Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Opera and reproductive politics

IDie Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow), the librettist, Hugo von Hoffmannstahl, created a drama that a century later resonates with contemporary concerns like few other operas in the repertoire. We are used to relationship dramas on our stages, screens and the pages of our novels. Today, they affect us, if at all, on a fairly superficial level. We are blasé about portrayals of infidelity, affairs, people struggling to relate with eachother. These are all the stock-in-trade of playwrights and screenwriters just as much they are of soap opera scriptwriters. 

Hofmannstahl's Frau ohne Schatten libretto is, however, about much more than just two couples in dysfunctional or unrealized relationships. It is also about one of the last great challenges that still causes searing pain to many modern couples: the frustrated desire for children and parenthood.  

At one point in the first act, the Dyer's wife plaintively sings of how she has had to suppress her desires for motherhood and as how her husband must now also put aside the desires he once cherished. The whole passage will be painfully familiar for many contemporary couples and is worth quoting in full:

"A year and a half
Have I been your wife,
And you have won
No fruit from me
You have not
Made me a mother.
Those desires
I have had to expunge
From my soul:
Now you, too,
Must expunge desires,
That you hold dear."

In the next scene the Dyer's wife trades her hopes and potential of motherhood - her shadow - for the promise of life as a princess complete with silk robes, servants, youthfulness and a young man to make her wildest dreams come true. It is a Faustian bargain of the sort that many women (and men) of child-bearing age will recognize. Financial security, professional success and status, home ownership and social standing can all seem incompatible with parenthood and the trade-off between these desires and that for parenthood appears clear, if harsh. In Hofmannstahl's libretto, the second couple is desperate to have a child. Failure will lead to the petrifaction of the husband, and the woman concerned, known as the Princess, is initially prepared to take the shadow of the Dyer's wife. Like Madonna in an African village, she travels down from her mythical world to the "filth" of common humanity, determined to leave again as a mother. It is only through her decision to renounce this desire that the drama reaches its denouement and both couples find their respective paths to parenthood. 

Hofmannstahl may not have anticipated the complex, painful and often taboo subject of contemporary reproductive politics, but if he wanted to drop a dramatic bomb into the debate, he could hardly have done better than with the libretto of his powerfully relevant opera, Die Frau ohne Schatten.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, the theme of determined desire, renouncement, followed by fulfillment. This must be part of what gives the opera its universal and timeless quality. Lucky finding a librettist able to match Strauss's always compelling music. I can see why you felt so moved by the performance. Enjoyed sharing your insight!