“Da geht er hin”
from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier
with Renée Fleming
THOMASON: Why did God do that? Why didn’t he just make us get older and not realize what was going on? It's not so much getting older. It's that we see the passage of time.
GIDDENS: From WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera, this is Aria Code. I'm Rhiannon Giddens.
DONIGER: She’s then thinking of the deeper changes, and that sets off this soliloquy on the nature of time and aging and change.
GIDDENS: Every episode pulls back the curtain on a single aria so you can see what’s behind the scenes. Today, it's “da geht er hin”… the Marschallin’s monologue from Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss.
FLEMING: In more recent years, I played her more connected to these larger philosophical problems, of the passing of time, of how to be gracious about it.
GIDDENS: There’s a lot of pressure on women to just stop aging -- you know, to hide or even put the brakes on the natural process of getting older. We’re not supposed to have gray hair or wrinkles… or even laugh lines! And it’s depressing to me, because there’s a double standard at play here: women are supposed to be forever young, while men can actually improve with age like a fine wine. I mean, look no further than Hollywood for a thousand examples of how women are tossed aside when the bloom comes off the rose. Or actually, look at opera.
No character in all of opera sings about this more beautifully than the Marschallin, the wonderfully complex woman at the heart of Der Rosenkavalier, by Richard Strauss. She’s a princess, married to the field marshall, but it’s not exactly a happy marriage, so she’s keeping busy with a lover, the Count Octavian. Octavian’s 17 and the Marschallin’s in her early thirties.
Good for her.
So when the opera begins the lovers are in bed together, but they’re interrupted by the Marschallin’s cousin, Baron Ochs. He’s engaged to the very young, very beautiful, and very rich Sophie. And he’s pretty open about the fact that he’s only after her family’s wealth.
Baron Ochs is searching for a Rosenkavalier -- someone to deliver the traditional silver rose to his bride-to-be, Sophie. The Marschallin playfully puts her young lover Octavian up to the task, kicks everyone out of her bedroom, and finally has some time to reflect. This is her Act 1 monologue.
I think everyone has a moment when they start to reckon with the passage of time, and this is the Marschallin’s. She realizes that Octavian will eventually leave her for someone younger, and... she’s right. When he delivers the silver rose to Sophie, they fall head over heels in love. And in the gorgeous trio that ends the opera, the Marschallin lets him go with total grace and dignity.
Today, we’ve got four guests who have done their own reckoning with the passage of time… and with this opera.
GIDDENS: One of the greatest Marschallins, soprano Renée Fleming.
FLEMING: The first time I sang the role, I was in my mid 30s. I did several productions then and then I put it away for some time because I knew I could come back to the Marschallin later, which worked out really well because when I did come back to her, I was different. She was different.
GIDDENS: Next, writer Paul Thomason, who is absolutely in love with Strauss, and especially the Rosenkavalier.
THOMASON: I don't want to say it's holy, but there's something reverent about it. It is such deep soul music.
GIDDENS: Wendy Doniger is here with us, too. She’s a retired professor at the University of Chicago, and she recently wrote a book about her family called The Donigers of Great Neck. She and her mother shared a special love for opera.
DONIGER: So my mother was born in 1911, which was the same year that Rosenkavalier was born. And Rosenkavalier in particular was always her favorite opera. It was kind of a cultural referent for us in the way that I think religion was in other families.
GIDDENS: And finally, Dara Poznar, a life skills coach who recently published an article all about her relationship with a younger man. She was surprised by how many people got in touch with her about it.
POZNAR: There were older women who were in relationships with younger men who were struggling in very similar ways and saying, just thank you so much for writing this. I feel so much less alone in it now.
GIDDENS: She may not be an 18th century princess, but her story is a lot like the Marschallin’s.
So let’s hear it. “Da geht er hin”… the Marschallin’s Act I monologue from Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss.
THOMASON: When Der Rosenkavalier premiered in January, 1911 in Dresden, it was Strauss' biggest success. And yet it dealt with very serious matters. The passage of time. How do we let go when a love is finished? How do we deal with getting older? Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, put all this into a gorgeous comedy set in Never-Neverland, though they called it Vienna in 1740.
FLEMING: Here's this incredibly refined piece about the human condition, relationships, power. You know, it's like all of that with sachertorte and whipped cream. You know, it's just stylistically, it's in another world.
DONIGER: That beautiful world of Viennese culture. When Strauss wrote Rosenkavalier, the forces that were going to produce World War I were already happening. The glorious world of Vienna, which had been the center of culture throughout the 19th century, that was about to fade away. So, much of what Strauss valued in his life was about to disappear.
POZNAR: I was 36 years old, and I was about five months out of a serious relationship. I did a lot of internal work to get comfortable with the idea that I was going to be exiting a relationship it could be a really long time before I meet someone else. And this very much could be closing the door on the possibility of having a family, becoming a mother. I got to that place where it was like, okay, you know what? This is okay. Things didn't work out the way that I thought they would. I created a new dream and I was just beginning it. And then I met Austin. [laughs]
THOMASON: The opera begins quite scandalously, because when the curtain goes up the Marschallin and Octavian are in bed.
FLEMING: The opera begins, really, at the end of their lovemaking early in the morning.The music is representative of early morning sounds, the birds. You, also hear in the overture, signs of the lovemaking.
THOMASON: It is quite obvious what the two of them are doing. Octavian is 17 years old. His instrument in the orchestra is the horn, and it's quite obvious he has his orgasm first, and then has to sort of work, and then her orgasm in the strings follows after that. It's absolutely X-rated music, but apparently none of the censors realized that at the time.
DONIGER: In the beginning you could imagine that they were in perfect harmony, there was no difference between them -- a man and a woman in love. You don't notice that their age is different and indeed that their social status is different.They just seem like the perfect couple and that falls apart fast.
POZNAR: Well, I didn't actually know how old he was, until our first telephone conversation. He had just turned 21, which is a 16-year age gap. And for me that was just way too extreme. But he insisted that we had a special connection. And so that afternoon, we met for a drink. He rode his motorcycle there, and he was looking all cool, put his helmet on the bar and sat down. There were just sparks flying all over the place. I think 20 minutes into the conversation is when he said, “I'd really like to kiss you right now.” And he did. And yeah, it was really magical.
THOMASON: Baron Ochs comes busting into her bedroom and tells her he needs one of their family members to be his bearer of the rose to Sophie. The Marschallin looks at Octavian. Now it would be a scandal if Octavian were found in her bedroom, so he has quickly disguised himself as a chamber maid. So the Marschallin is very adept at these kind of game playings.
DONIGER: The Marschallin is a woman of power. She doesn’t have the direct application of the kind of power that her husband has, but she has the power that a wealthy and titled woman has, she pushes people’s lives around. She’s a good politician as we would say nowadays really. She runs things well, so that everything comes out the way she wants it to come out.
FLEMING: She’s basically kicked Ochs out. He has been so bullish and she basically says, that's it. Goodbye. But at that point, she's already really irritated. And it, it starts her kind of musing on this sense of entitlement that he has. So that's just starts her really thinking about, you know, life.
POZNAR: So months go by, we're living together now and our lives are becoming more and more intertwined. And that's when I started to really question myself and, what I was doing and if I was setting myself up for a bigger disaster than maybe I could handle. We have this 16 year age difference. How can it possibly work? And what happened for me at that point was to start looking for all the signs that it couldn't work before it goes too deep, and I get too hurt. It really did sort of take over at that point that, that fear.
THOMASON: So, everybody has left and the Marschallin is there alone after all this hullabaloo. And she’s in her bedroom, and she is furious at Ochs -- at his absolutely insufferable attitude about marrying this young girl, who’s 15, just out of the convent, and yet he’s trying to make it that he’s the one doing the sacrifice. And she remembers, once upon a time, when she was the girl coming out of the convent and being forced into this rather loveless marriage.
DONIGER: She's then thinking of the deeper changes, which are the things are perhaps falling away with Octavian. And that sets off this soliloquy on the nature of time and aging and change.
THOMASON: She's thinking aloud, very deep thoughts, and it's as if she can't quite put the words together that she's feeling. So it's in short bursts of words and then the orchestra goes on. It's almost like the orchestra is the feeling that she's feeling inside. And then she puts it into words.
The monologue is so fragmented with her stopping and pondering things, and the orchestra is often very transparent, like a single oboe and a couple strings. It's so fragile that we almost can miss it, and yet the emotion is very deep.
FLEMING: Music can do something that's very difficult to do with just spoken word, and that is illuminate one's inner thoughts, ones inner life. And they do that so brilliantly-- Hofmannsthal and Strauss. You can see the trajectory of her thinking, and that kind of paves the way for being able to really have that deep dive into the text.
DONIGER: So many of the operas that we love have really stupid libretti, and you just put up with them for the sake of the music. There are some few operas ---- where the libretto is in its own way as interesting as the music, and Hoffmanstal’s libretto is… is so lovely. It’s about keeping things light when the world is shattering around you. We go on with life -- let’s take a little ride in our carriage around the woods and everything will be alright again. Carrying on with the elegance of art and of life when your world is falling away. So for the Marschallin, the world that she’s losing is her youth and beauty. For Strauss, the world was also decaying on the massive world scale.
THOMASON: One wonderful moment, she says, “and someday I'm going to be the old Resi,” which is a Viennese diminutive of her name, Theresa. “And I'm going to be in the carriage and people are going to be saying,’Oh, look, there's the old, Marschallin. Look at her go.’”
And the orchestra has the horses hooves and the carriage swaying. Bom bom bom bom bom bom. The orchestra is showing us that, that idea of her as the old Marschallin and, and, what she's going to be like then.
POZNAR: I remember experiencing a lot of insecurity about being the older partner in the relationship as a woman. Because I too have, you know, been sort of programmed to think that a younger man just can't be in love with, or stay in love with an older woman, especially the older that she gets. And of course, I would celebrate every birthday he had that came along that we made it through. I was like, at least you're getting older, and keep eating those cheeseburgers and smoke some cigarettes, and I'll drink green juice and go to yoga, and maybe we can, like, balance each other out.
THOMASON: And then she says. It's not so much getting older. It's that we see the passage of time. We're aware that we're getting older. Why did God do that? Why didn't he just make us get older and not realize what was going on?
POZNAR: And I too, felt this sense of betrayal almost, you know, that the universe could do this to me. You know, here I am, now, in my later thirties, finally meeting someone that I could love the way I've always wanted to love and be loved, and he's this much younger than me, like, how can this be fair?
THOMASON: That bothers her, this awareness. But that's the thing that sets the Marschallin apart from everybody else in this opera. She is a conscious person. Nobody else really is. She's aware of a past, a present, a future; how they interact.
FLEMING: I think the first time I played her, I was much more caught up in the drama of the love and the loss, thinking that this was the most horrible thing -- I was closer to him, actually, to how Octavian was experiencing and seeing things. And, in more recent years, with experience, I’m sure I played her differently. I played her less connected to him and more connected to these larger philosophical problems of time, the passing of time.
DONIGER: The wonderful thing that she says about time, it is a “sonderbar ding,” it's an extraordinary thing.
THOMASON: She says, “I see time flowing across the mirror, and sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and stop all the clocks.”
DONIGER: There’s a period in your life when you’re young, and you assume you’re gonna be young forever. And then a moment comes when you realize you’re not. And along the way, in the case of women and the case of Rosenkavalier, you say I’m getting older and perhaps no one will love me anymore because we only love young beautiful women. But the text -- “I get up in the night and stop all the clocks” -- has nothing to do with whether Octavian loves her or not, it’s what’s happening to the cells in her body. And everyone goes through that.
POZNAR: I'd say the most torturous time of the relationship was when I was feeling so happy, and we were so in love, and everything was really just going so beautifully. And then, at the same time, I was just acutely aware of how temporary it is. This is going to end soon. This is going to end soon. All of this joy, all of this bliss, all of this happiness is gonna go away. And yeah, it was just in the middle of the night when I would wake up, sometimes it'd be two or three o'clock in the morning, and I would just look over at him and I would just be saying to myself, “Appreciate this. Really just appreciate it, because it's not gonna last.”
FLEMING: The first time I sang this role at the Metropolitan Opera with supertitles, I cannot tell you the outpouring I received from the audience, in terms of people waiting backstage, in terms of mail. I mean, people were so moved. They'd always probably loved the music and kind of gotten the gist of it, but when you could see the actual words that she's singing in Act I about time and stopping the clocks... people were incredibly moved by that.
THOMASON: At the climax of the monologue, she says it's how we deal with the passage of time that's important. We can't stop it, but how we deal with it, that's the important thing. The orchestra is very, very, very, very soft at that point. And Strauss has two harps go “bling” in an octave, just to point up that's the important word -- how. And a lot of her words are acappella. There's no orchestra behind them at all. Strauss really wants, not only the audience to hear these words very clearly, but he showing us that she's very exposed. She can't hide behind the orchestra. This is the Marschallin raw.
FLEMING: So it's in the how. How gracious are we? How do we treat other people? How much do we fight it? Are we going to continue to dress like we're 16? And that's in the moment when she decides to be gracious, you know, “und halten und lassen,” to hold it and then let it go -- not fighting time, not fighting the trajectory of life.
DONIGER: So you're going to have a face lift, right? Oh, I've got wrinkles. I'll get rid of them. Or you can say, I accept that time and the realities of life are doing this to me, and now, I must think of how I'm going to do things differently. It's the attempt to going on doing them the same that makes people so unhappy -- grabbing to what we used to have.
POZNAR: The real shift for me just happened from a mindset change that went from, it's definitely going end, to a very simple, I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know. And regardless of what happens, this was absolutely worth it.
THOMASON: As soon as she finishes, the orchestra picks up because Octavian comes in, and the whole mood changes, and it's instant.
THOMASON: He's still in a very playful, erotic mood, and he wants to pick up again. He's 17. And she can't. She wants to placate him, but she's in this very deep mood and he recognizes it. She sort of pushes him away, and he can't understand her. He knows something has changed, but he doesn't know what it is. And that sort of it, in a nutshell. I think emotionally they both know, um, we might get together a couple more times but this is kind of the beginning of the end.
DONIGER: And in fact, he rushes off without giving her the farewell kiss. She tries to bring him back and the little servants says “wie der Wind,” he's like the wind. He vanished. He just vanished like the wind. He's going off into a new part of his life. He's become the Rosenkavalier. He's involved in Sophie's life now. He's gone.
FLEMING: I think the very end of Act I is tragic. Because, on some level, I think intuitively she knows that, she's pushed him away. You know, there, there's really no future for them. And also, what she says is true. “You will leave me for someone younger and more beautiful.” And in that next scene, he meets Sophie, and that’s the beginning of the end for their relationship. But I love to imagine that she runs off with the Italian tenor at the end of Act III… he’s waiting in the carriage. I sort of like that idea. Nobody’s done that yet.
FLEMING: So the last time I sang the Marschallin, on stage at the Met a few years ago, I felt a tremendous sense of bliss and joy, because it seemed like the perfect time to say goodbye to this role, because I had already sung it in all the major houses and, and I just really felt like I, yeah, I could go back and do another round. But I just thought, you know what? I've said what I have to say with this character and let's give somebody else a chance.
THOMASON: I think that we can all learn from the Marschallin that we can't hang on to the beautiful moments for longer than they exist. If we do, it changes and it loses something of the beauty. Enjoy the memories, but accept what is new today. I think that's the lesson of Rosenkavalier.
POZNAR: I'm no longer so worried about whether or not we're gonna end up together. And I'm much more in a space of, I love this person, which means I'm willing to let him go and be happy, whatever that looks like, and if, one day it just made more sense for us to part ways and for him to be happy he needed to move on or be with a younger person; I'm at peace with that.
DONIGER: The Marschallin is a wonderfully complex person. She’s like Hamlet or Lady Macbeth… I mean, she’s a whole character there. She thinks so deeply about the nature of time and personal identity and how we change, has a private world of her own, of philosophy and religion and contemplation. She takes the hand she’s dealt, which is the limited hand of a woman -- even a titled woman -- but within those limits, she manages to live a life of beauty and meaning. And I think she finds her happiness in the end.
GIDDENS: That was soprano Renée Fleming, writers Paul Thomason and Wendy Doniger, and life coach Dara Poznar talking about “da geht er hin,” the Marschallin’s monologue from Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. Renée will be back to sing it for you after the break.
GIDDENS: Here’s Renée Fleming singing the Marschallin’s monologue onstage at the Metropolitan Opera.
[Renée Fleming singing “da geht er hin”]
GIDDENS: You know, in my fantasy Richard Strauss has a time machine and he retroactively wrote The Marschallin for Renée Fleming, because it’s just too perfect.
Well, it’s time to wrap up this episode of Aria Code. But before we go, I want to really thank all of you Aria Coders out there -- how do you like that, does that work? Aria Coder? I like it -- who’ve listened to the show, told your friends about it, or rated and reviewed us on Apple Podcasts. For a show about opera hosted by a woman with a banjo, we’ve been receiving a lot of love. But there is always more room in our Aria Cult- - what do you think Aria Cult? I like it -- so as you make your way through the holiday season tell your friends and family about us.
Aria Code is a co-production of WQXR and The Metropolitan Opera. The show is produced and scored by Merrin Lazyan. Emily Lang is our associate producer, Brendan Francis Newnam and Helena DeGroot of Public Address Media are our editors, and Matt Abramovitz is our Executive Producer. Sound design and mixing by Matt Boynton and Ania Grzesik, and original music by Hannis Brown.
Special thanks to the Aspen Institute for their help in recording this episode.
And I just want to let you know that we’ll be taking a short break over the holidays, but we’ll be back in your podcast feed on January 8th with an episode on Porgy and Bess. A little bit of Summertime to warm up your winter. I’m Rhiannon Giddens. See you in the new year!
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