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Three sopranos discuss their roles in Strauss’s most complex opera

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Part fairy tale, part psychodrama, Richard Strauss’s “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” (The Woman Without a Shadow) calls for three big-voiced sopranos who can do justice to a long and difficult score.
This image released by the San Francisco Opera shows, from left, Linda Watson as the Nurse, Nina Stemme as the Dyer’s Wife, and Camilla Nylund as the Empress in Richard Strauss’ "Die Frau Ohne Schatten." (Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera via AP)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Part fairy tale, part psychodrama, Richard Strauss’s “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” (The Woman Without a Shadow) calls for three big-voiced sopranos who can do justice to a long and difficult score.

That’s one reason the opera, which premiered in 1919, is a relative rarity, though many consider it Strauss's masterpiece. Now the San Francisco Opera is presenting it for the first time in 34 years with a cast that includes three leading Wagner and Strauss singers: Nina Stemme as the Dyer’s Wife, Camilla Nylund as the Empress and Linda Watson as the Nurse.

Another reason the work is a challenge is Hugo Hofmannsthal's libretto, which mixes fantastical events with psychological insights.

In the story, the Empress, who comes from the spirit world, must acquire a shadow (enabling her to bear children) or else her human husband will be turned to stone in three days. She and her Nurse try to entice the unhappy wife of Barak the Dyer to give up her shadow and thus remain childless in exchange for a life of luxury. But gradually, the Empress learns to appreciate humanity and changes her mind. And the Dyer’s Wife pulls back from the brink of trading away her shadow. Everything ends happily for the two couples.

The day after the production opened on June 4 (performances continue through June 28), the AP sat down with the three sopranos to talk about the challenges and rewards of their roles. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:


AP: The story is so complicated and laden with murky symbolism that even its admirers sometimes scratch their heads. What do you say when someone asks you what this opera is about?

NYLUND (the Empress): It’s a fairy tale for adults. Hofmannsthal and Strauss were influenced by the situation of women in their society, and especially the empresses in Europe. They had to marry and they had to bear children. That was their job. And that’s still a big issue for women: Are you going to have children, are you not going to have children, how does that affect your position, your life.

WATSON (the Nurse): It’s very complicated. I tell people to read the synopsis five times and then just go see it. I’ve done this piece for 20 years and somebody came up to me last night and said, OK, we understand most of it, but how DID the Empress get a shadow? And I was like, I don’t know.

STEMME (the Dyer’s wife): Hofmannsthal and Strauss, they loved to leave questions like this. I mean, who is ‘Die Frau’? The Empress doesn’t have a shadow at the beginning, and the Dyer’s Wife loses hers for a moment. Is it important? No, because I also think the opera is about relationships. And I’m intrigued by my character being based on Strauss’s own wife. But to tell the story, no, nobody can really do it.

AP: How do the relationships between each married couple play out in the opera?

WATSON: It’s about the miscommunication that happens in any marriage, any relationship between two people in love. Their goals may be the same but they fall out for the wrong reasons.

NYLUND: The Empress and the Emperor, they don’t have any communication at all when the opera begins. Only at the end, when she has to save him because of her strength and the development she has gone through. She becomes a human being, she understands what is empathy, what is love.

STEMME: I think that the Dyer’s Wife wants to move up through this marriage, so she wants more. She’s really trying to make her husband understand that she is about to leave him if he doesn’t change and start to see her. Of course she doesn’t see him for his struggles and what he is either. Until she goes too far and he tries to kill her. She finally gets a reaction from Barak that she never got before and it makes her begin to understand him.

NYLUND: It’s really fantastic that two men have written this opera and it says so much about how a woman thinks and acts. Its really something very, very special.

AP: The vocal parts for all three of you are notoriously difficult. What challenges did you encounter when you first started to sing your roles?

STEMME: I fell in love with the character, but not exactly with the music, because this role requires a range of 2 1/2 octaves. It took a long time to learn. It’s very tricky and the tonality is complicated, just like her personality. I understand why he composed it like this, to explore the complexity of her personality and also to show that she doesn’t understand herself as a person.

WATSON: It’s excruciating. I had sung the Dyer’s Wife, and when I decided to switch I thought, ah, OK, I’ll sing a mezzo role and this will be one step easier, lower. And that’s a joke. Is it a mezzo role? It is, and it’s not. It’s very high, and very low, down to a low E-flat. If you don’t have the technique, you can ruin your voice in a second. You’re just going to yodel through the whole piece.

NYLUND: When I first started studying my role I thought, Oh my God, what is he doing here? Because you have to start like some kind of coloratura with a really light top that goes up to high D, and then you have to also have power in your voice, so the role is very complex.

AP: What do you imagine happens to your character after the opera ends?

WATSON: I think she dies. The Empress rejects her and she is sent off to live among “mankind,” which she detests. It’s death for her.

NYLUND: I see her living happily ever after. The Emperor has finally noticed that they are equal, because of what she did for him. They can communicate on the same level now.

STEMME: Maybe not happily ever after, but Barak and his wife will start to talk, communicate. Because they have found each other as human beings.

Mike Silverman, The Associated Press