Die Frau ohne Schatten

Die Frau ohne Schatten

Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) is an opera in three acts by Richard Strauss with a libretto by his long-time collaborator, the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It was written between 1911 and either 1915 or 1917. When it premiered in Vienna on 10 October 1919, critics and audiences were unenthusiastic (many cited problems with Hofmannsthal's complicated and heavily symbolic libretto). Today, the opera is considered by some[who?] to be Strauss's finest work in the genre,[citation needed] while others disagree.


Composition history

Work on the opera began in 1911. Hofmannsthal’s earliest sketches for the libretto are based on a piece by Goethe, “The Conversation of German Emigrants” (1795). Hofmannsthal handles Goethe’s material freely, adding the idea of two couples, the emperor and empress who come from another realm, and the dyer and his wife who belong to the ordinary world. Hofmannsthal also drew on portions of the Arabian Nights, Grimm's Fairy Tales, and even quotes Goethe's Faust. The opera is conceived as a fairy-tale on the theme of love blessed through the birth of children. Hofmannsthal, in his letters, compared it with Mozart’s Magic Flute, which has a similar arrangement of two couples.

Strauss began composing immediately. He and Hofmannsthal worked on music and words in parallel, each receiving inspiration from the other. Strauss was happy with Hofmannsthal’s text, but asked him to rewrite many passages for the sake of dramatic effect. Hofmannsthal was adamantly opposed and was more worried about the symbolism beneath his libretto. The opera was finished in 1915, during the First World War, but had to wait for its premiere until 1919. The sometimes difficult genesis of the opera is documented in their correspondence.

Strauss himself called this opera his “child of woe” (he even called it "Die Frosch", which in German means frog, that is "Die Frau ohne Schatten"). The complexity of the text and the stress of wartime made its composition a laborious task, and Strauss was also disappointed with the first productions.

Musically, Die Frau ohne Schatten is one of Strauss’s most complicated and colorful scores. In contrast to the quickly-moving Salome and Elektra, it includes extended monologues and scenes. The opera remains a challenge to stage, even for a major opera house, calling as it does for five top soloists in the demanding principal roles, first rate secondary roles, a large orchestra, and elaborate sets and scenic effects.

Scenically, it is also demanding, with all the scene changes and special effects. Children singing out of a frying pan is particularly demanding, as is the final golden waterfall scene. Few opera houses are capable of staging the work.

In 1946 Strauss created a one-movement orchestral piece, the Fantasy on Die Frau ohne Schatten, based on high points from the opera. It was premiered in Vienna in 1947.


Role Voice type Premiere, October 10, 1919
(Franz Schalk)
The Emperor (Der Kaiser) tenor Karl Aagard Østvig
The Empress (Die Kaiserin), Keikobad's daughter high dramatic soprano Maria Jeritza
The Nurse (Die Amme), her guardian dramatic mezzo-soprano or
Lucie Weidt
Barak, the Dyer (Barak, der Färber) bass-baritone Richard Mayr
The Dyer's Wife (Die Färberin) high dramatic soprano Lotte Lehmann
The One-eyed Man (Der Einäugige), Barak's brother high bass Viktor Madin
The One-Armed Man (Der Einarmige), Barak's brother bass Julius Betetto
The Hunchback (Der Bucklige), Barak's brother high tenor Anton Arnold
The Messenger of Keikobad high baritone Josef von Manowarda
The Voice of a Falcon soprano Felicie Hüni-Mihacsek
The Apparition of a Youth high tenor Elisabeth Schumann
The Guardian of the Threshold soprano or
Sybilla Blei
A Voice From Above contralto Maria Olczewska
Voices of Six Unborn Children (Sechs Kinderstimmen) three sopranos, three baritones
Voices of Three Town Watchmen (Stimmen Der Wächter Der Stadt) baritones
Servants of the Empress, other children and beggar-children, spirit-servants and spirit-voices

The role of the Empress calls for a dramatic soprano who is also capable of extended coloratura passages containing trills, runs, and a high D (and that's just her first solo in Act One). Similarly, any tenor attempting the Emperor must be able to handle numerous passages in his uppermost range, particularly his extended solo scene in Act Two. The Nurse role sits mostly in the contralto range, but makes frequent leaps above the staff. The Dyer's Wife also calls for a soprano with immense sound to be heard over heavily orchestrated passages. The Dyer is the most approachable of the leading vocal parts, but again the orchestration is very heavy and requires a baritone with sufficient stamina to last the opera's three hours and fifteen minutes.


The opera's story is set in the mythical empire of the Southeastern Islands and involves five principal characters: the Emperor (tenor), the Empress (soprano), her Nurse (mezzo-soprano or contralto), Barak, a lowly dyer (bass-baritone), and the Dyer's Wife, (dramatic soprano). A sixth character, Keikobad, King of the Spirit Realm and father to the Empress, sets the plot in motion, but never appears on stage. The Empress is not human: she was captured by the Emperor in the form of a gazelle. She assumed human shape and he married her, but she has no shadow. This symbolizes her inability to bear children. Keikobad has decreed that unless the Empress gains a shadow before the end of the twelfth moon, she will be reclaimed by her father and the Emperor will turn to stone.

Act 1

Scene 1

It is dawn, outside the bedchambers of the Emperor and Empress. The Messenger of Keikobad arrives, and tells the Empress' Nurse that the Empress must acquire a shadow within three days, or will be forcibly returned to his realm, and the Emperor turned to stone. The Nurse is excited about the prospect of returning to the spirit world, since she hates humans and having to dwell with them. The Messenger leaves and the Emperor emerges from his bedchamber. He departs on a three-day hunting trip, seeking his favorite falcon, which he drove away for attacking a gazelle that later turned into the Empress. He leaves his wife to the Nurse's care. The Empress emerges from her chamber and reminisces about times when she had the ability to turn into any creature she wanted; it is revealed that after being attacked by the red falcon that the Emperor is seeking, she lost a talisman that gave transformation powers, and on which was inscribed a curse that foresaw the fate she and the Emperor are about to face if she does not acquire a shadow. The red falcon appears and warns the Empress about it and begs the Nurse to help her get a shadow. The Nurse, who is steeped in magic, suggests descending to the mortal world and finding a woman who will sell her shadow to the Empress.

Scene 2

Barak, an old dyer, shares his hut with his Wife and his three brothers: the One-Eyed Man, the One-Armed Man, and the Hunchback. The three brothers fight about a stolen item and are separated by the Wife, who throws at them a bucket of water. The brothers-in-law then argue with the Wife. Barak enters and stops the argument. The Wife wants to have her in-laws thrown out, but her husband refuses. The Dyer desires children, but his Wife fears the responsibility and has secretly sworn not to have any. The Dyer and his brothers leave, and the Empress and the Nurse arrive in disguise. The Wife wants them out of her house but the Nurse conjures up visions of luxury and promises them to the Wife in return for her shadow. The Wife agrees to deny her husband for three days during which the Nurse and the Empress will live at the Dyer's hut as poor relatives who have come to work as servants. Barak approaches and the Wife is worried that dinner is not ready, the Nurse once more uses her magic to have everything ready, including the separation of Barak's bed. The Nurse and Empress disappear, while the Wife hears the offstage Voices of Unborn Children lamenting, which emerge from the fish that are cooking on the fire. The Dyer returns, to find he is barred from his marital bed; he initially considers this as a good omen, for he knows that women act strangely "during the first days", assuming that his Wife might be pregnant, he hears the Town Watchmen sing of conjugal love and agrees to sleep on the floor.

Act 2

Scene 1

The Empress, acting as a servant, helps the Dyer leave for work, but is troubled by her role, because Barak is very kind to her. The Nurse conjures up the image of a handsome youth by bringing a broom to life, which tempts the Dyer's Wife. The Dyer returns with his hungry brothers and beggar children. He has had a magnificent day at the market, selling all his goods, and has invited everyone to celebrate. However, his Wife manages to ruin the celebration.

Scene 2

The Emperor is led to his hunting lodge in the forest by the red falcon, having heard that the Empress would be residing there. He sees the Empress and Nurse surreptitiously enter the lodge, and is suspicious. When he comes closer, he smells a human odor trailing the Empress. Thinking she has betrayed him, he resolves to kill her. He first thinks of using an arrow, and then his sword, but they remind him too much of the Empress's initial capture as a gazelle. He resolves that only his bare hands can be used, then realizes that he can't do it. He resolves to seek out some isolated ravine to be alone with his misery.

Scene 3

At the Dyer's house, the Dyer is drugged into sleep by the Nurse. The Nurse again conjures up the young man for the Wife, who grows frightened and rouses the Dyer. Barak is surprised to learn that there is a man in his house but then is quickly turned on by his Wife, who shouts at him, then leaves for the city, leaving her confused husband. Left alone with the Barak, the Empress feels more guilty than before.

Scene 4

The Empress goes to sleep at the hunting lodge, but in her sleep she is further troubled by her crime and by the possible fate of the Emperor. In a dream, she sees the Emperor enter her father's realm. Unseen choruses chant the curse of the talisman.

Scene 5

The next day, the Wife gives up her shadow. When light reveals that she has no shadow, the Dyer moves to strike her with a sword that appears in his hand. He is stopped by his brothers as the Wife begs for mercy. The Empress refuses to take over the shadow as it is covered in blood. Everyone is swallowed into the earth. A river floods into the house, and the Empress and Nurse depart on a magic boat, waiting judgment from Keikobad.

Act 3

Scene 1

In a grotto beneath the realm of Keikobad, the Wife is haunted by the Voices of Unborn Children. She protests that she loves the Dyer, who regrets his attempted violence. A voice directs them up separate staircases.

Scene 2

The Empress and Nurse arrive before Keikobad's Temple. The Nurse tries to convince the Empress to escape but she remembers the doors from her dream and knows that her father is waiting for her on the other side. She dismisses the Nurse and enters. The Nurse foretells terrible tortures awaiting the Empress and misleads the Wife and Barak, who are looking for each other, she to die at her husband's hand, he to forgive her and hold her in his arms. Keikobad's Messenger condemns the Nurse to wander the mortal world.

Scene 3

Inside the Temple, the Empress speaks to Keikobad, asking for forgiveness and to find her place amongst those who cast shadows. Keikobad does not answer but shows the Emperor already almost petrified. A voice urges her to drink from the Fountain of Life, which is there, and claim the Wife's shadow for herself. But the Dyer and the Wife are heard offstage, and the Empress refuses to steal their future happiness and become human by robbing humanity from someone else, singing "I will - not!" This act of renunciation frees her: she receives a shadow, and the Emperor is restored. The scene changes to a beautiful landscape. Barak and his Wife are reunited and she regains her own shadow. Both couples sing of their humanity and praise their Unborn Children.


The opulent 164 piece instrumentation includes:

  • on-stage: woodwind and horn may play in pit if necessary; two of the on-stage trumpets move to the pit for Act III, thus a total of 10 trumpets is required.


See Die Frau ohne Schatten discography.

Historical Sources of the Libretto

The Name of the Opera

See The Woman Who Had No Shadow

The Story

Hofmannsthal was inspired by the fairy tale by Wilhelm Hauff, The Cold Heart (Das kalte Herz).[1]

The Name Keikobad

Keikobad is a variant spelling of the name of a sultan in the Mamluk Dynasty that ruled Dehli in the 1200s, one of the succession of unrelated dynasties that composed the "Delhi Sultanate."

Keikobad's grandfather, Ghiyasuddin Balban, was a cultured man who ruled for 21 years up to his death in battle in 1286 defending the kingdom from the Mughals who were attempting to expand from their base in the area of Afghanistan. He had settled the succession on his grandson Keikobad as one son, Keikobad's father, had died and a second son preferred to remain Governor of Bengal.

Keikobad was known as Kei Khusrao until he inherited the throne at age 18 and adopted the royal name Muiz ul-Din Qaiqabad. Dissolute and reduced by his vices to near paralysis, he was assassinated after three years on the throne by rebels who subsequently founded the Khilji Dynasty.


This article incorporates material from the German-language Wikipedia.

  1. ^ Del Mar, p. 152
  • Amadeus Almanac
  • Boyden, Matthew, Richard Strauss, Boston: Northeastern University, 1999. ISBN 1-55553-418-x
  • Del Mar, Norman, Richard Strauss: A Critical Commentary on His Life and Works. Cornell University Press, 2000 ISBN-13: 9780801493188 ISBN: 0801493188
  • Holden, Amanda (Ed.), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001. ISBN 0-140-29312-4
  • The Metropolitan Opera, Stories of the Operas
  • Warrack, John and West, Ewan, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera New York: OUP: 1992 ISBN 0-19-869164-5

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