Cambridge Opera Journal

Research Article

Elsa's reason: On beliefs and motives in Wagner's Lohengrin



Once Wagner's most popular opera, Lohengrin has suffered scholarly neglect in the post-war period. This essay re-engages with the work from the novel perspective of game theory analysis. Centring on Elsa's breach of the Frageverbot, it offers a close epistemological study of the opera's main characters. As an alternative to traditional interpretations of the heroine's fatal decision, we propose a complex and psychologically more compelling account. Elsa asks the forbidden question because she needs to confirm Lohengrin's belief in her innocence, a belief that Ortrud successfully erodes in Act II. This interpretation reveals Elsa as a rational individual, upgrades the dramatic significance of the Act I combat scene, and, more broadly, signals a return to a hermeneutics of Wagnerian drama.

(Online publication May 31 2011)

Ilias Chrissochoidis is Resident Scholar at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress and a 2010 ACLS Fellow. A Handel specialist and creator of the Handel Reference Database <>, he has also been involved in recent Wagner projects. In 2009–10 he was a Research Associate at the ESRC Centre for Economic Learning and Social Evolution (UCL).

Steffen Huck is Professor and Head at UCL's Department of Economics. A 2004 Philip Leverhulme Prize recipient, he has worked on the role of trust and fairness in competition as well as on bounded rationality and evolutionary game theory. In recent years, he has explored applications of game theory to opera and in July 2010 he co-organized with Sir Peter Jonas the first conference on the topic.


* Work on this essay was supported by the ESRC Centre for Economic Learning and Social Evolution. We are grateful for comments and criticism to Heike Harmgart, Berthold Hoeckner, Steven Huebner, Wieland Müller, Steve Roth, and especially to Thomas S. Grey. Further thanks are due to the participants of the ‘Rationality in Drama & Fiction’ (2007) <∼uctpshu/RDF.htm> and ‘Game Theory, Drama & Opera’ (2010) <∼uctpshu/gamesandopera.html> conferences at University College London.