Richard Strauss’ opera “Die Frau ohne Schatten”:

The plot in 3 levels of difficulty

Gustav Klimt: The Three Ages of a Woman (Le tre età della donna), cropped
(Photo: Sailko, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Berliner Philharmoniker will present the opera Die Frau ohne Schatten, first performed in 1919, at the 2023 Easter Festival in Baden-Baden and then in concert in Berlin. Its plot is considered to be as fairytale-like as it is complicated. But this has not stopped us from summarising it for you in three different levels of difficulty. But don’t worry – we won’t spoil the ending!

Level 1 (beginner)

An Emperor has married a woman from the spirit realm. You can see that the Empress is not human because she casts no shadow. The Empress’ father is Keikobad, the spirit king. One day he prophesies that the Empress must find a shadow within a year – otherwise the Emperor will turn to stone and she will have to return to the spirit realm, alone forever.

The Empress searches for a long time until she finds a human woman who is willing to give up her shadow for great riches. At first, this seems to be the easiest solution for the Empress. But she gets to know the human woman and her husband better and gradually understands that the couple would be unhappy for the rest of their lives if the human woman lost her shadow. The Empress decides not to buy her own happiness with the unhappiness of others. Will this be the right decision?

Level 2 (intermediate)

A red falcon leads an Emperor to a gazelle, which turns into a beautiful woman before his eyes. The Emperor falls madly in love with her and makes her his Empress. The Empress has no shadow, because she is the daughter of the spirit king Keikobad. The absence of a shadow in the opera also stands for the fact that she cannot have children. Finally, a messenger from the spirit realm brings a message from the spirit king Keikobad: the Empress must cast a shadow in the next three days, otherwise the Emperor will turn to stone and she will have to leave the human realm forever.

Together with her devoted nurse, the Empress sets off in search of a shadow. She hopes to find one in another childless couple: Barak, the dyer, and his wife. The Nurse promises the dyer’s wife undreamed-of riches if she gives her shadow to the Empress. But with that, she must also give up any hope of having a child. She accepts, although Barak’s fondest wish is to start a family with her.

The couple now sleep in separate beds and grow more and more apart, although they continue to love each other. They both suffer and no longer know how to make each other happy. The Empress gradually understands the sacrifice the human couple would make for her and withdraws from the agreement. She decides not to accept the Dyer’s Wife’s shadow, even though this means that the Emperor will turn to stone and she will have to go back to the spirit realm.

Stage design of the premiere in Vienna 1919, Empress's chamber
(Photo: Die Frau ohne Schatten by Alfred Roller (Artist) - Theatermuseum Wien, Austria - CC BY-NC-SA. )

Level 3 (advanced)

“Die Frau ohne Schatten” is a psychological study in the form of a fairy tale on many existential themes such as “being human”, love, marriage and fertility. In this realm, the shadow stands for women’s ability to bear children and at the same time is directly linked to “being human”.

So the conclusion could be that a woman who cannot have children is not a complete human being. And yet the women in this opera have a firm grip on their destiny. The Empress, daughter of the spirit king Keikobad, does not let her father dictate her fate. The Dyer’s Wife does not put her husband’s desire for children first and even considers separation. So, the fates of the two women are closely intertwined, and the men, as powerful as they may be as Emperor and King, are rather passive spectators.

Empress and Emperor, Dyer and Dyer’s Wife: these married partners sincerely love each other, but only really find each other in the course of the opera. The Empress gains insights into the life of the Dyer’s Wife, which leads to such a closeness that she renounces her own happiness for the sake of another. And lo and behold: it turns out that an act of sincere selflessness can also lead to being fully “human”. And since we are in a fairy tale, a happy ending that fulfils all wishes is a must. But that doesn’t change the fact that the two women are the driving force along the way.

Mascha Vannier

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