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  • Arabella, Operetta, and the Triumph of Gemütlichkeit
  • Micaela Baranello (bio)

On July 26, 1928, Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote to Richard Strauss regarding their work-in-progress, Arabella:

As I try to think and feel with the public, with our contemporaries—for whom we are, after all, creating these things—I have a very good inkling . . . of what they would long for, of what would pluck from their joy-craving minds a storm of delight, far beyond the joy brought to them by Rosenkavalier. Not that I mean to say you should write like Lehár! You answered that once and for all years ago when you said to your wife in a Berlin restaurant, “I cannot write like him, for in a few bars of mine there is more music than in a whole Lehár operetta. . . .” Operetta might be made to yield up to this type of work its magic ring which conquers so completely the souls of an audience!1

It has long been recognized that in Arabella Hofmannsthal and Strauss were trying to recapture some of that old Rosenkavalier magic, both to replicate the earlier work’s popularity and to revisit Hofmannsthal’s beloved myth of imperial Vienna. To that end, the librettist proposed to the composer that the opera would require simple music, music that would put voices and (his) words first—hardly the first time Hofmannsthal had made this plea to Strauss. Yet I would like to focus on another part of the appeal, one that has been comparatively ignored: the seeming non sequitur invocation of operetta composer Franz Lehár. When Hofmannsthal reached for a mode of theater that would give its audiences pleasure and achieve widespread popularity, he thought of operetta. He was aware of Strauss’s hostility to this idea and yet was unmistakably jealous of the rival composer’s “magic ring,” which captures an audience’s “souls” in a way that Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s recent collaborations (namely, Die Frau ohne Schatten and Die ägyptische Helena) had failed to do.

Nor was Hofmannsthal’s reference incidental. The resulting work reveals a pervasive influence of operetta: in its setting, its dramaturgical structure, and its characterization. To an audience conversant in the operetta repertoire and conventions, Arabella is something very familiar. Yet while operetta had much to offer Hofmannsthal, Strauss wanted nothing to do with it. Perhaps Strauss saw in the wealthy and established Lehár—purveyor of kitsch—something too reminiscent of [End Page 199] the reception of his own recent career. Nonetheless, Strauss’s effusive score bears, for all his hostility, some similarities to the late works of Lehár.

Strauss’s disdain is also widespread among scholars: operetta’s low cultural prestige has hampered its recognition as a stylistic signifier. A comparison to sentimental, middlebrow operetta is most often wielded as a negative value judgment and effectively an embargo against further investigation. As Marc Brooks recently wrote, “the scholarly consensus about Arabella is that it is a well-crafted and enjoyable rehash of Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and that little more needs to be said about it.”2 A note of a resemblance to operetta, then, amounts to a proclamation that there is nothing more to know; indeed, Arabella has similarly been characterized as superficial and thus unworthy of consideration. The opera has been deemed saccharine, manipulative, and contrived: in short, a “sentimental period piece.”3 As critic John Allison wrote in Opera, “Richard Strauss’s most romantic opera is far from his best-loved. You don’t need to read far to find Arabella receiving bad press.”4 Seemingly a traditional, sentimental Viennese romantic comedy, the opera is considered to be beneath Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s level; in the words of Olin Downes following the American premiere, it is a “fishy tale of von Hofmannsthal’s [sic] singular contriving . . . filled out [by Strauss] with platitudes and conventions.”5 Even according to self-proclaimed Straussian William Mann, it is “novelettish and pretty-pretty.”6 Straussians have often laid blame on Hofmannsthal locating the opera’s kitsch in a disparity of registers between Strauss’s virtuosic if anachronistic compositional technique and the libretto’s low romantic comedy.

Champions of Arabella have...


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