fb-pixel Skip to main content

‘The Silent Woman,’ a Strauss comedy born of dark times, reaches the stage at Bard

The SummerScape Festival at Bard College presents a rare staging of Richard Strauss’s ‘Die Schweigsame Frau,’ with a libretto by the Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig

Soprano Jana McIntyre (as Aminta) and tenor David Portillo (as Henry) will perform in a new production of Strauss's opera "The Silent Woman" at Bard SummerScape.Maria Baranova/Bard SummerScape

A keenly anticipated new production of Strauss’s opera “The Silent Woman” opens Friday at the Bard SummerScape festival, and it arrives bearing an implicit question: Why has this charming opera been staged so rarely?

After all, Strauss hailed what he saw as the historic greatness of the libretto, a madcap comedy about an old bachelor who seeks a life of quiet but is tricked into marrying a “silent woman” who proves to be anything but silent, unleashing pure cacophony and driving him mad. Inspired by this libretto, Strauss wrote page after page of winningly lighthearted music including an exceptionally sublime closing aria. Yet according to Opera America, the piece has been produced in this country only once per decade since the early 1990s. And it’s not seen much more often in Germany, either.


The answer surely begins with the opera’s sheer technical difficulty. It is musically taxing, requires a large orchestra, and makes punishing demands on its singers. But the deeper reasons may be traced to the dark, tumultuous circumstances of the score’s creation. “The Silent Woman” — adapted from Ben Jonson’s “Epicoene” of 1609, and better known in its original German title as “Die Schweigsame Frau” — is the sole fruit of Strauss’s partnership with the once-celebrated Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, who wrote the libretto in the early 1930s, precisely as Hitler was coming to power.

It was a fraught situation in which nobody could win. As a Jewish writer, Zweig could not attend the 1935 world premiere of his own opera in Dresden — poignantly, he tried to listen over the radio from Switzerland but could not tune into the broadcast. Nor did the circumstances bolster Strauss’s standing with the Nazi regime, which he was working for at this time as president of the Reich Chamber of Music. At Strauss’s insistence, Zweig’s name appeared on the opera program, which in turn prompted Hitler and Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to boycott the premiere entirely.


Banned after just a few performances, “The Silent Woman” was in this sense stillborn, released into a world intent on rupturing the German-Jewish symbiosis that underlaid so much of modern German culture. Indeed, “The Silent Woman” may be seen as a final flowering of that symbiosis.

These political circumstances have left what conductor (and Bard College president) Leon Botstein describes as “a bad odor around the work,” one that he believes is completely undeserved.

“It is a musical masterpiece,” Botstein told the Globe in a recent phone interview. “It’s an experimental opera in which the libretto by Zweig is so good that it drove Strauss to do something he had never done: He started to favor the words over the music. . . . The final aria is among the most personal and most beautiful things that Strauss ever wrote, and its text is about what is really valuable in life: music and simple things, like family, personal peace, the private things in life.”

After the death in 1929 of poet and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, with whom Richard Strauss collaborated on many operas, the composer (pictured above) feared his operatic career might be over. Then he met Stefan Zweig, with whom he created "The Silent Woman."Library of Congress

This operatic vision of an escape from the political, as Botstein sees it, represented a kind of nostalgic plea for Strauss, “a psychic confession that he’s lost . . . The opera in that regard is heartbreaking. Strauss and Zweig realized that the world they wanted to live in — in which the artist is the pinnacle of society and given freedom to do what he wants — had not come true, and that their real world was being taken over by vulgar populists.”


Of course, the Nazi rise to power affected Zweig and Strauss very differently. Fundamentally misreading the situation, Strauss saw an opportunity to bolster the standing of his own music and to achieve long-sought policy reforms in German musical life. He therefore stayed in Germany and collaborated with the Nazis. As a Jew, Zweig was permitted fewer illusions. Even before Hitler had officially annexed Austria, the writer had become an exile, living in England, the United States, and ultimately Brazil, where in 1942, Zweig — a quintessential European humanist faced with the seemingly endless victories of a monstrous inhumanity — took his own life.

The Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, the most popular German-language writer of his day, created the libretto for Strauss's comedy "The Silent Woman."Stefan Zweig Centre Salzburg

Given all of this ugly “noise” raging outside their windows in the early-1930s, Strauss and Zweig’s choice to create a sparkling comic opera about the search for “silence” becomes all the more symbolically meaningful.

At the same time, the work’s performance history raises the question of just how clearly the opera’s symbolism and its comic exuberance have been permitted to be heard over time. The Nazi-sanctioned conductor Karl Böhm made extensive cuts for the original Dresden premiere, cuts that the Bard team believes were politically motivated. This production therefore restores these cuts, giving audiences a rare chance to encounter the score in a form much closer to what its creators had first envisioned.

The Bard production will feature bass Harold Wilson as Morosus, the curmudgeonly, quiet-seeking veteran at the center of the action, and tenor David Portillo as Morosus’s nephew Henry, whose wife, Aminta (to be sung by Jana McIntyre), poses as the silent woman of the work’s title. The whole elaborate ruse is hatched by Morosus’s cunning barber (to be sung by Edward Nelson).


Bard’s “Silent Woman” will be directed by the Hamburg-born director Christian Räth, who says he has been struck by both the work’s comic aspects and its underlying poignance. “There is something explosively joyful and anarchic about the humor in this piece,” he told the Globe in a phone interview. “And at the same time, both Strauss and Zweig sensed that the era of joy and artistic freedom was coming to an end. This piece is therefore also a goodbye to this era, and to that chapter of their lives.”

Räth adds: “The comedy is a refuge, of course. But it’s also a kind of utopia, a dream we are allowed to enjoy, even if only for the time we’re in the theater.”


Composed by Richard Strauss, libretto by Stefan Zweig

July 22-31, Bard SummerScape, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.


Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.