The Shadow of the Empress
Fairy-Tale Opera and the End of the Habsburg Monarchy
Larry Wolff



“Something Big”

On January 26, 1911, the Semper Opera House in Dresden presented the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier, with music by the Bavarian composer Richard Strauss set to a libretto by the Viennese poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The opera was an instant hit—necessitating special trains to Dresden for another fifty performances that year, even as the opera was also being staged in Munich, Vienna, and Berlin. Hofmannsthal had been a celebrated lyric poet in the 1890s, already as a high school student at the age of seventeen, and had then given up poetry for drama in his twenties; he now found new celebrity with a broad musical public by collaborating with Strauss. For Strauss, ten years older, initially famous as a composer of orchestral tone poems (like Don Juan, Don Quixote, Death and Transfiguration, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra), opera offered a whole new musical vocation, and he found in Hofmannsthal a literary and dramatic sensibility that would bring out his own best musical work.

On February 26, 1911, exactly one month after the Rosenkavalier premiere, Hofmannsthal made some brief notes on an idea for a new project: “Die Frau ohne Schatten [The Woman without a Shadow], a fantastic drama. The Empress, a fairy daughter, is childless.”1 This project would preoccupy both Hofmannsthal and Strauss for the rest of the decade, conceived and begun before World War I, completed during the catastrophic war itself, but not actually performed till the war was over in 1919. The opera would tell the story of a mythological emperor married to a magical empress who could not bear children because she cast no shadow. Like Prince Tamino in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)—which Hofmannsthal took as a point of reference from the beginning—the Empress would have to undergo trials in order to discover her own humanity and thus to win her shadow.2

On October 21, 1911, Archduke Karl, grandnephew of the reigning Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph, married Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma at Schwarzau Castle, fifty miles south of Vienna; Karl and Zita were to become, five years later, the last Habsburg emperor and empress. Zita, born in 1892, was a direct descendent of the Bourbon French King Louis XIV; her father was the deposed duke of Parma and her mother was the daughter of the deposed king of Portugal. She thus belonged to the very small and select set of families that were permitted to marry into the Habsburg dynasty. Growing up as part of a family of displaced royalty (a club that she would eventually join in her own right after the abolition of the Habsburg monarchy), she was married at nineteen in ivory satin and a diamond tiara, her wedding gift from Franz Joseph. The eighty-one-year-old emperor arrived at the wedding in an automobile which made a very modern impression.

The wedding band played a Viennese-style “Zita Waltz,” specially composed by the military bandleader Hermann Dostal: a sweeping waltz melody in G major gave way to a second waltz melody in F, followed by a spirited and syncopated interlude in B-flat.3 It was very much an occasional composition, one thoroughly in the nineteenth-century waltzing spirit of Johann Strauss II. The waltz both welcomed the Bourbon princess to the Viennese imperial family and also assimilated her foreign grandeur into a Viennese popular style. Five years later, on the occasion of Zita’s accession as empress in 1916, the Viennese prodigy Erich Korngold would compose the “Empress Zita Hymn,” imbued with the spirit of wartime patriotism.

In 1911 the Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph in Vienna, the Hohenzollern Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany in Berlin, the Romanov Tsar Nicholas II in St. Petersburg, and the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V in Constantinople all reigned imperially, and no one imagined that their dynasties and empires would all be swept away during and after World War I. Europe in 1911 was a continent of imperial palaces and courts, imperial rituals and occasions, imperial alliances and rivalries, from Schönbrunn to Topkapi to the Winter Palace. With the death of Edward VII in 1910, George V became king of England, and in 1911 he traveled with Queen Mary to New Delhi where they were acclaimed at the Delhi Durbar as Emperor and Empress of India. A new imperial crown was created for the occasion with more than six thousand diamonds topped with a 32-carat emerald, an expression of confidence in the survival of the Indian empire, which itself then lasted only another generation, until Indian independence in 1947.

Figure 1. The “Zita-Walzer” or “Zita Waltz” was composed in honor of Zita’s wedding to Karl in 1911 by military bandleader Hermann Dostal. Written in the spirit of Johann Strauss II, the “Zita Waltz” welcomed the Bourbon princess into the Viennese imperial family by making use of a popular Viennese musical form. (Reproduced with the kind permission of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

Dating back to the ancient Roman Empire, and followed by the Holy Roman Empire of the Middle Ages, an emperor was understood to hold the highest of sovereign rankings, making him politically the overlord even of kings. An emperor might rule over a diversity of lands and peoples rather than a single nation, and the Habsburg Empire attempted to sustain this model of imperial transnational government into the early twentieth century. In 1911 the only signal that dynastic empires were nearing the conclusion of their historical epoch came from China, where the last emperor of the Qing dynasty, five-year-old Puyi, faced the outbreak of the Xinhai Chinese Revolution, which led to the establishment of a republic. Krishan Kumar has noted the seeming viability of empires, even in the early twentieth century, in adapting to the circumstances of modern politics and society.4

At the time of his wedding in 1911, Archduke Karl was not the direct heir to the Habsburg Empire but stood just behind his cousin Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who would be assassinated at Sarajevo in 1914. Karl and Zita thus became the Emperor and Empress of Austria (and King and Queen of Hungary) in 1916 following Franz Joseph’s death, but they had to surrender their thrones following World War I, when Austria became a republic. Without ever formally abdicating, they left the country in 1919, the same year that Strauss and Hofmannsthal placed the fairytale Emperor and Empress on the operatic stage in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Karl died young, in exile on Madeira in 1922, but Zita lived deep into the twentieth century, until 1989. Conceived in 1911 in the age of the late Habsburg Empire, and addressing allegorically the question of what made emperors and empresses human and humane, Die Frau ohne Schatten was produced only after the war when European empires had been abolished, when emperors and empresses had indeed become fairy-tale figures in post imperial culture.

Die Frau ohne Schatten and Die Zauberflöte

“Don’t forget: I’ve still no work for the summer,” wrote Strauss on March 17, 1911, from his villa in Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps. “Writing symphonies does not make me happy anymore.”5 Hofmannsthal took the hint and replied on March 20 from Rodaun on the outskirts of Vienna, proposing his new idea for Die Frau ohne Schatten.

If we wanted once again to work on something big [etwas Grosses] it would have to have strong and colorful action. . . . I have something quite definite in mind which fascinates me very much. . . . It is a magic fairy tale [Zaubermärchen] in which two men and two women encounter one another.6

The two couples would be the Emperor (der Kaiser) and the Empress (die Kaiserin), dwelling in their imperial palace, and Barak the Dyer (der Färber) and the Dyer’s Wife (die Färberin), living in a world of urban poverty. The Empress, who had no shadow and therefore could not have children, would seek to obtain the shadow and the fertility of the Dyer’s Wife. Fairy-tale rivals for the same single shadow, the two women would eventually be brought to life by sopranos with rival claims upon the operatic audience; in Vienna in 1919 the sopranos would be Maria Jeritza as the Empress and Lotte Lehmann as the Dyer’s Wife, both legendary figures in operatic history.

Strauss had established himself as an opera composer in Dresden in 1905, with Salome, taking the libretto from Oscar Wilde and offering a role of almost unprecedented drama to sopranos as the biblical princess, singing her final scene ecstatically to the severed head of John the Baptist. The work was musically daring in its dissonances, but it was the blasphemous dramatic content that made it impossible to produce in many European opera houses, including Vienna. Strauss’s next opera, Elektra, performed in Dresden in 1909, was similarly violent and dissonant in its expressiveness, with another heroine who insisted upon bloody murder. Strauss took his libretto from the verse translation of Sophocles made by Hofmannsthal in 1903. This led to the collaboration of Strauss and Hofmannsthal on Der Rosenkavalier—which would, in turn, be followed by intricate collaborations, fully documented in the Strauss-Hofmannsthal correspondence, on Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Frau ohne Schatten before and during World War I, and then Die ägyptische Helena and Arabella after the war.7

The fairy-tale quality of Die Frau ohne Schatten was essential to Hofmannsthal from the beginning: “the whole thing colorful, with palace and hut, priests, ships, torches, rock tunnels, choruses, children.” Hofmannsthal envisioned it in a modern Mozartean spirit, “in the same relation to Die Zauberflöte as Rosenkavalier to Figaro—that is, in neither case an imitation, but a definite analogy.”8 Die Frau ohne Schatten would echo the solemn Masonic fantasy of Die Zauberflöte, an enchanted and magical world in which princes sought to prove themselves worthy of enlightenment.

While Der Rosenkavalier was very explicitly an opera of Viennese society and manners, set in the reign of Empress Maria Theresa, Die Frau ohne Schatten, as a fairy-tale opera, had no precisely recognizable setting, though the libretto noted that the Emperor and the Empress ruled over the “Southeastern Islands”—which might suggest somewhere in Polynesia. Yet, though fairy tales could be conceived in the spirit of implicit orientalism, the figures of an emperor and empress would have been not the least fantastic or fabulous for European politics in the early twentieth century. In 1911 Strauss and Hofmannsthal lived as the subjects of the German and Austrian emperors.

“Problem Child”

Die Frau ohne Schatten, conceived in 1911, first performed in 1919, was a cultural project that bridged the prewar and postwar worlds, actually composed and completed during the war as a fairy-tale fantasy. Strauss later explained that this opera was a “problem child [Schmerzenskind] . . . completed in grief and worries during the war.”9 Its composition offers insight into the transformations of cultural modernism in the crucible of war, and the particular impact of World War I on European culture.10 Both Hofmannsthal and Strauss were committed to the Austrian and German national causes, with the poet actually dedicating himself to writing wartime propaganda even as he completed the libretto for Die Frau ohne Schatten. They agreed that the opera should be held back in wartime, so that it might inaugurate the postwar era, which it finally did at the Vienna Opera in 1919. The opera’s resonance would have been very different if it had been published in the aftermath of a German-Austrian victory, as the creators certainly intended, and this book will consider how its meaning in performance was transformed by changing cultural and political contexts across the twentieth century.

As a wartime work, the opera addressed what was to become one of the paramount issues of the postwar moment, the question of the relevance of emperors and empresses after four years of horrendous war perpetrated partly by imperial governments. The Russian tsar and tsarina were murdered by the Bolsheviks in July 1918, while the German kaiser abdicated as the war was ending and went into Dutch exile. In Austria-Hungary, Karl and Zita, after reigning for only two years, withdrew from political life in November 1918 without formally abdicating and went into Swiss exile in 1919—just as Strauss and Hofmannsthal were about to stage their fairy-tale opera about an emperor and an empress who must undergo trials in order to learn lessons of humanity.11

Die Frau ohne Schatten thus illuminates the moment when emperors and empresses gave up their political roles. In the case of Zita, her survival until 1989 meant that she had a long imperial afterlife across the bulk of the twentieth century. Many details of her life were assembled by the Austrian monarchist journalist Erich Feigl, and the recent movement for Zita’s possible beatification has led to further scrutiny. She never ceased to see herself as the Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, and her life would seem increasingly like a fairy tale as the period of her actual reign receded into the ever more remote past.

The prewar culture of Habsburg Vienna became a well-defined subject of historical study some sixty years ago when Carl Schorske published in the American Historical Review his pioneering article, “Politics and the Psyche in Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal.” The cultural history of Austria after World War I has also prominently featured Hofmannsthal, as in the work of Michael Steinberg, The Meaning of the Salzburg Festival: Austria as Theater and Ideology, and Steinberg has translated and edited Hermann Broch’s brilliant Austrian essay, Hofmannsthal and His Time.13 Hofmannsthal, whose full intellectual career has been treated in an important Austrian study by Ulrich Weinzierl, remains a crucial figure for understanding the wartime evolution of culture and ideas from the prewar empire to the postwar Austrian republic.14 The creation of Die Frau ohne Schatten occurred in the context of that historical evolution.

The view of Die Frau ohne Schatten as a “problem child” meant that Strauss continued to worry over its reception in the years following the premiere, but even when he was composing the work in 1916 he declared that he wanted it to be the “last Romantic opera”—both a culmination and a turning point in his operatic endeavors. He lived until 1949, witnessing the ongoing performance of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal operas, including Die Frau ohne Schatten, in the age of Nazi Germany and Austria.15

The original soprano stars of Die Frau ohne Schatten lived even longer, embodying and preserving the cultural legacy of Strauss and Hofmannsthal. Maria Jeritza, the Moravian soprano who created the role of the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten, was born in Brno, a subject of Franz Joseph who supposedly helped to advance her career, while Karl, as emperor, would make her an official court opera singer before the abolition of the court itself. Jeritza’s brilliant artistic career evolved within the context of imperial and postimperial Habsburg culture; she brought a part of that legacy to America, and she died in New Jersey in 1982. German soprano Lotte Lehmann, who created the role of the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten, left Europe in the 1930s and died in California in 1976.16 These two sopranos who sang together on the stage in Vienna in 1919 had European and transatlantic careers in which their repertory roles became icons of postimperial culture, preserving rituals of performance that would register differently for new generations of singers and audiences. They lived to witness the rediscovery of Die Frau ohne Schatten after World War II, as an opera about the renewal of humane political leadership after a period of supreme brutality.

Though emperors and empresses came to seem increasingly remote, and even anachronistic, in the twentieth century, the premise of this book is that for the generation born at midcentury (including myself), the Habsburg Empire was the world of our grandparents. All four of my grandparents, whom I knew well, were born in the late 1890s as subjects of Franz Joseph and lived for two years as subjects of Karl and Zita. The lives of my grand parents belonged to the same epochal transition from imperial to postimperial society and culture, and they will play a part on the margins of this history. By a curious coincidence my own academic life has also intersected with the posthumous story of Empress Zita, in relation to the historical research undertaken as part of the (still ongoing) efforts toward her beatification and eventual sainthood. It was this unexpected involvement that started me thinking about the ways in which the afterlife of an empress might be considered supernaturally in relation to both the sanctity of religion and the magic of fairy tales. The particular trajectories of Strauss and Hofmannsthal, the specific passage from the prewar to the postwar worlds, and the distinctive characters of the Emperor and the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten—juxtaposed with the real-life Emperor and Empress Karl and Zita—suggest a modern connection between the lingering political implications of imperial charisma and the ideological intimations of European operatic culture.


Translations from the German, unless otherwise noted, are by the author.

1. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, “Aufzeichnungen aus dem Nachlass 1911,” February 25, 1911, in Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Gesammelte Werke: Reden und Aufsätze III (1925–29), Buch der Freunde, Aufzeichnungen (1889–1929) (Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1980), 506; Hugo von Hofmannsthal, “Zur Entstehungsgeschichte der Frau ohne Schatten,” in Hofmannsthal, Gesammelte Werke: Dramen V: Operndichtungen (Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1979), 388.

2. Hofmannsthal, “Aufzeichnungen aus dem Nachlass 1911,” February 25, 1911, 388.

3. Hermann Dostal, Zita-Walzer: Ihrer kaiserlichen und königlichen Hoheit der durchlauchtigsten Frau Erzherzogin Zita ehrfurchstvoll gewidmet (Vienna: Musikhaus Ludwig Doblinger, 1911). Copy held by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

4. Krishan Kumar, Empires: A Historical and Political Sociology (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2021).

5. Strauss to Hofmannsthal, March 17, 1911, in Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Briefwechsel: Gesamtausgabe, ed. Franz Strauss, Alice Strauss, Willi Schuh (Zurich: Atlantis Verlag, 1964), 112; Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, A Working Friendship: The Correspondence, trans. Hanns Hammelmann and Ewald Osers (New York: Random House, 1961), 75.

6. Hofmannsthal to Strauss, March 20, 1911, Strauss and Hofmannsthal, Briefwechsel, 112; Strauss and Hofmannsthal, A Working Friendship, 76.

7. Walter Werbeck, ed., Richard Strauss Handbuch (Stuttgart: Verlag J. B. Metzler, 2014).

8. Hofmannsthal to Strauss, 20 March 1911, Strauss and Hofmannsthal, Briefwechsel, 113; Strauss and Hofmannsthal, Working Friendship, 76.

9. Richard Strauss, “Erinnerungen an die ersten Aufführungen meiner Opern” (1942), in Richard Strauss, Betrachtungen und Erinnerungen, ed. Willi Schuh (Mainz: Schott, 2014), 244.

10. Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989); on the war and Austria, see also Edward Timms, Karl Kraus, Apocalyptic Satirist: Culture and Catastrophe in Habsburg Vienna (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986); Maureen Healy, Vienna and the Fall of the Habsburg Empire: Total War and Everyday Life in World War I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Steven Beller, “The Tragic Carnival: Austrian Culture in the First World War,” in European Culture in the Great War: The Arts, Entertainment, and Propaganda, 1914–1918, ed. Aviel Roshwald and Richard Stites (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); see also Pieter Judson, “Austria-Hungary,” International Encyclopedia of the First World War, 1914–1918—Online:

11. On Habsburg political culture, see Daniel Unowsky, Pomp and Politics of Patriotism: Imperial Celebrations in Habsburg Austria (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2005); Adam Kożuchowski, The Afterlife of Austria-Hungary: The Image of the Habsburg Monarchy in Interwar Europe (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013).

12. Erich Feigl, ed., Zita: Kaiserin und Königin (Vienna: Amalthea Verlag, 1991); Cyrille Debris, Zita: Portrait intime d’une impératrice (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2013). It is notable that Zita’s photograph (with Karl) was featured on the cover of Pieter Judson’s important scholarly reframing of Austro-Hungarian history, The Habsburg Empire: A New History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

13. Carl Schorske, “Politics and the Psyche in Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal,” American Historical Review 66, no. 4 (July 1961): 930–46; Michael Steinberg, Austria as Theater and Ideology: The Meaning of the Salzburg Festival (1990; Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2000); Hermann Broch, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time: The European Imagination, 1860–1920, trans. Michael Steinberg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

14. Ulrich Weinzierl, Hofmannsthal: Skizzen zu seinem Bild (2005; Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2007).

15. Strauss to Hofmannsthal, July 28, 1916, Strauss and Hofmannsthal, Briefwechsel, 353–54; Strauss and Hofmannsthal, Working Friendship, 258–59. Recent studies of Strauss include Bryan Gilliam, Rounding Wagner’s Mountain: Richard Strauss and Modern German Opera (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), and Laurenz Lütteken, Strauss (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019). For Strauss’s life and work, see Michael Kennedy, Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). For the specific study of Die Frau ohne Schatten, see Jakob Knaus, Hofmannsthals Weg zur Oper “Die Frau ohne Schatten”: Rücksichten und Einflüsse auf die Musik (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1971); Sherrill Pantle, “Die Frau ohne Schatten” by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss: An Analysis of Text, Music and Their Relationship (Bern: Peter Lang, 1978); Claudia Konrad, “Die Frau ohne Schatten” von Hugo von Hofmannsthal und Richard Strauss: Studien zur Genese, zum Textbuch und zur Rezeptionsgeschichte (Hamburg: Verlag der Musikalienhandlung Karl Dieter Wagner, 1988); Wolfgang Perschmann, Hugo von Hofmannsthal und Richard Strauss: “Die Frau ohne Schatten”: Sinndeutung aus Text und Musik (Graz: Österreichische Richard Wagner Gesellschaft, 1992); Olaf Enderlein, Die Entstehung der Oper “Die Frau ohne Schatten” von Richard Strauss (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2017). Methodologically crucial for the historian studying opera are the classic works of Paul Robinson, Opera and Ideas: From Mozart to Strauss (New York: Harper and Row, 1985) and James Johnson, Listening in Paris: A Cultural History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996).

16. Maria Jeritza, Sunlight and Song: A Singer’s Life (New York: D. Appleton, 1924); Robert Werba, Maria Jeritza: Primadonna des Verismo (Vienna: Österreichischer Bundesverlag, 1981); Michael Kater, Never Sang for Hitler: The Life and Times of Lotte Lehmann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).