"Die Frau ohne Schatten" by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal Photo: Robert Millard

San Francisco Opera to Present Strauss’ “Magnum Opus” This Summer

 San Francisco Opera presents Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s fairy-tale opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) from June 4–28 at the War Memorial Opera House.

Die Frau ohne Schatten is, along with Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle and Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens, among opera’s most ambitious and exhilarating large-scale works for the stage. For decades following its 1919 world premiere, Strauss’ magnum opus was considered impossible to produce by many American impresarios due to the work’s massive orchestral forces, complex scene changes and vocal demands. San Francisco Opera presented the work’s American premiere in 1959, launching a proud Company tradition of presenting Die Frau ohne Schatten (or FROSCH, as Strauss affectionally called the opera, using the initials of its title to spell the German word for “frog”). After a 34-year absence, this “bucket list” experience for opera goers returns to the War Memorial Opera House stage as one of the key works of San Francisco Opera’s Centennial Season.

The story follows a fairy-tale Empress who has three days to take the shadow of a mortal woman, and thereby that woman’s ability to have children, in order to prevent a curse from turning her husband, the Emperor, to stone. While the theft of the shadow could avert the threat she faces, the Empress confronts whether her own happiness is possible if it comes at another’s expense.

This new-to-San Francisco Opera production, which features otherworldly transitions between the spirit world, the imperial palace and the humble household of the tradesman, Barak, is the creative vision of artist David Hockney. The Los Angeles Times praised Hockney’s vibrant settings for the opera’s various scenes: “their riot of color matches that of Strauss’ orchestra perfectly.” The late Ian Falconer, frequent cover artist for The New Yorker and creator of the Olivia children’s book series, designed the costumes. Roy Rallo directs the production, which also features the work of San Francisco Opera Lighting Director Justin A. Partier, as revival lighting designer.

Former San Francisco Opera Music Director Sir Donald Runnicles, who led the Company’s acclaimed performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle in 2011 and 2018, returns to the podium to conduct Die Frau ohne Schatten for the first time in his career. A renowned interpreter of Strauss’ works, Runnicles was recently praised by the New York Times for leading an Elektra at the Metropolitan Opera that was “riveting in its revelatory transparency, the layers of expressionistic color, sweetness and Wagnerian abundance stacking in counterpoint or weaving in and out of one another with grace.” Die Frau ohne Schatten, like Elektra, requires one of the largest pit orchestras in the operatic repertoire, and Maestro Runnicles leads the artists of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, including 96 instrumentalists in the pit and 9 backstage, for these performances.

Returning to the Company where she has enjoyed many past triumphs, including her first Brünnhilde in the complete Ring cycle, Swedish soprano Nina Stemme portrays the Dyer’s Wife. Stemme’s first performances of the role at the Vienna State Opera in 2019 were among opera’s hottest pre-pandemic tickets which Opera News hailed as “A stunning role debut … Her vocally luxurious performance was a cri du coeur from start to finish, full of longing, anguish, despair and ultimate elation … the house shook with applause at the curtain call.”

Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund, who made her San Francisco Opera debut in 2012 as Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin, is the shadowless Empress at the center of the opera. In the same 2019 Vienna performances of the opera, Opera News observed: “Aside from Stemme, the evening’s most accomplished performance belonged to Camilla Nylund, a veteran to this work, who has emerged as one of today’s finest Strauss singers.”

San Francisco-born Linda Watson makes her long-overdue Company debut as the Nurse. One of the foremost Wagnerian sopranos of our time with frequent appearances at Wagner’s theater in Bayreuth, Watson has also earned acclaim for her portrayals of Strauss heroines like the title role of Elektra and the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten.

In his first engagement with San Francisco Opera, Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter will portray the hardworking tradesman, Barak, a role for which the New York Times praised his “tender, earnest performance.” British tenor David Butt Philip joins the Company in the high-lying role of the Emperor. The Financial Times recently observed of Butt Philip: “his singing is scrupulous, at ease when the vocal writing goes high, and he has an appealing, Romantic sound.”

Bass Stefan Egerstrom is the Spirit Messenger of Keikobad. Barak’s brothers will be portrayed by tenor Zhengyi Bai and bass-baritones Wayne Tigges and Philip Skinner. The Nightwatchmen are baritones Javier Arrey and Kidon Choi and bass-baritone Jongwon Han. The opera’s many other fantastical characters such as the Falcon and Voices of Unborn Children will be performed by recent Adler Fellow Elisa Sunshine and current Adlers Arianna Rodriguez, Mikayla Sager, Olivia Smith, Gabrielle Beteag, Nikola Printz and Victor Cardamone.

Strauss and Hofmannsthal completed Die Frau ohne Schatten in 1916 but the opera’s premiere was delayed until 1919 so its deeply humanistic message might bring hope and renewal in the aftermath of World War I. In 1959, San Francisco Opera General Director Kurt Herbert Adler enlisted 27-year-old French director and designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle to create a production for the U.S. premiere of the opera in San Francisco. Military service prevented Ponnelle from finishing his designs and directing the piece while illness struck three of the cast’s leading artists, but the performances caused a sensation and remain a benchmark in the history of opera in America. Subsequent revivals by San Francisco Opera featuring luminaries like conductor Karl Böhm and vocal soloists Leonie Rysanek, Birgit Nilsson, Gwyneth Jones, James King and Walter Berry, helped found the Company’s strong tradition with this rarely performed opera.

The five performances of Die Frau ohne Schatten, performed in German with English supertitles, are scheduled for June 4 (2 p.m.), 10 (7 p.m.), 20 (7 p.m.), 23 (7 p.m.) and 28 (7 p.m.), 2023.