If the title strikes you as odd, let me put it another way: “Was Elsa right, or wrong, to pop the fatal question?” That’s a question that exercised Wagner himself and has exercised generations of prima donnas who have sung Elsa. The first Elsa at the Metropolitan Opera—in their inaugural season, in 1883—was the Swedish soprano Christine Nilsson. She sang the opera in Italian. So did Emma Albani, the Canadian soprano who was Covent Garden’s first Elsa, in 1875.
The first Bayreuth Elsa, in 1894, was the Maine-born soprano Lillian Nordica. Cosima Wagner had engaged her on the recommendation of Hans Richter, who had heard her at Covent Garden. There was some preliminary German grumbling at the engagement of an American for this most Nordic of heroines, but-helped perhaps by her name—Nordica had a great success. (The Lohengrin, incidentally, was Belgian, Ernest van Dyck, and the Ortrud was English, Marie Brema.) At a Wahnfried reception given by Cosima Wagner, the young American prima donna shyly approached the great Lilli Lehmann, in admiration, and said “May I come to see you, Mme. Lehmann?” Lehmann turned and in tones that chilled the room said, “Tm not taking any pupils this season!”
Emma Albani and Lillian Nordica, by all accounts, sang the role with great beauty and lyricism, attentive to the utterance of the words—in the spirit and with the vocal accomplishment that George Bernard Shaw praised when, after hearing Adelina Patti sing Elisabeth’s Prayer in the Albert Hall, in 1894, he wrote that she “attacks the air with the single aim of making it sound as beautiful as possible, and, this being precisely what Wagner’s own musical aim was, she goes straight to the right phrasing, the right vocal touch, and the right turn of every musical figure, thus making her German rivals not only appear in comparison clumsy as singers, but actually obtuse as to Wagner’s meaning.” He went on to observe that if a Wagner phrase is sung as beautifully as possible, “it simply cannot take the wrong expression”; and that if Patti were to choose to undertake Isolde, then, though she might introduce “Home, Sweet Home” into the first act, and “The Last Rose of Summer” into the second, “the public might yet learn a good deal about Isolde from her that they would never learn from the illustrious band of German Wagner heroines who are queens at Bayreuth, but who cannot sing a gruppetto for all that.”
Later that year, Shaw was one of those who heard Nordica’s Elsa at Bayreuth. And in his review he wrote: “The moment she began, the sound of real singing so enchanted the Germans that it set them all singing too; we all shouted for joy.” I want to stay with Shaw a moment longer. His remark that if Wagner is sung as beautifully as possible “it simply cannot take the wrong expression” invites us to stop fretting and let the music speak for itself. But, reviewing that first Bayreuth Lohengrin, with Nordica,
he also wrote:
It must never be forgotten, in judging the Lohengrin drama, that Wagner himself was perplexed about the ending, tried more than one version of it, and finally, after the work was out of his hands for good, saw that the real flaw in the story is that Elsa is perfectly right in refusing to keep the monstrous condition imposed on her by Lohengrin, and that the drama, in representing her as a weak woman who breaks her word and fails in her duty, is perfectly wrong.
The opera Lohengrin has a historical background: King Henry the Fowler’s visit to Antwerp in 932 AD to enlist Brabantine allies in his forthcoming war with Hungary, since the nine-year truce with that country was coming to an end. Wagner took trouble over the historical details of costumes, of settings, of behavior, of which armies would have horses and which wouldn’t. That’s the background; and it’s not an unimportant, merely picturesque and Meyerbeerian historical background, since one subject of the opera is the arrival of a supernatural force into a solidly and realistically portrayed real world. (For that reason, wholly fairytale presentations of the opera, such as the Rhapsody in Blue that Wieland Wagner so memorably presented in Bayreuth, can’t do full justice to the work, though they can be marvelously, memorably revealing of important aspects.)
In the foreground there are two or three linked dramas. One is of human relations, about a woman’s unquestioning faith in her husband, and the undermining of that faith by another woman who has established an unnatural dominance over her husband. Another is the legend of the knight who comes to the rescue of a damsel in distress: Perseus and Andromeda; St. George and the dragon-threatened princess. And the third is the tragedy of the supernatural being and the human being who fall in love—a tragedy sometimes averted, though not in Lohengrin, even if for a while Wagner considered a possible happy ending.
The last theme, of course, is recurrent in Wagner. His first opera, Die Feen (The Fairies)—an influence on Strauss’s Frau ohne Schatten—tellsof the supernatural Ada who agrees to marry the mortal king Arindal… on condition that he never ask about her identity. He does ask ... but after various tribulations love is triumphant, and Arindal leaves with Ada to reign in the fairy world. Similarly, Wagner did consider—but not for long—allowing Elsa and Lohengrin to leave together at the end in the magic boat, sublimated as crown prince and crown princess of Montsalvat. In The Flying Dutchman, the lovers are a supernatural male and a mortal woman, and the close is not a tragedy butif the stage director follows the composer’s directions-an apotheosis with Senta and the redeemed Dutchman ascending together into a radiant sky. Tannhäuser opens with a mortal poet in the arms of an immortal goddess, recalling Ulysses in the cave of Calypso.
Lohengrin might be called the definitive treatment of the theme, but we mustn’t forget, later, the doomed love between the god-fathered heroine Brünnhilde and the human hero Siegfried. (Admittedly, Siegfried is semi-divine by ancestry; his grandfather—he had only one—is a god; his grandmother—again, only one, a mortal woman. But the dramatic point is that he’s a human hero achieving what gods are forbidden to do.) Finally, there’s the encounter of the human Parsifal with the enchantress Kundry and with the supernatural kingdom of the Grail, into which at last he is drawn… to become in time Lohengrin’s father!
Into this nexus of incompatible loves across barriers of birth and caste, we can draw the story of “The Little Mermaid,” of Dvorak’s Rusalka, of Swan Lake, of Stravinsky’s The Fairy’s Kiss. And, by extension, they can be regarded as mythical paradigms of the real-life Prince and the Showgirl stories, Princess and the Swineherd stories; and the stories of the patrician and the prostitute: Verdi’s La Traviata, Massenet’s Sapho, Puccini’s La Rondine. In another way, they can also be linked with the myths about the creative artist (or anyone, for that matter) striving for some unattainable ideal ... But now I’m falling into the danger of generalizing, of lumping too many things together into the same box—a danger that Wagner, with specific reference to Lohengrin, warned against.
Myths can mean many things, we know, and symbols can signify many things, but they do have some limits of applicability. Lohengrin is more than an allegory of Wagner the genius married to Minna Planer, tied to a wife who doesn’t understand him, and from whom he expects unquestioning devotion. (Cosima was still well in the future.) And it’s still more than an allegory of Wagner the artist immensely superior to, and of a different nature from, all those around him, yet yearning in some way to become part of the world of common men. (Though I wouldn’t deny that some elements along those lines played a part in its making.) Lohengrin, however, is more specifically linked to those versions of the basic myth in which happiness, despite differences of origin and nature, can be possible ... provided some condition is fulfilled. Trouble is, it’s nearly always an impossible condition. It’s the story of Die Feen, as I remarked. It’s the story of Cupid and Psyche, of Jupiter and Semele, of Die Schöne Melusine. The Semele story has its second woman, the Ortrud figure, instilling doubt in the heroine’s mind. The motivations are different, of course: Juno is jealous of her husband’s new mistress, young and pretty, and contrives her downfall, whereas Ortrud isn’t hot for Lohengrin but merely jealous of Elsa’s happiness and political success, and ambitious to place her own husband and herself upon the throne of Brabant. But as instigators of action leading to the denouement, they play similarly dynamic roles—[Ortrud being] the jealous mezzo-soprano who, like Princess Eboli or Amneris, precipitates the tragedy.
Here I throw in two little asides. First, Wagner considered Ortrud a dramatic-soprano role—like Fricka, like Venus in Tannhäuser, like Kundry—and it’s only in fairly modern times that it’s become a mezzo near-monopoly. (The greatest Ortrud I’ve heard was Astrid Varnay, a great Brünnhilde and Isolde.) Second, a reminder that most decisions are made for more than one reason. Wagner claimed that Ortrud was all his own invention, and so—if we look at the traditional Lohengrin material in the old poems—she was. But she does have that precedent in the Semele legend; and from a practical and musical point of view she rounds out the traditional cast of five in a romantic grand opera: soprano, mezzo (or, if you like, darker and deeper soprano), tenor, baritone, and bass—as in Tannhäuser, in Weber’s Euryanthe, in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, Don Carlos, and Aida. I’m not suggesting that this is the main reason for the addition of Ortrud to the story. Wagner composed The Flying Dutchman without a second leading woman; and Verdi composed La Traviata and Otello without one. But, once the idea of adding Ortrud had occurred to him, he must have realized on some level that, besides being an enrichment of the myth, she was a most useful theatrical and dramatic element that would contribute to the opera’s success. Wagner broke happily with the conventions when the work demanded it; like Verdi, he was happy to employ them when they also served his higher artistic purpose.
Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin were almost simultaneously conceived, one summer at Marienbad, though their births were separated by many years. In 1845 Wagner, music director at the Dresden Opera, had finished Tannhäuser, and preparations were in hand for its performance. He went to Marienbad for a holiday, and as holiday reading he took along Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic poem Parzival (Wolfram von Eschenbach, you remember, is an actual character in Tannhäuser). In the closing pages of Parzival he found, briefly told, the story of Parzival’ s son Lohengrin. Years earlier, in Paris, he had come across the subject, and, he said, “a whole new world opened out before me, though I could not yet see the form in which to cast this Lohengrin.”His doctor had ordered him to rest while he took the spa cure. Instead, at Marienbad “there suddenly sprang up before my eyes a Lohengrin complete in every detail of dramatic form, in particular the saga of the swan, which forms so significant a feature of a whole complex of myths.” He’d been told to rest. Well, he thought, maybe thinking about a comic opera will help me to keep my mind off Lohengrin; and so he planned Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and sketched out its libretto. No sooner was that done than Lohengrin came back at full strength. He went off to the baths one day, and then, in the words of his autobiography:
The moment I got into my bath at noon, I felt an overwhelming desire to write out Lohengrin; and this longing so overcame me that I couldn’t wait the prescribed hour for the bath, but when only a few minutes had elapsed, jumped out and, barely giving myself time to dress, ran home to write out what I had in mind. I repeated this for several days until the complete sketch of Lohengrin was on paper.
Assertions in Wagner’s autobiography tend nowadays to be taken with a grain of salt unless there is confirmatory evidence. Wagner, like Verdi, was a born dramatist who had an imaginative way of tidying and ordering and heightening his memories, remembering things as they ought to have been rather than as they actually were. They should not be dismissed on that account, however, for in matters of art a creator’s what-we-might-call “poetic truths” may tell us as much about a work as strict historical accuracy can. Wagner’s doctor gave him up as a bad case. Back in Dresden, the composer brought Tannhäuser to performance and then versified his Lohengrin prose sketch, and read it to a group of friends, among them Robert Schumann. Then he began composition. The full score was completed in April of 1848; later that year, in the Dresden theater, Wagner conducted the first-act finale in concert form. In 1849, he was exiled for political activity during the Dresden Revolution, and he settled in Switzerland, where he began to think about and then compose The Ring. Lohengrin was given its first performance in Weimar, under Liszt, in 1850. (It was hardly a grand performance; the orchestra numbered only 34!) Wagner, still banned from Germany, couldn’t attend but, in correspondence with Liszt and with friends who attended the performance and wrote to him about it, he began to formulate some ideas about the opera and, particularly, about Elsa and her fatal curiosity to which, while composing the work, he had given perhaps unconscious expression.
The question of the ending had come up before. Hermann Franck, one of those present at the 1845 reading of the libretto, had that this ending, the abandonment of Elsa, was too cruel; he wanted Lohengrin to die. Wagner countered with another suggestion: “I sought a means by which Elsa could go off with Lohengrin, paying some sort of penance that would mean her withdrawal from the world.” He rejected that idea, but he did try to throw some of the blame on Lohengrin, by returning to a notion sketched in the first prose draft. There it says: “Whoever is dedicated to the service of the Grail must forswear the love of woman: the King alone is permitted to take a wife.” So Wagner added to his poem:
When first I saw you on that river bank,
I felt my heart at once ablaze with love,
Deflected from the chaste service of the Grail;
So now I must for ever make atonement,
Because I turned from God, and longed for you.
In other words, although Lohengrin should indeed have come to Elsa’s defense, having done so he shouldn’t have married her! But then Wagner omitted those lines, and dropped that idea when he came to compose the opera. His written thoughts about Lohengrin found their fullest expression in 1851, after the Weimar premiere, in that long, important document A Communication to My Friends. The Flying Dutchman and Tannhauser, he wrote, had each felt yearning for union with a woman who loves and admires and understands him. (Wagner himself, as I remarked earlier, was still married to the less than satisfactory Minna; she was with him on that Marienbad holiday.) Elsa now crowned a line of earlier heroines. There’s been Senta, “the woman for whom the Flying Dutchman yearned, from out the ocean of his misery,” and then Elisabeth, “the woman who, star-like, showed to Tannhauser the way that led from the hot passions of the Venusberg up to Heaven”; and now there was Elsa, “the woman who drew Lohengrin from sunny heights to the depths of Earth’s warm breast.” And Wagner devotes a page of rhapsody to Elsa:
She is the Unconscious, the Undeliberate,the antithesis of Lohengrin’s conscious, deliberate manhood. The nature of Woman came to ever clearer understanding in my inner mind. I succeeded in so completely transferring myself to this female principle that I came to an entire agreement with its utterance by my loving Elsa. I grew to find her so justified in the final outburst of her jealousy that from this very outburst I learned first to understand the purely human element of love; and I suffered deep and actual grief—often welling over into tears—as I saw the tragic necessity of the parting. This woman who with clear foreknowledge rushes on to her doom, at Love’s imperative behest, this woman who wakes from the thrill of worship into the full reality of Love, and by her destruction reveals its essence to him who had not yet fathomed it, this glorious woman before whom Lohengrin must vanish, because his nature was not able to understand her ... I had found her now: Elsa the woman, previously misunderstood by me, and understood at last ... She made me a Revolutionary at one blow. She was the Spirit of the People, for whose redeeming hand I too, as man and as artist, had been yearning.
I think that answers our question, sort of; but perhaps a little more should be added. When I put these notions to a friend, she said, “All very well, but Elsa must have been something of a silly goose in the first place to agree to the monstrous condition Lohengrin imposes.” Well, I replied, certain things in opera happen because they happen, because without them there’d be no opera. If Elsa had answered, “You must be joking, I could never agree to that,” the opera would end at Act I. More seriously: she is hardly behaving in a rational way at this point. Dreamy at the best of times, she’s now seen her most important dream come true: the savior knight in shining armor, imagined in a vision, has materialized before her; in a daze, she’s ready to agree to just about anything. One might even say that in such circumstances Lohengrin takes unfair advantage of her; and that in Act II Ortrud helps to bring her to her senses.
I mentioned some famous Elsas of the past. Another most relevant is Olive Fremstad, a great Isolde and Brünnhilde (also a famous Fricka, Brangäne, and Venus), who first sang Elsa at the Met in 1909 and made her Met farewell in that role in 1915. She sang the role 27 times, but, in the words of her amanuensis, companion, and adorer Mary Watkins Cushing (whose The Rainbow Bridge is a classic of prima-donna life intimately observed), she was “rather out of sympathy with the weak and insipid character of the Duchess of Brabant.” And so:
She battled tirelessly against the popular conception of the part that was so foreign to her own nature, and through an alchemy of mind and imagination actually succeeded in transmuting the weakness into a kind of strength. She created thereby an entirely new Elsa, poetically symbolic and enormously fascinating, especially to the women in the audience. Conscience-stricken housewives saw their own misdeeds reflected in the tragic implications of Elsa’s curiosity, and doubtless made secret vows never again to look through their husbands’ pockets or ask whiningly why their men had stayed so late at the office. Fremstad’s Elsa received something at her hands which Wagner himself neglected to give this most colorless of his heroines. She became imbued with a kind of fiery tenderness and dignity which ennobled and made poignant the sufferings she seemed to have brought upon herself.
There we have, mingled, a fiery artist’s instinctively Wagnerian, transcendent approach to the role, together with an assessment of that approach made by one who evidently subscribed to the silly-goose view widely held at the time.
Finally: Wagner’s own insistence, not only in regard to Lohengrin, that the only way to judge a work of music-drama is to experience it in the theater. Its meaning—its manifold meanings—cannot be discovered in the abstract. Composer and poet—in his case composer-poet—do their best. The consequent work of the conductor, the stage director, the scenic designer, the orchestra is very important. But in the last resort everything depends on the singers on what, by their singing and their acting, they convey to an audience’s understanding. On that note, I leave it to the performers to answer the difficult questions about Elsa.
Andrew Porter was the music critic for The New Yorker from 1972 to 1992. He has translated 37 operas for English performance, including the Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan and Isolde, and Parsifal; eight of Verdi's operas; and nine of Mozart's. His discovery of excised portions of Verdi's Don Carlos in the library of the Paris Opera led to the restoration of the original version of the work. This article appeared in a previous issue of San Francisco Opera Magazine.