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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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…!”
“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.