THE SIAMESE CAT & THE LABRADOR: A look at the disparate creative styles that led Strauss and Hofmannsthal to “Ariadne auf Naxos”


It was said of the leg­endary dance team Fred Astaire and Gin­ger Rogers, that one of the rea­sons their per­for­mances were so mag­i­cal was that she gave him sex appeal and he gave her class. That could also be a crude, but rather accu­rate, descrip­tion of the part­ner­ship between com­poser Richard Strauss and poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

Against all the odds, their amaz­ing asso­ci­a­tion lasted almost 25 years (until von Hofmannsthal’s death) and resulted in six operas, plus assorted other works. But it would be dif­fi­cult to find two men who were as oppo­site, both per­son­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally. Edward Sackville-West put it per­fectly in the intro­duc­tion to the pub­lished cor­re­spon­dence between the two: “We seem to be watch­ing a Siamese cat work­ing out a modus vivendi with a Labrador.” Those dif­fer­ences repeat­edly sur­faced dur­ing their strug­gles to cre­ate Ari­adne auf  Naxos–a project that would strain their rela­tion­ship almost to the break­ing point.

Young Hugo von Hofmannsthal

The two men had met socially for the first time in 1899 or 1900 – sources dif­fer on the date – when both men were already extremely well known in their indi­vid­ual spheres. Von Hof­mannsthal, who was 10 years younger than Strauss, had become famous as a teenager when he pub­lished some poetry under the pseu­do­nym “Loris,”  and his sub­se­quent poetry, essays and dra­mas had made him one of the most respected writ­ers in the German-speaking world, and an intel­lec­tual leader with which to be reck­oned. Strauss was the pre­em­i­nent liv­ing Ger­man com­poser, and a con­duc­tor of such inter­na­tional renown he had recently turned down an offer from the New York Phil­har­monic in order to become chief con­duc­tor of Berlin’s Royal Court Opera.

In Novem­ber 1900, von Hof­mannsthal sug­gested they col­lab­o­rate on a bal­let enti­tled Der Tri­umph der Zeit, but Strauss was occu­pied with his sec­ond opera, Feuer­snot. How­ever, a few years later, after writ­ing Salome, Strauss attended a per­for­mance of von Hofmannsthal’s play Elek­tra, and imme­di­ately real­ized its golden oper­atic potential.

Their work together on the opera Elek­tra (which pre­miered in 1909) and Der Rosenkava­lier (1911) went amaz­ingly smoothly, in part because their col­lab­o­ra­tion was one between equals. Each man respected the other and went out of his way not to med­dle in what he saw as the other’s ter­ri­tory unless absolutely nec­es­sary. Strauss told von Hof­mannsthal “you’re a born libret­tist,” (which he meant as a com­pli­ment) and he was so tick­led with the open­ing scene of Rosenkava­lier  he wrote, “You’re Da Ponte and Scribe rolled into one.”

But when they began work­ing on their next project, Ari­adne auf Naxos, some of the dis­agree­ments which had been sim­mer­ing – ignored – on a back burner, boiled over; and the project they had orig­i­nally envi­sioned as “a tri­fle,” (until they could work on their next major under­tak­ing, Die Frau ohne Schat­ten), turned into an acri­mo­nious night­mare. At its heart were the almost unrec­on­cil­able world views of the two men themselves.

Any cou­ple knows that the most seri­ous dis­agree­ments often have their gen­e­sis in a casual, throw-away remark which takes on a life of its own. Ari­adne  began as exactly that – lit­er­ally a par­en­thet­i­cal aside von Hof­mannsthal made in a let­ter to Strauss. What von Hof­mannsthal orig­i­nally envi­sioned was “a thirty minute opera for small cham­ber orches­tra,” a com­bin­ing of “heroic mytho­log­i­cal fig­ures in 18th-century cos­tume” with com­me­dia dell’arte char­ac­ters “rep­re­sent­ing the buffo ele­ment which is through­out inter­wo­ven with the heroic.” The opera would be the end of an evening which began with the librettist’s trans­la­tion of Moliere’s com­edy Le Bour­geois Gen­til­homme (Der Bürger als Edel­mann, in Ger­man), the opera being the enter­tain­ment the “Bour­geois Gen­til­homme” offers his guests.

Strauss was not par­tic­u­larly thrilled with the idea at first, but even­tu­ally agreed, “Ari­adne may turn out very pretty. How­ever, as the dra­matic frame­work is rather thin every­thing will depend on the poetic exe­cu­tion.”  He went on to delin­eate the musi­cal num­bers as he envi­sioned them, assign­ing voice types to the char­ac­ters. Some of these even­tu­ally changed (orig­i­nally Ari­adne was a con­tralto, not the soprano she would become), but from the very begin­ning he knew what he wanted with Zerbinetta.

Selma Kurz, the dar­ling of Vienna

Star Role” he wrote next to her name, “high col­oratura soprano (Kurz, Hempel, Tetrazz­ini).” Strauss described her piece as “Great col­oratura aria and andante, then rondo, theme and vari­a­tions and all col­oratura tricks (if pos­si­ble with flute oblig­ato.)” He then made a sug­ges­tion that must have filled von Hof­mannsthal with hor­ror. “Per­haps you could get [Selma] Kurz to sing you Son­nam­bula, Lucia, the aria from Herold’s Zweikampf, Gilda, or some Mozart ron­dos. But if Mme Kurz lets me down again with this thing I shall be for­ever cross. And remem­ber: utmost dis­cre­tion all the time: no names, no men­tion of sub­ject. Best not say any­thing at all, just let her sing to you.”

Alarms bells went off instantly in von Hofmannsthal’s mind. Zer­bi­netta had always been “part of the trim­ming” as he put it to Strauss, so he was taken aback that Strauss was con­sid­er­ing her, rather than Ari­adne, as “Star Role.” Hof­mannsthal had always envi­sioned the project as a thank you to the great direc­tor Max Rein­hardt, in part for his superb, but uncred­ited work on the pre­mier of Rosenkava­lier. It was to be a sophis­ti­cated evening in Reinhardt’s the­ater, put on by his own com­pany. Yet here was Strauss men­tion­ing some of the most expen­sive prima don­nas in the world and even sug­ges­tion the intro­verted, retir­ing von Hof­mannsthal call up Selma Kurz, the dar­ling of the Vienna Opera, and “let her sing to you.”

I shall make myself acquainted with the for­mal require­ments of col­oratura,” the libret­tist replied rather stiffly, “though not through Mme Kurz with whom I am not on those kind of terms and whom I would def­i­nitely not like to bring into any­thing.”  He con­fessed him­self “some­what per­plexed” (which must have been putting it mildly) to find Strauss men­tion­ing high-priced singers like Kruz, Fried Hempel and Luisa Tetrazz­ini, since their fee “would swal­low up half of Reinhardt’s gross tak­ings each night.” In addi­tion, “the prospect of work­ing with women who cut such appalling fig­ures on the stage, with prima don­nas devoid of all tal­ent as actresses, would lit­er­ally par­a­lyze my imagination.”

But the real prob­lem, which at first was dis­guised by deal­ing with char­ac­ter and plot con­cerns, was each man’s answer to the fun­da­men­tal query, What’s This Thing All About? For the mys­ti­cally inclined von Hof­mannsthal, char­ac­ters were sym­bols of meta­phys­i­cal con­cerns; he saw his works as first and fore­most ways to explore the deeper con­cerns of life, as sym­bolic of its spir­i­tual essence. Strauss, who did not have a reli­gious bone in his body, responded only to the human ele­ment, to sharply defined, the­atri­cally vivid char­ac­ters set in dra­mat­i­cally inter­est­ing sit­u­a­tions. What they rep­re­sented in a “larger” meta­phys­i­cal con­text was not some­thing that inter­ested him  in the slight­est. Both men had found what they indi­vid­u­ally needed in Elek­tra and Rosenkava­lier, but Strauss was hav­ing a tough time get­ting inspired with Ari­adne. He greeted the fin­ished libretto with the words, “I like it well enough: I think there’ll be some good use for everything.”

Maria Rein­ing, a superb Ariadne

Such a cool recep­tion would have dis­ap­pointed any­one; the ever touchy, thin-skinned libret­tist was crushed, and after vent­ing his spleen for a page in a let­ter, he announced, “Let me try and explain in a few sen­tences the under­ly­ing idea or mean­ing of this lit­tle poetic work. What it is about is one of the straight­for­ward and stu­pen­dous prob­lems of life: fidelity; whether to hold fast to that which is lost, to cling to it even in death – or to live, to live on, to get over it, to trans­form one­self, to sac­ri­fice the intregrity of the soul and yet in this trans­mu­ta­tion to pre­serve one’s essence, to remain a human being and not sink to the level of the beast, which is with­out rec­ol­lec­tion.” For von Hof­mannsthal, the crux of their opera was to be found in the char­ac­ter of Ari­adne who is fac­ing this very dilemma.

Zer­bi­netta, on the other hand, “sees in Ariadne’s expe­ri­ence the only thing she can see: the exchange of an old lover for a new one. And so these two spir­i­tual worlds are in the end iron­i­cally brought together in the only way in which they can be brought together: in non-comprehension.” Which is as good a descrip­tion as any of the sit­u­a­tion in which the two men now found themselves.

Another way of illus­trat­ing a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence between the two men, which was at the heart of their prob­lem with Ari­adne,  is in their reac­tion to Mozart and da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte.  Von Hof­mannsthal once wrote to Strauss, “I quite under­stand why Cosi never had any suc­cess: there is hardly a sin­gle sen­tence in the whole piece that can be taken seri­ously; all is irony, decep­tion, lies, the kind of thing the music can­not (except rarely) express and the pub­lic can­not stand.”  No won­der von Hof­mannsthal grav­i­tated to the noble, heroic Ari­adne – or that Strauss, who loved Cosi and strongly cham­pi­oned it, would grav­i­tate to the enchant­ing, and all too human, Zerbinetta.

Strauss tried to pour oil on the trou­bled waters by prais­ing von Hofmannsthal’s let­ter “which was so beau­ti­ful and explains the mean­ing of the action so won­der­fully that a super­fi­cial musi­cian like myself could not, of course, have tum­bled to it. But isn’t this a lit­tle dan­ger­ous? .…If even I couldn’t see it, just think of the audi­ence and – the crit­ics. The way you describe it it’s excel­lent. But in the piece itself it doesn’t emerge so clearly and plainly.”

Con­tem­po­rary sil­hou­ette of com­poser and librettist

Back to work they went, with the libret­tist never los­ing an oppor­tu­nity to instruct the com­poser on the spir­i­tual beau­ties and deeper mean­ings of their work, and Strauss urg­ing von Hof­mannsthal to “Give your sense of humor its head, drop in a few mali­cious remarks…Pack into it every­thing that’s on your chest, you’ll never get a bet­ter oppor­tu­nity. Is there enough mal­ice in you? If not take a col­lab­o­ra­tor.” (Von Hof­mannsthal did not.)

But for all their Her­culean labors, the pre­mier, on Octo­ber 25, 1912, in Stuttgart, was not the suc­cess they had hoped – or that their ear­lier operas had been. In fact, just the logis­tics of get­ting the piece on stage had pro­voked another rash of dis­agree­ments between the two with Strauss finally almost los­ing his tem­per: “I’ll con­duct the pre­mier myself. Rein­hardt and you to have unlim­ited  full pow­ers. What more do you want?”

But the heady, sophis­ti­cated mix­ing of drama, dance, inci­den­tal music and opera was too con­fus­ing for the 1912 audi­ence. Thirty years later, Strauss blamed “a cer­tain lack of cul­ture on the part of the audi­ence” for the cool recep­tion. “The play-going pub­lic did not get its money’s worth, the opera pub­lic did not know what to make of Moliere. The pro­ducer had to put on dra­matic and oper­atic casts simul­ta­ne­ously and instead of two box-office suc­cesses he had one doubt­ful one.”

As Ari­adne made its way through the the­aters of Ger­many and Aus­tria, it was obvi­ous that the piece was far, far too easy to do badly, and it was also obvi­ous that a badly per­formed Ari­adne was a bad evening, indeed. In an attempt to save their work, von Hof­mannsthal decided to sever the Moliere play from the opera and write a pro­logue as “a pedestal,” to make the opera a full evening in the the­ater. At first Strauss was not inter­ested in such a project, believ­ing that in time, the world would  value their project as much as they did.

But then von Hof­mannsthal began falling behind with the libretto to Frau ohne Schat­ten, which was hardly sur­pris­ing since he was on active duty in the Aus­trian army for the entire dura­tion of the First World War. So Strauss decided to set the pre­vi­ously writ­ten Ari­adne Pro­logue to music – and ignited another major explo­sion with his deci­sion to make the role of the Com­poser a pants role (as they had done with the role of Octa­vian in Rosenkava­lier ), “since the tenors are so ter­ri­ble.”  He was think­ing of cast­ing soprano Lola Artôt de Padilla, who had been the first Berlin Octa­vian. “I can only win Mlle Artôt for our piece if I can offer her a kind of star part,” he wrote. With­out the Moliere play, the very end of the opera needed to be slightly changed, so Strauss sug­gested per­haps bring­ing back the Com­poser “and then the Major-domo could appear and pay the poor devil his salary, or the Count could appear and pay him some compliments…or any other amus­ing idea that comes to your mind.”

Von Hof­mannsthal was beside him­self. “The idea of giv­ing the part of the young Com­poser to a female per­former goes alto­gether against the grain. To pret­tify this par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter, which is to have a aura of ‘spir­i­tu­al­ity’ and ‘great­ness’ about it., and so to turn him into a trav­esty of himself…this strikes me as, for­give my plain speak­ing, odious…Oh Lord, if only I were able to bring home to you com­pletely the essence, the spir­i­tual mean­ing of these characters!…And finally, this idea for the end is truly appalling; if you will for­give me, my dear Dr. Strauss, this let­ter was not writ­ten in one of your hap­pier moments.” After exco­ri­at­ing Strauss’s pos­si­bly new end­ings, the incensed libret­tist finally ended the let­ter with, “I feel quite faint in mind and body to see us quite far apart…!”

Lotte Lehmann as the Com­poser, 1916

Why do you always get so bit­terly angry if for once we don’t under­stand each other?” Strauss asked, con­ve­niently for­get­ting their ear­lier dis­agree­ments. “You almost act as if I had never under­stood you!.….You do what ever you like about the end­ing, only do it soon, please! But as for Artôt.…I am not going to budge on the point, for artis­tic as well as for prac­ti­cal rea­sons.” He went on to explain in great detail why the Com­poser had to be another pants role, end­ing with, “So we stick to Artôt, and it’s got to be a delight­ful part! That’s final!” (Artôt sang the role in Berlin, but the very first Com­poser was a young woman named Lotte Lehmann, and the part made her a star.)

A month later Strauss announced he was three days away from fin­ish­ing the Pro­logue, and he added, “Do write me a libretto again some time with ‘a lot of love’! That always gives me the best ideas: Act I and the end of Rosenkava­lier; Salome–here’s a case in point!”

Ahead still lay their most ambi­tious work, Die Frau ohne Schat­ten; their bel canto work, Die Ägyp­tis­che Helena, and their final opera, Ara­bella. There would be more dis­agree­ments between them, but noth­ing like the bit­ter­ness they expe­ri­enced while writ­ing what one critic called “the most nearly per­fect work of art Strauss and von Hof­mannsthal achieved.” But by going through it, the Siamese cat and the Labrador had finally worked out their modus vivendi.

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, April 2001.