Childhood Anecdote and Queer Cornucopia
Last Tuesday I attended “Der Rosenkavalier” for the first time.
Or rather I attended all three acts of Richard Strauss’ opera “Der Rosenkavalier” for the first time. Family lore has it that I attended Act 2 and Act 3 when I was a small child of three or four, but I don’t remember that event, even if it is a story my mother has recounted often.
The first opera I remember attending was “Hansel and Gretel” at the age of five. Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairy tale adaptation is a far more appropriate first opera for a young child than “Der Rosenkavalier”. I remember the picture book gingerbread house and classically ugly witch, with extravagantly long and crooked nose and chin and hairy warts in ur-traditional Grimm fairy tale fashion. Although I knew even then it was all make believe, it was still daunting for a five year old to meet the singer playing the witch after the performance in the dressing rooms of the opera house and get a close up view of that grotesque make up. She was very sweet and attentive to me, but I looked up at that craggy visage dumbstruck and wary.
My mother was able to take me back stage because she too was a soloist at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and thus had privileged access.
My mother, Catherine Gayer, was part of the Deutsche Oper ensemble for 41 years before retiring. And the reason I was taken to see “Der Rosenkavalier” at an even more tender age than five is because she was singing the soprano role of Sophie in the opera. Sophie doesn’t appear until Act 2, and so my mother didn’t need to arrive at the opera to get ready until the curtain was raised for Act 1. Act 1 of “Der Rosenkavalier” is too long for a young child, my parents reasoned, but they thought I could handle Act 2 and Act 3, especially with my mother’s character prominent in both.
I could, but not without difficulties, which were not because of stamina or attention span, but because I got a bit too engaged and emotionally invested, as the story goes.
In Act 2 young dashing Octavian – per an ancient Viennese custom wholly invented by librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal – delivers a silver rose to sweet young Sophie to formalize her engagement to the odious Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau. Sophie and Octavian fall head over heals in love, even though he is secretly having an affair with The Marschallin (a powerful lady boss of Viennese High Society) and Sophie is, well, engaged to marry Baron Ochs. Then Ochs himself arrives and treats Sophie boorishly, manhandling her in physically demeaning and lascivious fashion, proving himself to be just thoroughly rotten and vile (he is basically a model for a certain imprisoned movie mogul and a certain eventually-to-be-imprisoned former never-popularly-elected president).
Quiet sniffles could be heard emanating from a little boy sitting in the orchestra seats while his mother was being awfully importuned on stage. My mother’s colleague, the bass singing Baron Ochs at that performance, heard my distress and went on to feel guilty about it for the rest of his life. It would be a story he too would tell again and again.
My mother, Catherine Gayer around the time I saw her as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier
During the second intermission, my father took me to my mother’s dressing room. My mother saw my wan, sad-eyed expression and said “Danny, are you tired? You don’t have to sit through Act 3. Would you like to take a nap on my dressing room couch?” I shook my head. My father explained my distress at what I had witnessed. “Don’t worry”, my mother promised, “Baron Ochs will get his comeuppance in Act 3.”
And so he does. In Act 3 Baron Ochs is roundly exposed and embarrassed in near farcical Commedia dell’arte fashion, and forced to give up his claim on Sophie. The Marschallin proclaims his defeat and then graciously leaves young Octavian and Sophie to their mutual happy end.
After the performance my father took me back stage to my mother. I lifted my chin and declared: “Act 3 is much better!”
Cut to 50 plus years later, and I am attending Der Rosenkavalier at the Met, musing at the vocal and physical similarities between Erin Morley, who is singing Sophie, and my mother from all those years ago. When Baron Ochs starts mistreating poor Sophie I felt a burgeoning sense memory of my three or four year old self’s broiling outrage.
I was also musing at the incongruity of what is essentially a knock about bedroom farce being set to Strauss’ lush, densely ornate and time-stretching music. Imagine if instead of Gilbert and Sullivan it had been Gilbert and Wagner. Or if Some Like it Hot had been directed by Stanley Kubrick. Or Tarkovsky. Hofmannsthal’s text is very witty and immensely Viennese but perhaps could have used some pruning before Strauss lengthens time even further by gorgeously and patiently setting every single precious line. The performance ran longer and moreover felt longer than even Lohengrin, which I’d enjoyed at the Met a month earlier. That said, the fun of the farce was still to be had – albeit in a leisurely canter rather a gleeful gallop. And the music is masterful and the singers all fantastic (They wisely cast a true Austrian, Günther Groissböck, as Baron Ochs, whose text is the most over-the-top low-brow Viennese slang – and with a name like Groissböck – which either sounds like or actually is Austrian dialect for Big Goat – it seems like fate he would be the bass to sing Ochs and garner the biggest ovations that night).
My happiest takeaway was how wonderfully queer “Der Rosenkavalier” is. Not on its face – as the story concerns itself with a very heteronormative love quadrangle. Older woman with younger man, younger man falls for younger woman who is betrothed to an older man. Might as well also point out the traditional affirming of age-appropriate pairings, with the two older characters relinquishing their younger partners to be happily romantically young and age-congruent together.
What makes Der Rosenkavalier so queer is the roll and casting of Octavian. Octavian is what is called (in German Opera parlance at least), a “Hosenpartie”, literally a “part in pants”, an opera role where a woman plays a boy or young man. The most famous one of these would be Cherubino in Mozart’s “The Magic of Figaro”, but the classical opera repertory is littered with these roles.
My mom as Cherubino
Usually these “Hosenpartien” are callow youths, not romantic leads. Act 1 of “Der Rosenkavalier” however opens with The Marschallin and Octavian in bed together after a night of love making, with plenty more romantic duetting dominating most of the act. Then in Act 2 Octavian falls in love-at-first-sight with Sophie and vice versa and even more romantic duetting ensues. What you see is a young man with a lady and then that same young man with a young woman, but what you hear is sopranos singing amorous melodies and harmonies to and fro and with another. It’s basically Lesbian Heaven.
But there’s more! In Act 1 and then again in Act 3 Octavian disguises himself as a woman (for complicated plot reasons). It’s all very Victor/Victoria. And in both female incarnations Octavian attracts the boorish amorous attentions of none other than Baron Ochs. Ha, ha, Ochs thinks he’s groping a girl, but it’s actually a boy! It’s all a big hoary joke being played on the one male in the love quadrangle whose role is written to be played by an actual male. The sopranos and mezzo-soprano get all the loveliness and romantic satisfaction – the bass gets to bluster and be ridiculed and ultimately defeated (The Marschallin exits the opera alone in the end too, but with just a tinge of melancholy and her dignity intact).
In Tuesday’s performance Samantha Hankey as Octavian did an excellent job physically portraying a sweet but callow youth, as well as a sweet but callow youth’s idea of impersonating a woman, but her voice as Octavian was always a woman’s, just as Strauss wrote it. And so musically when Octavian enjoys post-coital bliss with The Marschallin or Octavian and Sophie fall head over heals with another, it is female vocals in full romantic pair-bonding bloom.
Verily, there is far more and more intense female with female musical lovemaking in “Der Rosenkavalier” than even in “The Hours”, and that (excellent) new opera (also playing the Met) is chock full of lesbians!
And all that makes “Der Rosenkavalier” a delightfully queer classic.
A thoroughly enjoyable post (or, in analogspeak, personal essay)! Maybe one of your best ever,IMHO. Perhaps you can submit it for publication in music or queer periodicals?
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