Soprano Meagan Miller on a Straussian Gold Standard

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When Bard Summerscape's production of Die Liebe der Danae opens on Friday, audiences will get a taste for a Strauss rarity: The work, which sits at the crossroads of the mythology-based musical drama of Ariadne auf Naxos and a young, spoiled woman's coming-of-age story on par with Salome, was prevented from having a world premiere during its composer's lifetime due to the Nazi regime and musically has long been regarded as "second-tier Strauss."

But is that really the case? Leon Botstein doesn't seem to think so, leading this production from the pit after recording it in 2000 for Telarc. Neither does soprano Meagan Miller, who plays the titular princess with a lust for gold and, initially, a lack of human compassion. With such an immersion in the score and the opera -- staged here by Kevin Newbury with sets by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly -- Meagan spoke with us recently about this unfairly neglected work and its place in Strauss's formidable canon. Read on for more.

Many people consider this work to be “second-tier Strauss,” a lesser opera than, say, Ariadne auf Naxos or Salome. Being enveloped in the work right now, do you agree?
I could not disagree more. I don’t get second tier at all. I think actually the music is pretty amazing, especially the final act. I’ve had to go through a process during rehearsals where I’ve had to deliberately subject myself to portions of it that make me cry to get it over with. Because it’s so beautiful that I have to find a way to be past that point by the time performances start. And now we’re working with the orchestra, it’s brilliant. I mean, the sounds that are coming out of that pit, I can’t even describe. It is so beautiful.

Are there any particular points where we as the audience should have the Kleenex at hand?
Before my reappearance in Act III, there is this amazing interlude. And it’s the music that Strauss wanted to have played at his funeral… And I have yet to get through it without crying. And I’ve gotten very good at singing the aria through tears. It’s an act of will to keep letting go and keep opening. The minute you try to control the sound, it doesn’t work out. Kevin Newbury has in some ways made my job really hard because the staging is so simple and vulnerable in those moments that all of these emotions have plenty of room to come up. It’s not like he’s given me knitting to do. [Laughs] A lot of it truly is just experiencing as human beings what it feels like to have this very difficult conversation at the end of the opera. 

What do you think, then, has given the opera its reputation?
The roles are so difficult: Midas, Jupiter and Danae. It’s just really hard to find three singers that can do this all night. And then there are all the magic tricks. I honestly think people don’t want to stage this because they have to turn so many things into gold onstage. It’s a big problem! [Laughs] And with all the mixed mythology, too, [Strauss] is not even consistent between Roman and Greek. And they’re all mixed together to kind of make this interesting story. In a way, I can see why people get confused by the libretto, too. There are a lot of things going on in this piece.

Apart from trying to sing while holding back tears—in and of itself no mean feat—what are some of the more difficult parts of this opera?
The roles are dramatic, high, expressive and delicate. And long. And the other thing about Jupiter: I cannot imagine the pressure of trying to sound like the creator of everything and the greatest of all the gods. How do you do that? I don’t know how to do it. But who wouldn’t want to try?… And the thing I find very interesting about it, [is Danae] starts out just as kind of this girlish figure, so there’s a lot of lighter, high singing with light articulation which is fine, its not a bad way to start. And then Act II becomes really dramatic high singing, stretching the voice to its fullest extent. And then in Act III she basically has to whisper a lot of the time, sing very low and most her high notes are pianissimo. It’s a tough thing after having really given a lot of voice to scale it back and still be fresh. 

So, even with the plot notwithstanding, you see the maturation of this character entirely in her vocal lines?
Absolutely. She is a really beautiful soul at the end. And he really wrote it in. He wrote exactly. The second act is about passion and the third act is about compassion.

How does Danae transform from a spoiled princess into this beautiful soul?
We start with a person who is spoiled and sheltered and not really thinking about others at all. And throughout the course of this opera and all of these strange events that happen to her, she learns about life and compassion, and what it means to actually love others and think about them. And then we also cannot forget that this is a sexual awakening for her too. The way that Jupiter seduces in this particular plot world is that he transforms himself into something that he thinks will appeal to that specific woman. And so Danae, because her life is all about money at this point when we first meet her, he appears to her as a shower of gold. And that is her sexual awakening. In mythology, the shower of gold impregnates her with Perseus. That doesn’t happen in this story, at least not where we leave it off, but it’s at least a sexual awakening for her.

The realization of human compassion is really striking, given the historical circumstances of this work and Strauss’s later career on the whole.
A lot of people talk about this with Strauss. There’s this amazing story—where unfortunately my source for it is Wikipedia so who knows if it’s true—that Strauss heard the beautiful orchestral interlude being played during that dress rehearsal of the original cast that never went on. And he turned the audience and he said, “I hope I may meet you in a better time.” I think he really was thinking of his art as being something transcendent. I think he was looking with a wider perspective on the arc of the world’s history. And I think he may have been denying some of the atrocities in order to continue with his world, but I do think he was thinking on a bigger scale.

I think we hear that in the piece, and I know that Maestro Botstein hears Strauss eking through Jupiter at the end, about not being able to connect with humans on that level and still being able to be a creative being. I think it’s clear that Strauss viewed the Nazis as the least creative and the least educated of all beings, which is to say it mildly. He felt very separate from them even though he was working with them.

Do you think any of that comes through in the music?
What I hear is idealism and art, which may have been a really wonderful thing to be focusing on in his mind to stay sane. The fact that he went to mythology later in his composing life is really interesting. I’m doing my first Daphne this December at the Vienna State Opera and it’s a similar thing. I saw the Dresden production of Dafne this last season and the production is based entirely on the concentration camps. The Jewish people at the end actually form the tree of life. Dafne turns into the tree of life in that production, after [everyone has] been killed by the Nazis in Apollo. I mean, it’s fascinating, but I don’t know if it serves the piece. We all want to apply this to the music, but I don’t feel like we hear it. 

That reminds me of what Peter Sellars once said that he felt composer John Adams was convinced the world would be saved by pleasure, not by pointing the blame at someone.
Pleasure and connection and communication… I think if you dedicate your life to art, we all know it has the power to overcome whatever political things are going on whether it be the collapse of the world economy that we’re living through right now or… [Laughs] Honestly, sometimes I don’t know if I should be going to rectify injustices instead of singing. Should I be volunteering for the Peace Corps? Should I be in Darfur right now? Where do we draw the line as to our effectiveness of our individual life? And I’m sure Strauss was struggling with this and he had much less available information than we do about what’s happening in the world.

Check out the below sample of Die Liebe der Danae, courtesy of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and weigh in below: Is this a second-tier Strauss or a neglected masterwork? And if you see the production up at Bard, be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments throughout the run.