Thursday, October 15, 2009

The magic of 'Der Rosenkavalier'

We got a question!

Yesterday, Ola Fumilayo asked:

I have an unusual (maybe) question for you - help! My fiancee's parents are taking us to the opera this weekend, Der Rosenkavalier, his step-father's favourite. I love, am moved by and perform instrumental classical music (in solitude in my home usually), and could very easily deal with a Mozart opera (who couldn't), but I've really never been interested in opera at all.

This Web log can be moody and procrastinating about answering questions but Ola Fumilayo is an important person. She lives in Toronto and she does music boxes! And I get a kick out of her blog. It is all about being a music box girl in the modern high-tech world!

To my new friend Ola, I am flying out the door but I want to say a couple of things about "Der Rosenkavalier" in case you are leaving for New York today and will not get time to read this otherwise. I am imagining you are going to the Met because that is where "Der Rosenkavalier" is on stage, with Renee Fleming and Susan Graham.

I am so jealous! I was just looking at pictures of the production the other day and it looks beautiful. There is this author I might be talking to for my book on Leonard Pennario and she lives in New York and we were discussing getting together. If she is free this week I will take that as an excuse to go there to see "Rosenkavalier." That is how much I love that opera.

With which, here is my memo to Ola on what to keep in mind when you see "Rosenkavalier."

No. 1, try to think of opera as just like any other kind of music you listen to. It requires no special skill to enjoy. Approach "Rosenkavalier" as you would anything else -- a symphony or a Broadway show. The only secret is to be open to it.

Ola mentioned that she would probably be OK with a Mozart opera. It might help to keep in mind that Richard Strauss was inspired by Mozart when he wrote "Der Rosenkavalier." The tender 18th century atmosphere was a response to "The Marriage of Figaro." The whole opera reflects "Figaro" in a few ways. It is kind of genderbending -- you have a woman playing Octavian in "Der Rosenkavalier" the way you have a woman playing Cherubino in "Figaro." And the character of the Marschallin was inspired by the Countess in "Figaro." They are both worldly women, complicated, with a tendency toward brooding and melancholy.

That leads me to something I love about both operas: Both of them are bittersweet in a way that I think is very difficult to achieve. You have to achieve it without trying, I think. The thing about "Figaro" and "Rosenkavalier" is, when I watch either of them, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. It is the way life is a lot of the time.

"Der Rosenkavalier" is, like "Figaro," full of rich music, but a lot of the music is shot through with a bittersweet quality. The famous "Rosenkavalier" waltzes -- that is something to listen to -- have a nostalgia about them. There are these sweetly dissonant descending tones you will hear when the Marschallin reflects on her life. They make you think of a clock running down, i.e. the passing of time, something we all face.

At the end of "Figaro," you have the Count forgiving the Countess. And at the end of "Rosenkavalier" you get the enchanting love duet between Octavian and Sophie, the young woman he grows to love.

There is a famous moment in that duet when the Marschallin has to give up Octavian. She walks in with Sophie's father and he says, "That's the way young people are." And she says, "Ja, ja." That is very famous. For every singer who sings the Marschallin, that is a big moment, how she crafts that simple "Yes, yes."

You can see that in that clip above.

Oh, and one more thing. My mother said to tell you that you have to listen up to the last few seconds of "Rosenkavalier." And she is right. It is magical. Do not slack at this point! Do not try to beat the traffic to the restroom!

I am going to try to get back to this later and add a few more things. In case I do not get to, here is one story that just came into my mind as I thought about this.

I read that the great conductor George Szell was once rehearsing the Cleveland Orchestra in Wagner's "Die Meistersinger." (Another opera, by the way, with that peculiar bittersweet quality.) And one of the musicians made a mistake. He apologized, saying it was his first time playing the piece.

All the musicians held their breaths, expecting Szell to blow up.

But Szell surprised everyone. He said quietly, "What I would not give to be hearing 'Meistersinger' for the first time."

That is how I feel about "Der Rosenkavalier."



  1. One of my favorite quotes, from Richard Strauss, as he was starting work on Der Rosenkavalier: "I shall now write a Mozart opera."

  2. That is a great quote! I shall now write a Carl Herko newspaper piece.

  3. Another great Strauss quote, which I just discovered as I was looking up the first one: "Never look at the trombones. You'll only encourage them."

  4. i was fortunate enough to attend Tuesday night. The beauty of Der Rosenkavalier is that if you take a decade between productions, each time is like hearing it the first time. It had been 20+ years since I had seen this opera--and it was much more meaningful musically and dramatically to a woman in her 40's vs. her 20's. Wow.

    "It is kind of genderbending -- you have a woman playing Octavian in "Der Rosenkavalier" the way you have a woman playing Cherubino in "Figaro." And the character of the Marschallin was inspired by the Countess in "Figaro." They are both worldly women, complicated, with a tendency toward brooding and melancholy."

    This is the part that gives me the most hope..I guess I'd never thought about there being depth in the characterizations, or in the way certain lines can be sung (like you mention later).

    This is my first time seeing an opera - you love it so much, thanks for not dismissing my ignorance, I'd like to get even half as much out of it as you seem to.

  6. Ola, so great to hear from you! I wish I had had time to write more but maybe it's better at this point that you just see it and see what you think. Try to check back and tell us what it was like for you!

    I am not sure what you mean about sounding ignorant -- you seem to know what you are talking about just fine. I think you will love "Rosenkavalier." And if you don't, it still doesn't mean you are ignorant. Opera is like anything else -- you will take to some and not others and sometimes there is no explaining.

    Anonymous who saw "Rosenkavalier" on Tuesday -- thank you for the report! I would love to see it now as opposed to when I was 16. I like what you said, that it would be like the first time.

    Both of you, I am so jealous! Yesterday when I was putting that post together, I watched the clip of the last duet and I just burst into tears! In the morning! Before work! I see the opera is playing at the Met in January too. I think I might just have to go see it.