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"Smart and claustrophobic" SR Kulturnytt


Revenge is what keeps her alive.

Watch the trailer for Elektra
“...seamlessly executed”Financial Times
“ and claustrophobic”SR, Kulturnytt
“ close to psychoanalysis as you can get on an opera stage”DAGENS NYHETER
“The Gothenburg Opera Orchestra plays with extreme confidence”Svenska dagbladet

Richard Strauss’ Elektra from 1909 is thrilling from the beginning to the end. It’s a breathtaking drama that also tore down the boundaries of tonality. Raw, uninhibited and primitive. This mythological tale is a claustrophobic cycle, from which no character manages to break free.

Mats Bäcker

Elektra is obsessed by the idea of murdering her mother as revenge for her mother and her mother’s lover killing Elektra’s father. Little by little, Elektra has lost her humanity since her father’s death. But once she has satisfied her quest for revenge, she has nothing left to live for. 

STEPHEN LANGRIDGE, our Artistic Director for Opera/Drama, puts Elektra’s struggle to liberate herself from the physical and mental scars of the deed at the very heart of his production. We are proud to be able to cast these demanding roles using our in-house soloists.

The Göteborg Opera Orchestra performs the finale from Elektra at the Gothenburg Cultural Festival 2016

Elektra – as emotional as it gets

Article by Göran Gademan, dramaturge

Richard Strauss, 1922
Ferdinand Schmutzer

Richard Strauss made his definitive breakthrough as an opera composer with the scandalous success of Salome in 1905, and Europe waited with bated breath for his next creation. Despite continuing with other conducting assignments he was clearly contemplating a follow-up. Interestingly, the next opera had the same origins as Salome: a play in Berlin directed by Max Reinhardt with Gertrud Eysoldt in the title role. This time the writer was Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and the play was his version of Sophocles’ Elektra. Strauss had seen the performance in 1903 and was intrigued by the writer who was ten years his junior, so he contacted Hofmannsthal. This was the beginning of one of the most important composer-librettist partnerships in opera history – it would continue for 20 years and result in six operas.

Few operas are as emotionally-charged as Elektra, despite the fact that it is no love story.
Hugo von Hofmannsthal, 1910
Nicola Perscheid

In terms of creativity, mutual respect and skill, the writers achieved a perfect balance between text and score. Since they lived in different areas – Hofmannsthal lived in Vienna his whole life – they communicated via mail. In Vienna, Hofmannsthal had been greatly influenced by Freud’s discoveries at Berggasse. Hofmannsthal suggested that they work with his play Elektra which Strauss had seen, but the composer was dubious. It would be far too similar to Salome. However, Hofmannsthal stressed that the similarities were restricted to the fact that they were one-act plays that had been performed in Berlin with Gertrud Eysoldt in the title role, nothing more. According to Hofmannsthal, in all other respects the two works were fundamentally different, with contrasting colours between the two dramas: “Salome has so much purple and violet; the atmosphere is oppressive. Elektra on the other hand has a mixture of night and day, dark and light.” Strauss finally gave in, provided two changes were made: to the recognition scene with Orestes and the final scene. When the text for the scene where Elektra recognises her brother was complete, Strauss wrote with delight that his new partner was a natural librettist.

The Elektra complex and psychoanalysis

Hofmannsthal himself said that he came upon the idea for his Elektra in 1901, when he happened to read Sophocles’ Elektra alongside Shakespeare’s Richard III: “At once the role of Elektra transformed into another. The climax also appeared at once: she can no longer go on living, when the deed is done her viscera must gush from her, just as for the drone when the queen has been fertilised. I was struck by the relation to and contrast with Hamlet.”

Elektra’s mother Klytaimnestra has murdered her husband Agamemnon, together with her lover Aighistos. Elektra is obsessed with the desire to avenge her father’s death and awaits the return of her brother Orestes in order to carry out the deed. As the name implies, the title role is suffering from a severe Freudian Elektra complex; a female version of the Oedipus complex. It comes as no surprise that Hofmannsthal had been heavily influenced by Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, which was published in 1900. 

Title page of the the 1909 libretto
Lovis Corinth

But the interesting aspect for Hofmannsthal was that Elektra would have nothing left to live for once her revenge was complete; it became the driving force in his writing and the entire narrative arc moves towards this end. However, the character that would most benefit from a visit to Dr Freud is clearly Klytaimnestra. She is the polar opposite of her daughter: superstitious, sensual and fearful, despite having power on her side. Elektra has freely chosen to live among the dogs in the yard rather than as a princess in the palace. She refuses to become embroiled in the game that is being played out around her. The third main character is also a complete contrast to Elektra, although in different ways: the gentle little sister Chrysothemis is compliant and longs for a ‘normal’ life with a husband and children. But everyone is equally enclosed in the claustrophobic world beyond the Lion Gate at Mycenae. Few operas are as emotionally-charged as Elektra, despite the fact that it is no love story.

Demanding vocal parts

Strauss spent three years composing the work, and for this mammoth orchestral opera he went a step further, making huge demands on the singers. In a letter to the conductor von Schuch, he wrote that the ending was gruesome and that the title role had to be given to the most dramatic singer they had. And indeed, Elektra has come to be perhaps the most impossible soprano role in the history of opera, reserved for just a few artists every generation. For the first performance, the three female main roles were played by Annie Krull (Elektra), Ernestine Schumann-Heink (Klytaimnestra) and Margarethe Siems (Chrysothemis). Even the part of the little sister is highly dramatic, but Siems was also the first to master Zerbinetta’s coloratura tirades in Ariadne on Naxos a few years later! The voices are almost embedded in the fabric of the orchestra, and on one occasion during rehearsals, Strauss is said to have instructed von Schuch to: “Play stronger. You can still hear Schumann-Heink.”

Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Annie Krull

In Klytaimnestra’s mezzo part in particular, Strauss removed the tonality in a few places in her monologue, ‘Ich habe keine gute Nächte’ (I have no good nights). Inspired by Wagner’s Tristan chord, Strauss took a leap forward in portraying Klytaimnestra’s grotesque nightmares with an atonal style, albeit in a short sequence. Strauss continued with his leitmotif style, which he developed from Wagner: each of the characters has been given their own individual leitmotif, as well as certain progressions and relationships. For the main theme there is the dead Agamemnon’s leitmotif, which provides a passionate opening to the whole opera, throwing the audience immediately into the saga. It lingers during the final bars of the work, as though his spirit were present throughout the action.

Elektra took time to filter through to the rest of the world, perhaps due to the difficulty of finding a singer for the title role. It wasn’t until thirty years later when the work reached New York’s Metropolitan Opera that it began to be performed more widely.

“A group of madwomen”

The first performance provoked admiration rather than euphoria, and the response was tentative. After Salome audiences were essentially prepared for anything, and there wasn’t same strong reaction. Elektra took time to filter through to the rest of the world, perhaps due to the difficulty of finding a singer for the title role. It wasn’t until thirty years later when the work reached New York’s Metropolitan Opera that it began to be performed more widely. Strauss was happy with his work, but he also realised that in Salome and Elektra he had reached the end of the line: “In them I have travelled to the furthest boundaries of harmony and mental polyphony, and what the human ear is now capable of perceiving.”

"Elektracution" a satirical illustration drawn after the premiere, 1909
Felix Jüttner

He had the agreement of Schumann-Heink, who played Klytaimnestra in Dresden. Afterwards she swore she would never sing the part again: “It was frightful. We were a group of madwomen. There is nothing beyond Elektra. We have lived to reach the furthest boundaries in dramatic writing for the voice with Wagner. But Strauss goes beyond him. His singing voices are lost. We have come to a full stop, and I believe Strauss himself understands this.” Strauss was resigned: “Next time I’m going to write a Mozart opera.” And that’s exactly what he did, with Der Rosenkavalier. His rebellious phase had come to an end. 


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