic, Spanish, and a Merimée creation, protests Pauline. A German non-commissioned officer seems to me worth as much attention as a Spanish one, I retort. People do say, and Pauline bends forward to whisper it stealthily, that Count Kessler has become quite a Red. Oh no, I answer, I am just a simple democrat. Pauline: a democrat, you, who are a Count? In that case you are fouling your own nest. I: You will forgive me, but whether I am fouling my own nest or not is a matter upon which I must reserve judgment to myself.
“Strauss was becoming more and more uncomfortable. Now he intervened and, by declaring that his wife knows nothing about politics and I should take no notice of her remarks, tried to put a stop to the talk. Later Pauline, aware that she had gone too far and obviously somewhat taken aback by my rap over the knuckles, let me into the study to explain to me her political views.”
Kessler then ticked off, one by one, Pauline’s ideas, all of which were, of course, exactly the opposite to his own. “She seemed to anticipate that the brilliance of these concepts (which, she assured me, enjoyed the full blessing of the Bavarian Royal Family) would propitiate me.” But he reserved what must have been for him the ultimate put-down for the parenthetical remark: “(all this delivered in the broadest Bavarian).”
These notes originally appeared in the program for the Aspen Opera Theater, 2008