What’s Wrong With Isolde? A Feminist Critique of Wagner

Clements' view on the subversive role of women in opera is evident in much of her writing with the title of her 1979 book 'Opera: or The Undoing of Women'. The role of women and the restrictive gender politics leading up to women's suffrage in the 20th century, strong operatic heroines dying comes as little surprise when considering that opera composers and literary authors largely were men.[1] This essay will seek to apply Catherine Clément’s theories regarding female subjugation and death within opera to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and to question the validity of Clément’s critique within context of contemporary feminist opera studies.


The 1856 music drama Tristan und Isolde was Wagner's operatic setting of the Celtic folk tale by Gottfried von Strassburg. The opera tells the story of Tristan, the warrior, and his journey to find a healer to cure a fatal war injury. Tristan finds Isolde who attempts to murder him but cannot due to her awe at his beauty. In exchange for healing him, Isolde is taken to Cornwall where she is to marry King Marke. Along this journey, Isolde seeks to poison Tristan and herself to avoid the marriage, however, her maid swaps the bottles and they drink a love potion which then causes Isolde and Tristan to fall deeply in love. The opera is concluded with the Liebestod, in which Tristan is fatally wounded and dies in Isolde's lap. After his death Isolde’s aria mourns the loss of her lover before joining him in unity after death[2].


The trope of a foreign woman marrying into aristocracy for power and losing their identity, and their formerly wild appearance is a key idea in Cléments writing.[3] This subliminal issue accompanies the more significant trope of women in opera, their inevitable demise.[4] In this case, the Liebestod raises several areas of concern if viewing the opera through Clément's critique.

Isolde’s attempt at poisoning both herself and Tristan in act I is subverted which highlights Isolde's subjugation, in the eyes of Clément. In seeking to poison herself she is attempting escape the reality of political marriage. The subversion of this attempt suggests that even though Isolde had sought emancipation, she was unsuccessful and subjugated even further. Clément raises this as a further engagement with the operatic trope of the marriage of foreign women into the ruling classes.[5]

The Love Duet (act II) is the audience’s introduction to the Liebestod which presents Wagner’s idea of unity through death and rejoicing in eternal love.[6] The love duet begins with Tristan stating the melodic idea and Isolde entering three bars later. This stretto entry idea continues throughout the opening of the love duet as Tristan gives a melodic idea and then Isolde repeats transposed or ornamented some bars later. The imitation shows Isolde's reliance on Tristan, the writing shows the subjugation of Isolde, though her lack of authorship of her musical lines.[7] To rejoice in the idea of endless love in this way not being a rejoiceful moment of connection with Tristan, but instead losing her autonomy. Thus, not joining him in the eternal 'love death' but instead becoming subservient to him through adopting his ideas. The imitation does not continue throughout the entire Love Duet. So to view this instead, as a moment of Isolde’s invoicing becomes plausible. The movement away from the strict adherence to the melodic lines stated by Tristan and Isolde’s development of an authorial voice, acts as a moment of emancipation. Although the music was written by Wagner, the audience perceives authorship to lay with Isolde.[8]

The Liebestod exemplifies the subjugation of women in opera due to the somewhat unclear cause of Isolde's demise. The Liebestod ultimately presents an overly romanticised idea of female love and dependence. Without Tristan, Isolde could live no longer. This 'death by man'[9] relates Isolde's death to a long tradition of female death in opera. Isolde's final moment where the orchestra consumes her with the resolving ‘Tristan Chord’, highlights the 'over romanticised' view women’s dependence on love, which further subjugates Isolde.

The orchestral music throughout the Liebestod functions without the vocal line as a piece of symphonic music.[10] This ability for the music to function without Isolde again subverts the meaning of women in opera, with the most pivotal part of the operatic work being fully capable of functioning without the vocal line. This subversion further shows the peripheral nature of Isolde and suggests the issue of male composers writing a female lead in this way to further establish patriarchal norms in society.[11]

Although the Liebestod can be read as an attempt to subvert the role women in opera, I would argue it is Isolde's final act of emancipation. Deathridge suggests that Isolde's death at the end of the work is suicide, where Isolde drowns herself within the music.[12] To view it as suicide allows the Liebestod to be read as Isolde defying subjugation and in death freeing herself from the bonds of a patriarchal society. To consider the Liebestod in this way contradicts Clément’s analysis, as it demonstrates Isolde’s autonomy to take her own life rather than be degraded by patriarchal social constructs.

However, to read her death at the end of the opera as her suicide does not entirely negate all of Clément's argument. At several points in the opera, Isolde’s attempts to gain emancipation are subverted. The Liebestod can also be read as a further subversion in an attempt to gain emancipation. The sound consumes Isolde and the return of the altered Tristan Chord could show Isolde not being emancipated but finally losing herself entirely.[13] Thus, her death not being a literal death but instead an ideological death. Further connections can be drawn as she without Tristan is nothing, and thus her love death not representing her literal death but instead representing the death of her love.

Clément's position as a feminist writer and not a musicologist raises issues when dealing with opera. Clément arguments are issues with the dramatic narrative, and thus the application of her analysis to opera becomes less nuanced through its conflation of opera with literary movements.[14] Bergeron argues, that the ‘anecdotal’ retellings of the works through the text limits their application to opera.[15] Changing aesthetics in both feminism and musicology mean that Clément's argument in many ways is of its time and is entrenched in the issues of feminist critiques of this period. These arguments surrounding the subjugation of Isolde and women in opera more generally are not as pertinent in contemporary musicological thought.[16] Similarly, arguments put forward by other feminist opera scholars directly contradict those seen within the Clément, with Carolyn Abate arguing the antithesis to many of Clément’s points.[17] Finally, although issues raised in Clément’s critique can be applied to Tristan und Isolde, feminist musicology has raised questions over the critique’s validity. Suggesting that if opera is viewed in the way Clément suggests, then we lose a vital point in the liberation of women through opera.


Jonathan Davies, October 2020


Jonathan has also written:

The Mask of Orpheus: The ENO Issue



References [1] Catherine Clément, ‘Opera: or the undoing of Women’, (London, 1989), pp.92 [2] John Deathrige, ‘Postmortem on Isolde’, in Wagner Beyond Good and Evil, (Berkeley, 2008), pp.150 [3] Catherine Clément, ‘Opera: or the undoing of Women’, (London, 1989), pp.59 [4] Ibid, pp.47 [5] Catherine Clément, ‘Opera: or the undoing of Women’, (London, 1989), pp.59 [6] John Deathrige, ‘Postmortem on Isolde’, in Wagner Beyond Good and Evil, (Berkeley, 2008), pp.150 [7] Roger Parker & Carolyn Abbate, ‘A History of Opera; The Last 400 Year’, (London, 2015) pp. 347 [8] Carolyn Abate, ed. Ruth Solie, ‘Opera; Or the Envoicing of Women’, in Musicology and Difference, (California, 1995), pp. 229 [9] Catherine Clément, ‘Opera: or the undoing of Women’, (London, 1989), pp.47 [10] John Deathrige, ‘Postmortem on Isolde’, in Wagner Beyond Good and Evil, (Berkeley, 2008), pp.148 [11] Ibid [12] Ibid [13] Catherine Clément, ‘Opera: or the undoing of Women’, (London, 1989), pp.53 [14] John Deathrige, ‘Postmortem on Isolde’, in Wagner Beyond Good and Evil, (Berkeley, 2008), pp.133 [15] Katherine Bergeron, Review: Clément’s Opera: or the undoing of Women, Cambridge Opera Journal, vol. 1 no. 2 (March 1990) pp. 94 [16] Ibid. pp.98 [17] Carolyn Abate, ed. Ruth Solie, ‘Opera; Or the Envoicing of Women’, in Musicology and Difference, (California, 1995), pp. 225

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