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Das Private ist musikalisch - Deutsche Oper Berlin

The private domain is musical

With INTERMEZZO Strauss gave a warts-and-all portrayal of middle-class marriage on stage for the first time. Philosopher Robert Pfaller muses here on the relationship between the public and the private in art.

Is it permissible for an artist to use aspects of his private life as material for his work? And is it appropriate for private details to be made available for public consumption anyway? – The crucial question to be put to a work of art is clearly not ‘Where does it come from?’ but rather ‘What is it doing here?’ Is the format so suited to the material that you’d assume the story had been written for the stage? Or does it remain an alien body in ill-fitting clothes, ever stuttering apologetically that he is here against his will and was only dragged here for his celebrity pulling power? In other words: does this material merit the cachet of »petty bourgeois comedy« or does it attract audiences only because of its indiscreet, voyeuristic content?

In his paper entitled »The Decline and Fall of Public Life. The Tyranny of Intimacy«, published in 1977, sociologist Richard Sennett formulated a principle that had been embraced in Western societies since the Renaissance: the separation of one’s identity as a private person from one’s public role. When in public, it was the done thing to leave your private life at home. After all, »it’s bad manners to bother other people with details of your inner self«.

The resulting lightness of interaction made it possible to spare people the details of one’s assorted sensibilities and refrain from setting trivial (i.e. alienating) material above important (i.e. connecting) material. This was a win-win situation: firstly, an ethical benefit – people felt instantly better if, instead of being at the mercy of their moods, they adopted some kind of posture; secondly, a political benefit – people found they could, regardless of superficial differences, enter into heated debates and in the process discover that everyone had a common interest in achieving a sensible goal. As Sennett shows, it took an effort of theatrical proportions to adopt the public role. In public life people went so far as acting out their own selves.

This seems to suggest that private lives do not lend themselves well to the stage. With his discerning eye, however, Richard Strauss discovered that in the private sphere, too, there exist luminaries who are capable of making a great to-do out of the smallest incident. And dialogues between spouses, interspersed with contributions from supporting characters, also have comedic potential. What for the people concerned were unexpected and traumatic events are, rendered on stage, the jolly, theatrical stereotypes of a private life. Or at least they can be presented as such with a little abstraction and artful exaggeration. This transformation – even of the most personal material – into something impersonal or generalised is the fruit of poetic labour. As Sigmund Freud observed in the context of daydreams, it transforms the description of intimate details, usually deemed dull, joyless and embarrassing, into something interesting and stimulating.

And with it the ethical problem is also solved – the question of whether it is okay to render intimate information in art form or more important to be discreet. It all depends on whether the chosen theatrical form is deemed a success. As is clearly apparent with Strauss, the aesthetic form managed to supersede everything, even the most authentic material. It even enables us to deploy truth in the service of lies. Art makes even factual stuff appear to be the product of an artistic imagination. The bon mot of Giordano Bruno, »se non è vero, è molto ben trovato«, can serve as a rule of thumb – with a slight alteration: Even when it’s true, it seems to be a good fabrication.


Robert Pfaller is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arts, Linz. With his book »Wofür es sich zu leben lohnt. Elemente materialistischer Philosophie« Pfaller established himself as an impassioned critic of ascetic culture. In 2020 he was awarded the Paul-Watzlawick-Ehrenring by the Medical Council of Vienna.

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