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Der Rosenkavalier

To unearth desire and make older age delightful

Sandrine Detandt & Isabelle Gosselin
Reading time
8 min.

Among the themes that contribute to the richness of the Der Rosenkavalier libretto, the concept of love between two partners with a substantial age difference is approached with great tenderness. The opera’s most moving central theme sees the Marschallin gradually giving up her relationship with her lover Octavian whom she relinquishes into the arms of Sophie, a much younger woman whom she sees as much more beautiful. The opera raises a number of questions about how we relate as a society to age and femininity, and to its romantic and sexual issues…


Locus of emancipation and assignation, between constraints and freedoms

The violence of love, confrontation with the loss of the other and of oneself, withdrawal into melancholy, the return to reason or to resignation. The Marschallin is a woman who has fallen in love with a younger man, and who knows perfectly well that she will lose him. Love made her shatter codes, break down norms, love a man who could be her son and watch him fall in love with a younger woman. Der Rosenkavalier invites us to blur the lines of gender, of determined and determinant social classes, and to examine the desires of an ageing woman. Falling in love with another person when one has reached an age at which loving passionately no longer seems possible for oneself or considered possible by others.


Women as objects set aside by default, existing for reproductive purposes or excluded from the sphere of desire

What is the enigma of women? What do women want? What is femininity? These questions have occupied psychoanalytical doxa without deconstructing an invisible, idealised or even universal image of women or femininity.

Strauss’ work coincides with a very specific period in terms of the way in which sexuality and intimacy are evolving and emerging as objects of science and research. Indeed, a major turning point occurred at the end of the 19th century in what would become gynaecology, sexology and psychiatry with the psychiatrist von Krafft-Ebing and his Psychopathia Sexualis. In presenting clinical cases of what constitutes pathology, his book predominantly reflects dominant Victorian opinion, diagnosing all non-reproductive sexual activity as being linked to disease. In the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud shook up society by highlighting the foundational dimension of the sexual in the structure of the human psyche. This major advance in the integration of sexuality as universal would be overshadowed by his static vision of psychic construction, hence creating a standardised, evolutionary and hierarchical vision of sexualities. Heterosexuality and the genital stage ideally become the construction of the successfully completed individual. So by transforming moral laws into scientific laws, clinical practice sought to reinforce sexual conventions with respect to individuals and in particular to women, and even more so to lesbians. The 1970s would be a time for re-examining, for and by women, this construction of so-called scientific knowledge about their sexuality. Thus, claiming that “lesbians are not women”, the novelist Monique Wittig opened the way for appropriated and unambiguous political thought, stating that “woman” has meaning only in a heterosexual and patriarchal system of thought. Other female thinkers, such as the anthropologist Gayle Rubin, would discuss how sexuality is governed by complex systems of sexual hierarchy (the right sexuality is heterosexual, conjugal, monogamous, procreative, non-commercial, monogenerational). Anyone who breaks these rules is on the wrong side of sexuality. For Strauss’ and Hofmannsthal’s Marschallin, Princess von Werdenburg, it is in all likelihood a question of reordering her life according to social prescriptions and allowing her lover to court another.


Ageism and sexism

Today, through these feminist (and queer) movements, issues of social norms and discrimination make up an important part of the struggle and fight for gender, race and socio-economic status equality. Being an older woman in our society still means bearing the brunt of conventions. Being an older woman is to be continually being reminded of the decay of the body, this body that never really belonged to her, this body that has been monitored by doctors, judged by laws and shaped by sexism. This body, that of the Marschallin, vibrant and suddenly alive, challenges norms and defies taboos. But the power of social order brings her back to reality. This body no longer has the right to love or be loved, as it did at the age of 20. So this woman defies gender and causes misunderstandings. She creates a situation that leads to her loss. She brings her own internal conflicts into play and finds herself trapped in her own scenario.

Collage glané à Bruxelles
Collage glané à Bruxelles

Through comedy, thanks to humour, a powerful tool for protection, asserting claims and a diversion strategy – feminists have understood this well and continually use humour to denounce inequalities – this opera by Strauss places the status of women at the centre of its plot, a piece set during the Austrian monarchy of the 18th century where the patriarchal codes of conservative Vienna reflect the social stranglehold on women and restricts them in their social role. This work resonates today, two centuries later, after the fourth wave of feminism and the now legendary and historic #metoo movement. The struggles for freedom and equality for women are intense, international, intergenerational and intercultural. Violence towards women has been brought out into the open and made visible, but persists. Forced marriages have yet to be abolished, the right to love without expectation and without exploitation (domestic work, mental load, wage inequality) is still far from being the norm.


Beyond the political issues that can be seen to run through this piece, the Marschallin’s choice also raises the issue of loss and its paradoxes. Losing this young man while offering him to another is also a way for this woman to be able to reappropriate this loss, a resolute act of letting go, an empowerment.

Loving and accepting the unacceptable out of love. Letting him leave, allowing him to pursue his own desires with another, resigning herself and breaking the bond. In the same way, her ageing forces her to accept loss (of herself). And to reinvent herself. To love is to lose a part of oneself, it is, as psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said, “giving something you do not have to someone who does not want it”, it is the illusion that makes us want to satisfy the other by giving him or her what we lack even though he or she does not want it. It is an attempt to renounce the ideal love, never received and so much sought after.

Such an experience poses a strong challenge, in all likelihood in a way never experienced before, to the possibility of renunciation. Between the task of mourning and the development of the loss, it is the violent intrusion of the finiteness of oneself and the other that imposes itself even if desire still cries out. Not only death as the ultimate outrage that announces to us that we will one day be no more, but death in psychic life, which fosters withdrawal; such as that about which Paul Nizan, aged just 26, a man so young to have already grasped this, speaks so well in Aden Arabie: “Death disgusts me if it is less the negation of all that is to come, than a still human disposition like illness, cold and physical pain. True death is what it is, what life is not, what the state of a man is when he thinks nothing, when he does not think of himself, when he does not think that others think of him”.

Being the object of desire of the other and extracting oneself from it, renouncing it, retreating from desire. Ageing and gradually and insidiously withdrawing from life. Losing one’s capacity to act, one's desire to please, to seduce, to be loved. At a certain age, the image of the body excludes a certain number of women from the sphere of seduction and therefore from the possibility of catching and being defined by the gaze of the other. For the mourning to be complete, it would be necessary to accept a double loss: not only the loss of the other but also that the other loses you, being lost to the other. These are perhaps a few steps towards a complementary approach to this work allowing us to review, in the light of contemporary perspectives, the issues that resonate, from the intimate to the political, within the depths of the music.