Richard Strauss’s Die Frau Ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) is one of my favorite operas, and though it is a complex work, I am nonetheless struck by how insistently even intelligent commentators misunderstand it. In his otherwise excellent A Song of Love & Death: The Meaning of Opera, Peter Conrad writes calls it “a top-heavy treatise on cosmic biology”; he writes that “the subject of…Die Frau is continuity, the extension of human life through childbearing.” In [Wagner’s] Ring the world’s salvation lay in love. In Die Frau Ohne Schatten, it can be replenished and saved only by procreation.” In his also excellent Opera in the Twentieth Century, Ethan Mordden explicitly equates the shadow that the Empress lacks with fertility, completely missing its obvious role as a symbol for or manifestation of the soul (a common association around the world) and thus for the true humanity that she lacks and must earn. To reduce the opera to a story about the necessity to bear children is completely to miss its deeper meanings (which are not so obscure or obscurely presented). In Die Frau, as much as or more than in Der Ring (in which, after all, the world is neither saved nor redeemed, simply destroyed in the hope of a better new beginning), love (not just eros, selfish sexual love, but agape, selfless love for and compassion for one’s fellow creature) is the means to salvation. The ever-insightful Paul Griffiths, in one of his two chapters on twentieth-century opera in The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, gets it right when he calls the opera a “fairy-tale of quest and self-discovery.”
Die Frau Ohne Schatten is the story of two couples, the Emperor and the Empress, who live in a realm above the human but beneath the heavenly, and Barak the Dyer and his Wife, who live very much mired in the human and the material world. That Barak is the only character in the opera with a personal name (the others simply have titles indicating their roles or positions) is significant, for he is the representative of true humanity, a humanity toward which the other characters strive, should strive, or fail to strive, and are variously rewarded or punished for their ability or unwillingness to achieve it.
But though he is a person of virtue, Barak does not change over the course of the opera, and indeed, there is no room for him to do so. Beginning as a paragon of patient goodness, what else could he become? As for the Emperor, he is hardly a character at all. As the Nurse sings to the Spirit Messenger who has come to warn her that the Empress must acquire a shadow within three days or he will be turned to stone, the Emperor is a hunter and a lover, and for the rest, nothing. He is noble and regal, and that is all. Even his love for the Empress is abstract, since we never see the couple interact. He has two scenes and participates in the final ensemble, but spends most of the opera either out of sight or turning to stone.
It is the opera’s women who change, and by so doing they not keep the plot moving but undergo the transformations that are its meaning, each in her own way learning the meaning of love. If to be human is to change and to be capable of change, to be capable of willing oneself to change, then they are the opera’s true embodiments of humanity, as opposed to its static, unchanging heroes. It is the women who act; the men either respond to or are affected, positively or negatively, by their actions.
Both couples are childless, but their childless state is an indication that in neither case has their love been truly fulfilled. More significantly, the Empress has no shadow, which is to say, she has no soul. She is the daughter of Keikobad, the king of the spirit world, who in his absence is a portentous presence throughout the opera, the judge who sets the plot in motion in order to test the characters and see if they are to be found worthy. The Empress formerly had the power to transform herself into whatever shape she chose (which is perhaps an indication that she had no real identity in our terms), but then was captured by the Emperor when she took the form of a gazelle. The two married, but she still lives between two realms, no longer part of the spirit world, but not fully human either. In Conrad’s words, “the Emperor and the Empress are infertile because [they are] too loftily inhuman.” The Dyer’s Wife is a younger woman married to an older man, who dreams of a life beyond their modest hut. As Conrad writes, “the dyer Barak is denied offspring because his wife is disgusted by natural functions and the servitude of the body.” But she is disgusted by servitude in general: despite or perhaps because of her namelessness, she’s doesn’t just want to be someone’s wife, to live a life wholly circumscribed by others’ definitions. As director Paul Curran points out, the Dyer’s Wife is “surrounded by color but has no color in her own life at all.” She can almost be read as a proto-feminist: her rejection of motherhood is a rejection of social roles and expectations.
In Paul Curran’s words, the opera “centers on women and their consciences.…Strauss’s operas nearly all deal with the female state. It’s a fascinating mix of the fantastical elements of the Emperor and the Empress with the more earthy level of Barak and his wife. But both women have the same crisis of conscience—one’s about buying, and the other’s about selling. It’s about selling your faith and your fecundity.” The story of the opera is the story of the two women. As in most of Strauss’s operas, the male characters, especially the Emperor, are somewhat peripheral. Barak has a good amount of stage time, much more than the Emperor does, who has two big scenes and then the ensemble finale, but he is rather static, an embodiment of goodness and patience and love. Some of his music is very lovely and moving, but the character is a bit two-dimensional. It is the women who are genuine characters, because it is they who change.
The Empress discovers that if she does not acquire a shadow within three days, the Emperor will turn to stone and she will be returned to her stern father. Her Nurse (another nameless character identified only by her position and role, which is to serve), who accompanied her from her father’s court, finds this a delightful outcome. She despises even the elevated human realm the Emperor inhabits, and longs to return to the spirit world. But the Empress begs her aid in finding a shadow, and out of love for her charge and against her own desires the Nurse agrees to help her. But because the Nurse is utterly alien to humanity, she can only imagine stealing a shadow. The Dyer’s Wife, dissatisfied and discontented with her lot, seems the ideal candidate. She can easily be persuaded to sell her shadow for riches and a sexual liaison with a handsome youth the Nurse conjures up (a liaison the Dyer’s Wife finally rejects).
But in the end the Empress realizes that she cannot and will not save her beloved husband at someone else’s expense; she will not steal the Dyer’s Wife’s shadow, that is, her soul. The Dyer’s Wife realizes that Barak’s love is a treasure in itself, and that all he asks is her love in return. She realizes that her shadow, her soul, is not a possession that can be sold; she has earned the right to what was hers all along. The Empress knows love, but it is a selfish love—the Emperor makes her happy, and thus she wants to save him. When she discovers an altruistic love, one that demands that she give up what she wants for the sake of another—when she moves from eros to agape—then she is saved, and then she can save her beloved. It is at that moment, when she renounces the Dyer’s Wife’s soul even as her husband turns to stone, that her shadow suddenly appears and the Emperor is restored to life. “Keikobad pardons all [except the unrepentant Nurse who, having failed the test of empathy, is punished to live among humans forever] in a happy apotheosis, for his daughter has thus earned not the surface identity of humanity—the shadow—but its true shape, self-conquest” (Mordden). She has earned her own soul.