Cambridge Opera Journal

Research Article

Strangling blondes: nineteenth-century femininity and Korngold's Die tote Stadt

Ben Winters1


Responses to Korngold's 1920 opera Die tote Stadt have long been filtered through the lens of his later Hollywood career. To do so, however, not only risks misunderstanding the relationship between these two different spheres of the composer's output, but also ignores the opera's complex positioning within the gender discourses of early twentieth-century Vienna. This article offers a corrective to the clichéd view of Korngold the ‘pre-filmic’ opera composer by arguing that, in its treatment of the characters Marie and Marietta, Die tote Stadt draws on a tradition of ‘strangling blonde’ imagery from the nineteenth century in order to critique the gender theories of Otto Weininger (1880–1903), which were still current in the 1920s. As such, in its concern with the nature of femininity, Die tote Stadt also draws our attention to the modern woman who had just entered the composer's life, Luise (Luzi) von Sonnenthal.

Ben Winters is Lecturer in Music at the Open University. He is the author of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's The Adventures of Robin Hood: A Film Score Guide (Scarecrow Press, 2007), and his research on film music has appeared in journals such as Music & Letters, Music, Sound, and the Moving Image, and the Journal of the Royal Musical Association.


1 A version of this article was given at the RMA Annual Conference at the University of Sussex in July 2011. I am grateful to the Oxford Brookes: Emerging Research Trends in Opera (OBERTO) group, and to Alex Wilson and Barbara Eichner in particular, for allowing me to contribute to their panel session. The article has also benefitted from the input of a number of readers. I am especially grateful to Arne Stollberg, Nick Attfield, David Levin, and the editors of this journal for their many helpful comments.