Historical Performances: The Woman Without an Equal: Leonie Rysanek in “Frau ohne Schatten”: San Francisco Opera, September 24, 1960

Note from William: This post continues my series of observances of historic performances that I attended at San Francisco Opera during the general directorship of Kurt Herbert Adler. This is the first of five such observances of performances from the company’s 1960 Fall season.

My musical tastes as a teenager in San Diego encompassed most of what the other kids liked – I still have five of the cube-shaped record boxes filled with humdreds of 45 hit rock and roll singles. But I also liked opera, and was probably the only kid around that had bought the five-LP complete recording of Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten” (catalogue A4505), starring Leonie Rysanek as the Empress and Paul Schoeffler as Barak.

A few years later, in Fall 1960, a year before entering college, I bought a ticket to attend my very first performance at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House – in a time when an orchestra seat for the San Francisco Opera was only a fraction of the price of a five LP complete opera recording – to see Rysanek and Schoeffler in “Frau ohne Schatten”. Thus, with a familiarity with the opera’s music that I suspect was unmatched by most Californians at the time, I nestled into the plush War Memorial seats to revel into the high tessitura of the 33-year old Rysanek’s Empress.

This was the third role that I had seen Rysanek perform. She was a 29-year old Sieglinde in Wagner’s “Die Walkuere”, in an all star performance with Birgit Nilsson (like Rysanek, in her American debut season in San Francisco and Los Angeles), Nell Rankin, Ludwig Suthaus and Hans Hotter (see Die Walkuere – November 4, 1956.)  In 1957 (when she was age 30) she was my first Ariadne in Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” with Richard Lewis as Bacchus (see Young Rysanek Promotes Strauss at L. A.’s Shrine – “Ariadne auf Naxos” – November 1, 1957.)

Although Rysanek was an international star of the first rank, every one of her performances that I attended were San Francisco Opera productions, in Los Angeles or San Francisco. Because she did not appear in San Francisco from the 1961 through the 1972 seasons, I consider her San Francisco Opera performances from her 1956 American debut season through 1960 as the time of the “Young Rysanek” and the performances from 1973 on as the time of the “Mature Rysanek”. The 50th anniversaries of her 1973 Elizabeth in Wagner’s “Tannhauser” and her Chrysothemis in Richard Strauss’ “Elektra”, the next season she appeared in San Francisco, will not take place until 2023.

The “Young Rysanek” phase included a total of 20 performances (spread between 10 different roles) in San Francisco, nine performances in Los Angeles, each a single performance of a role, and one performance each in Berkeley and San Diego. (She sang the role of Amelia in Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera” on a single occasion, in German with the remainder of the cast singing in Italian, when she rescued a performance by substituting when the originally scheduled artist was unexpectedly hospitalized.)

Ponnelle Masters His Craft

The “Frau ohne Schatten”  production was by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, who first impressed San Francisco audiences as the set and costume designer for a production of Orff’s “Carmina Burana” appropriate to an opera stage – a production I was to see in 1964 and 1971 (see: 50 Years Ago: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s American Debut at San Francisco Opera.)

Ponnelle’s sets and costumes were considered lavish when they first appeared for the opera’s American premiere in 1959 (intended for Rysanek who had to cancel her 1959 appearances because she became ill, and scheduled again for 1960 when Rysanek returned to San Francisco to appear in the production that had been created for her).

Yet, as impressed as San Franciscans were with the sets and costume designs of the 26 and 27 year old Ponnelle (and of the 37 year old Ponnelle’s amusing production of Rossini’s “Cenerentola” in 1969, elegant productions of Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” and Verdi’s “Otello” in 1970 and one of Puccini’s “Tosca” in 1972 with a controversial “point of view”, it was when the 41 year Ponnelle returned to San Francisco in 1973 as a concept designer-director for Verdi’s “Rigoletto” that the historic and revolutionary series of Ponnelle productions for San Francisco Opera moved into an entirely new phase.

[Below: Barak the Dyer’s home and workplace, as designed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle; edited image, based on a Bill Cogan photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Persons who regularly read my interviews with various opera professionals, may recall my interview with Christopher Hahn, now General Director of the Pittsburgh Opera, but who in the 1980s was one of the San Francisco Opera administrators who provided support to the artists.

His recounting of Leonie Rysanek’s work ethic and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s extraordinary creative energy is worth re-reading. (See Christopher Hahn, New Pittsburgh Opera Chief, Reflects on Career in Opera Administration, which includes historic photographs of Ponnelle and Rysanek, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.)

Another notable cast member was Irene Dalis, who sang the part of the Empress’ Nurse (the Amne). Later in the 1960 season she sang the role of Ortrud in Wagner’s “Lohengrin”. I will include more about Dalis in my 50 year anniversary observation of  the 1960 “Lohengrin” later this Fall. But I believe it is worth noting that Dalis, who was born in San Jose in the Southern part of the San Francisco Bay Area, is one of the many American singers whose careers General Director Kurt Herbert Adler promoted.

The comments of an American opera superstar of a past generation that Adler did not do enough for American artists never made much sense to me.

[Below: the Empress’ Nurse (Irene Dalis) visits the Dyer’s Wife (Marianne Schech) at Barak’s place; edited image, based on a Bill Cogan photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

On the other hand, Adler, who left his native Austria for the United States in the 1930s, took over the leadership of the San Francisco Opera only eight years after the end of World War II.

This was a time when the operatic infrastructure in Germany, Austria, Italy and France was slowly being rebuilt after the devastating impact of the War on these four great world centers of opera. The physical damage was surely matched by the emotional impact on artists for whom the international careers we now take for granted for world class talents, were simply impossible.

But the established artists of Germany, Austria, Italy and Vichy France during the war were more often than not expected to tow a political line to get the opportunity to perform at all. After the Allied victory, the artists associated with defeated regimes faced a not always totally forgiving world in the postwar era.

Sir Rudolph Bing, general director of the New York Metropolitan Opera, would spend considerable time on establishing what “party membership” might have entailed, whereas Adler, the Austrian immigrant who would not stay in a Vienna that joined the Anschluss, tended to focus more on how well the artist sang, say, the Marschallin or Fiordiligi.

It was simply a fact that almost any artist that remained in Germany or Austria during the War had to be a party member to perform. Schoeffler, during the war, performed regularly for the Vienna Staatsoper and Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals.

Marianne Schech (who sang the Dyer’s Wife in the American premiere performances of 1959 and those of the 1960 season) sang for the Duesseldorf Opera for most of the war and the Dresden Opera for the remainder.

There is some evidence that several of Adler’s casting decisions had a strategic purpose beyond having the world’s greatest voices singing in the operas he mounted in San Francisco. Adler was in touch with a generation of European conductors who were helping normalize the opera world after the war’s destruction. He and his predecessor Gaetano Merola had been active in promoting reconciliation with artists who had spent years behind enemy lines.

Obviously, casting such artists provided American audiences with the authentic German-trained heldentenor and heldenbariton sound.  Having the opportunity to hear great German artists singing on American soil – Ludwig Suthaus was my first Siegmund and Hans Hotter my first Wotan in Wagner’s Walkuere – even if in the latter parts of their careers – was a wonderful experience for a young opera goer.

I suspect that many of the artists themselves must have been deeply affected by the reality of their performing in a part of the world that had been closed to them throughout the war.

Adler obviously noted that the fact that Suthaus and Hotter starred in major new complete opera recordings of German operas early in the LP era. Another such artist was Paul Schoeffler, the Barak of the Decca/London recording with Rysanek.

In the live performance in San Francisco he brought a robust delivery and yet intensely sympathetic quality to the Dyer’s role. I was fortunate to have heard him again twice in the next season, in the role of Don Pizarro in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and, most impressive of all, as Hans Sachs in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger”.

[Below: Bass-baritone Paul Schoeffler, the Barak in the 1960 San Francisco Opera production of “Die Frau ohne Schatten”; resized image of historic photograph.]

Where Rysanek Rocked

The younger artists like Rysanek at least had a few years of peacetime that could be invested in their vocal training, even if some of the greatest opera companies were shuttered for several years at war’s end.

And some, like Rysanek, had the fortune to come to the attention of the major recording studios when the technology of the LP made recording operas much more feasible than in the days of operas spread over albums of 78s of three minutes duration each.

Technological feasibility is not enough to assure that studio opera recordings will be made with star quality casts and conductors.  At that very time, however, the profits gushing from rock music made such companies as RCA Victor and Decca (London Records) cash rich and interested in the prestige they felt came from recording classical music.

My purchases of rock and roll 45s helped subsidize Rysanek triumphs in such complete recordings as Verdi’s “Macbeth” and Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” for RCA and Strauss’ “Frau ohne Schatten” for Decca.

[Below: the young Leonie Rysanek listens to a playback of her performance as Lady Macbeth in a complete recording of Verdi’s “Macbeth” for RCA Victor records; resized image, based on a photograph from richardmohr.com.]

Rysanek was without equal in that postwar generation in the role of the Empress. She had the requisite power in her upper range that permitted the sound of her voice to soar above the large orchestra and Strauss’ thick orchestration.

Her voice also had the flexibility to produce the glistening arpeggios and other vocal ornamentation that make the role so magical. She brought conviction to the part as well. She genuinely loved the role and clearly Adler loved her in it, authorizing a second new production for Rysanek in 1976 – one of the most expensive endeavors in the history of the San Francisco Opera.

Strauss expert Karl Boehm conducted, and the production was revived again in 1980 with Rysanek and Birgit Nilsson as the Dyer’s Wife.

The lush, Romantically melodic, post-Wagnerian music of “Frau ohne Schatten” has always appealed to me. I confess, however, that in the early days I often wondered what Hofmannstahl’s libretto for the opera was about. Yes, I had read the accounts of his fascination with symbolic images, and of other people’s Jungian take on the storyline. Yet, at the end I would still find myself wondering what the opera is really about?

It was my wife who settled the issue for me. She said I should just consider that some stories are simply fairy tales, and that I should not try to analyze them. That worked for me, and actually helped me deal with Puccini’s “Turandot” and Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” as well.

So I find myself at peace when I enter the surreal land of Keikobad and the Emperor who might turn to stone and the Falcon’s Voice and the fishes in the frying pan and the Dyer’s Wife bartering her shadow. And having Rysanek, Schoeffler and Dalis there to guide me through that world was a wonderful introduction to the acoustics of the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, for which “Frau ohne Schatten” seems a perfect fit.

For a previous discussion of a performance during San Francisco Opera’s 1960 season, see: 50th Birthday Celebrations: Dorothy Kirsten Rides High in “Girl of the Golden West” – San Francisco Opera, October 1, 1960.