Since its debut in 1911, opera-lovers have considered Der Rosenkavalier a masterpiece of the repertoire.
The German comedy follows the story of the Marschallin (Princess Marie Thérèse von Werdenberg) as she decides to end her affair with a younger man and save another woman from an unhappy marriage.
More than a century later, on the eve of its first Der Rosenkavalier performance, local opera group Victory Hall Opera unearthed a magical coincidence: The Marschallin’s character was partially inspired by a real woman, Countess Ottonie von Degenfeld, and her descendants live and work in Charlottesville.
“It’s just not common knowledge in the opera world that this relationship was based around a real relationship,” says Miriam Gordon-Stewart, Victory Hall co-founder, artistic director and the soprano who plays the Marschallin in the group’s upcoming performance. “Finding out about the link to Charlottesville was purely due to a conversation that we struck up with a German lady at an art exhibition.”
Following the lead, Gordon-Stewart and fellow co-founder Brenda Patterson discovered that von Degenfeld’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren did, in fact, live in Albemarle County. What’s more, the family possessed intimate letters that detailed a deep affection between von Degenfeld and Der Rosenkavalier’s librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal.
The private letters, bound in a blue ribbon and opened after von Degenfeld’s death by her daughter Marie Thérèse, detail the couple’s deepening relationship, which began in 1910, when von Hofmannsthal attended a dinner party at Schloss Neubeuern, a castle in Bavaria where von Degenfeld lived at the time.
“Their relationship was something probably we wouldn’t understand today,” says Ralph Miller, a Charlottesville native and von Degenfeld’s grandson. “It was very intellectual because it started when she was in a wheelchair.”
At age 26, von Degenfeld had been married only two years when her husband died of prostate cancer, leaving her widowed, essentially homeless and with a small child. Though she’d once been vivacious and charismatic, von Degenfeld was so devastated she could hardly speak or walk.
By the time von Degenfeld arrived in Neubeuern, von Hofmannsthal was part of a circle of intellectuals and artists who frequented the castle, which acted as a rotating world of art, opera and music.
“[von Hofmannsthal] took pity on her and said, ‘There must be some way we can we bring this poor creature back into a life.’ Being the intellectual he was, life to him was literature. So he started prescribing for her books,” Miller says. “She would read them. Then he would send her more books, all the classics in French, in German, in English and so on. That’s how he slowly brought her back.”
It’s also how their correspondence began. Each time she received or finished reading a book, von Degenfeld wrote von Hofmannsthal with thanks or a discussion of the book’s plot and themes. This went on for years, until she finally regained her strength and her joy and became active again.
Their mutual affection extended beyond literature. To understand its depth, consider this quote from von Degenfeld’s correspondence, cited in Victory Hall’s promotional video for the upcoming performance: “Should I continue explaining why I like you so much? Because you also love the dust upon the flower petals and would not think of placing the buds in a greenhouse to see them bloom before their time. And this is what separates you from other men and serves as a sort of balm for the wounded heart. I realize that if I love your letters, must I not also love your soul and you?”
Despite the tenor of certain exchanges, von Degenfeld and her family maintained that the actual relationship remained platonic.
“Like in any relationship, there were all the temptations, but one reason I know [it remained platonic] is that [my grandmother] was always very good friends with [von] Hofmannsthal’s wife,” Miller says. “She never had any guilty conscience regarding that.”
“The stories we hear about her were stories of great humor or great character,” says Marie Lefton, von Degenfeld’s great-granddaughter and a Charlottesville native. “The letters have to speak for themselves.”
During the pair’s correspondence, von Hofmannsthal also wrote the libretto for Der Rosenkavalier.
Guestbooks from Schloss Neubeuern log various dates on which he arrived to write particular scenes. According to Miller, he may have staged the first performance of the show in the castle salon.
No doubt, von Hofmannsthal’s relationship with von Degenfeld influenced his greatest work. He even told her daughter that he named the princess after her. Coupled with the librettist’s unique writing style, it’s easy to see why the show feels so poignant.
“There are sentences that aren’t finished,” Gordon-Stewart says. “There are thoughts that start one way and they sort of get hijacked in an attempt to avoid the subject. Then, they meander in a different direction. Then, one person starts talking over the other to try to draw them back to the point.
“It’s not a surprise that it’s based on a real relationship. It makes a lot of sense to us. I think that is a reason why it feels so personal and so naturalistic in a way.”
Once again, von Hofmannsthal’s art extended beyond the stage and into local lives.
“From what I’ve heard, Der Rosenkavalier stands out as an opera because it’s very much alive and real,” Miller says. “I gathered that that was his style of writing that differentiated him from some of the others.
“As a matter of fact, he taught my mother how to write letters. That’s why hers were not rigid and stylistic. She said [von] Hofmannsthal taught her to stop thinking of it as a letter. To just put down what you really feel.”