NY Times classical editor attacks Rosenkavalier op-ed

NY Times classical editor attacks Rosenkavalier op-ed


norman lebrecht

October 31, 2017

Zachary Woolfe, who appears to take his opinions from a colourful blogger, has issued the following tweet about yesterday’s op-ed on Rosenkavalier which was clearly not run past the arts section before publication.


New Yorker’s Alex Ross seems to agree:


Any other opinions, or is this the party line?


  • John Borstlap says:

    But Nussbaum has certainly something meaningful to say about aging women in general and in Rosenkavalier in particular, since the R is a period piece of prewar European elites and thus a product of a certain time and place and class. Why would it not be allowed to criticize opera plots? Most of them have flaws of one kind or another.

    People like Woolfe and Ross would do better by relating Nussbaum’s comments to postwar music theatre plots which form a plethora of nonsense, morbidity, nihilism and catastrophic misjudgements – musically, narratively, civilizationally, mentally, medically, etc.

    • MWnyc says:

      What irks me – and surprises me, honestly – is Nussbaum’s apparent assumption that audiences today would think anything Rosenkavalier says or implies about female sexuality is connected with actual reality.

      (And Nussbaum must have assumed that, because why would one bother to construct an argument against something that nobody actually thinks?)

      • Jambavan says:

        It is a variation on paraliptic argument, a tack with which Nussbaum should have some familiarity, as I recall her teaching a class on Cicero on my undergraduate course catalog.

        I am irked by the same issue, but I don’t think a relationship to reality is expected of philosophasters.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Opera is supposed to say something about the human condition, not as reality but as stylized and imagined reality, referring to the real world outside the theatre. What Rosenkavalier does, among other things, is proposing some ideas about aging and women. People in the audience can agree, or disagree, or ignore it altogether, or get wound-up about it, so what? At least they are stimulated to think about it, as Nussbaum apparently has done.

        When Monteverdi wrote Poppea, he certainly wanted to musically underline the shocking immorality of the proceedings on the stage, not to advocate them but to show them for what they are, and he used all the musical means at his disposal to do that. The final duet in Poppea is shocking because it is so beautiful, as if beauty, love on one side and justice and morality on the other, have nothing to do with each other. It thus presents an important question about life experience. The entire opera repertoire is full of such things, so I don’t see why Mrs Nussbaum should not take one idea from Rosenkavalier and say something meaningful about it.

  • Jon H says:

    Female opera singers tend to find Strauss’s characters very three-dimensional. He was better than most.
    As for the scene in the beginning with the teenage boy in the bed, in most productions I’m lucky if I can believe it’s not another woman…

    • Bruce says:

      The first time I ever saw/heard the opera (the wonderful 1982 Met telecast with Kanawa/ Troyanos/ Blegen/ Moll), I knew nothing whatsoever about the plot. The curtain came up on two women in a bed, and the first line is “You were wonderful last night!” I was like OMG IT’S A LESBIAN OPERA!!!! :O Then after a few minutes I realized one of them was a trouser role 🙂

      • John Borstlap says:

        That’s why opera is full of surprises. It should attract more ignorant people by covering-up plots in advance.

  • Dan P. says:

    Criticizing art of any kind for not being something other than what it actually is or for making assumptions about society that may no longer hold, seems to me a pretty pointless exercise. But it’s hardly a new pursuit. After all, Beethoven disapproved of Cosi fan tutte pretty strongly on moral grounds – he seems to have missed the underlying point under the false mustaches.

    Still, If we limited drama to only stories that assumed the best about humanity we would be left with nothing – and we could never tell stories of the past without a disapproving moral at the end showing how superior we have become in that regard. And if history has taught us one thing – it’s that one generation’s moral superior behavior becomes the embarrassment of the next.

    • Sue says:

      And aren’t we just live in the age of the Puritans of the Left!! Big time. (However, in this age it’s all about power and social control.)

      • Herr Doktor says:

        Sue, I am so impressed at how you consistently manage to politicize everything. I can only imagine how unpleasant it must be to live inside your head. It’s 24/7 with you.

        You’ll make everyone happier, even yourself, if you simply leave your baggage at the door.

  • herrera says:

    Critiquing operas for their politically incorrect ideas is like shooting fish in a barrel, that is why Nussbaum’s piece is so off base.

    In other words, of course Rosenkavalier told 3 lies about women. But it also told 3 lies about teenage boys, 3 lies about the aristocracy, 3 lies about the Viennese, etc., etc.

    At the risk of stating the obvious, opera as an art form is meant to be overblown, over the top and over exaggerated… people don’t go around singing high C’s supported by a 100 member orchestra.

    • herrera says:

      Imagine you’re a high school teacher and you a paper from one of your students: “Rosenkavalier Does Not Reflect the Real Lives of Teenage Boys” and goes on for 5 pages to argue that most teenage boys don’t have affairs with married aristocratic women, etc.

      Would you give him an A and suggest that he submit it to the NYT for publication?

      If you are Martha Nussbaum, you would.

    • Sue says:

      Er, was that ‘politicizing’ the issue at all?

  • MacroV says:

    When I read Nussbaum, my reaction was essentially that she’s probably correct about the relationship between the Marschallin and Octavian, but who cares? Opera plots are usually ridiculous; it’s the music.

  • SC says:

    That the New York Times should publish a serious (if wrong-headed) article with a thoughtful (if muddled) argument about the Rosenkavalier should be cause for rejoicing. The culture I care about is maybe not dead yet, despite many claims to the contrary.

    • Mike Schachter says:

      Well said, people are still-just-allowed to have different views on works of art including opera. In fact there are lots of operas which are not ridiculous at all, nor even particularly implausible; Poppea, Traviata, Jenufa come to mind. Like Rosenkavalier having women as focal characters.

  • Jonathan Sutherland says:

    Apart from the factual mistakes in Madame Nussbaum’s flawed psychological analysis of Der Rosenkavalier (eg. Sophie is betrothed to Baron Ochs, not Octavian), there is absolutely nothing in the libretto to suggest that the Marschallin is resolved to a life of celibacy after Octavian.
    On the contrary, she lets slip in Act One that Octavian was by no means the first of her affairs (‘Nein, bitt’ schön, sei Er nicht, wie alle Männer sind!) nor will he be the last.
    The Fürstin von Werdenberg has a perfectly healthy extra-marital sex life which is as rich and prolific as Sachertorte.
    I suspect the only person with sexual frustrations in this dubious ‘psychological expose’ is Madame Nussbaum herself.

    • herrera says:

      Bravo, I’m not the only one to sense, while reading her piece, that she was simply using the Marschallin and Cleopatra to work out her own personal aging and sexual issues. Most people confide to their therapists or BFFs, but Martha Nussbaum being Martha Nussbaum wants to do it publicly, and the NYT provided her with a forum.

      Nussbaum wished she were an operatic and Shakespearean character.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Just wondering what she would do with the sachertorte.

      • David Nice says:

        I don’t care for ad hominem/feminam attacks but yes, there is an essential misconception that the Marschallin in her monologue is singing about giving up sex. Absolute nonsense. She;s not just expressing the views of women, but of Hofmannsthal himself and of people in general on the passing of time – that’s why it strikes such a universal chord. Also the idea that Octavian is ‘stupid’. He’s an educated aristocrat, with the impulsiveness we would expect from a 17-year–old-boy.

        Quite apart from anything else, the article has the fault shared by most articles on Wagner, too – it’s all about the libretto, doesn’t give a damn for how the music interacts with it.

  • Helene Kamioner says:

    May I suggest you all immerse yourselves in the sex lives of the women in the reruns of the TV show “The Golden Girls.”

  • Duncan McLennan says:

    Opera is absurd and makes no sense. It is not meant to. That’s why we love it. Anyone who takes it sufficiently seriously to subject it to psychological or sociological analysis is similarly absurd and senseless. The only comment above that gets to the point of this ridiculous exercise is that of Herrera. Rosenkavalier has as much relevance to women in Vienna as Mikado has to men in Japan.

    • David Nice says:

      A sweeping statement that makes as little sense as the article in question. There is plenty of perceptive psychology in Hofmannsthal’s libretto (which is all that the polemic deals with), Otherwise, why should the Marschallin touch the souls not just of women but also men? Her perceptions on the passing of time are universal.

  • Waldemar Richter says:

    Whoever wish to champion the cause of “older women”, please note that the Marchalin is in her late 30 ties.
    The libretto was entirely imagined by von Hofmannstahl and the text is exquisite, funny and intelligent. Baron Ochs singing with a real Austrian/Viennese idiom is a delight for the one who can enjoy it.
    The real problem of the Kavalier is that the Marchallin is a still young attractive woman.With the possible exception of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Anneliese Rothenberger, Gwyneth Jones or Nina Stemme, we were treated recently to a cohort of sopranos well over their two-scores-and-ten on which the unfortunate ravages of the time have left their mark; a situation as implausible as overweight Carmens or Santuzzas.
    The Met own problem is with Miss Fleming who is valiantly sticking to the role as the premiere American Marchallin if not Straussian (The clocks are ticking MamI). Her Kavalier, like Ariadne or lieder have a strong Broadway flavor which by itself is more than adequate for Oskar and Hammerstein.
    So, make room to young, talented sopranos, abundant today in America and try to cultivate yourselves getting to know this unparalleled time in Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth with its explosion of wit and talent, waltzing sadly with the premonition of the catastrophes to come.

    • David Nice says:

      32 in 1740, which would be 50something now. Fleming has retired the role, and she always looked youthful enough to me (though I thought that she sometimes over-sentimentalised and weighed down the role). Schwanewilms has always been a real beauty in the role. Kate Royal is returning to it at Glyndebourne next season, and recently we had the young Rachel Willis-Sorensen, fascinating characterisation at the Royal Opera.

  • musicologyman says:

    There may be many things to fault Strauss and Hofmannstahl for in Der Rosenkavalier, but Martha Nussbaum’s take is an exercise in missing the point. Indeed, directing her arguments towards Strauss’s opera only works if one begins by dehistoricizing the work in the first place–specifically, removing it from the context of ruminations on aging and loss one encounters from the characters of King Marke in Tristan and Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger. For Nussbaum, the Marschallin is dehistoricized woman rather than historicized human, facing many of the same situations as her male, Wagnerian forbears on the opera stage.

    This is not to suggest that Nussbaum isn’t right to point out a historical disparity in how modern Western societies have depicted the relationship of sexuality to aging in men and women. It’s just not what’s going on in Rosenkavalier. If anything, in fact, Rosenkavalier is going in the opposite direction: the Marschallin’s resigned acceptance of the limits that age progressively imposes contrasts with the attitudes of the washed-up lothario Baron Ochs, whose own attitudes towards sexuality reveal him to be trapped in an unacceptably prolonged adolescence.

    To be sure, a dehistoricized approach to Rosenkavalier undoubtedly characterizes much present-day reception; indeed, this the case for much contemporary reception, both popular and scholarly, of the European art-music of the Long Nineteenth Century. Yet it’s precisely that dehistoricization that’s condemning opera, not to mention other genres, to irrelevance and ultimate oblivion.

  • David Boxwell says:

    If DER RPSENKAVALIER prompts this sort of critique, Nussbaum’s head will explode if she goes on and starts thinking about the female characters in SALOME, ELEKTRA, INTERMEZZO, DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN, or DIE SCHWEIGSAME FRAU.