The introductory bars to Richard Strauss's symphonic tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, written in 1896 and exploited to fantastic, otherworldly effect in director Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey may be the most famous single use of classical music in popular film. The German composer, who had made his mark early on with symphonic poems, later attained success—critical, popular, scandalous—with his controversial opera Salome, written just nine years after Zarathustra. Since the work's first performance in 1905, opera occupied Strauss for the larger part of his career, and many of his 15 stage works are among the most frequently produced 20th-century operas. Yet among them, Daphne, which gets a rare concert performance at the Lincoln Center Festival on July 15 and 18 by Franz Welser-Möst conducting the Cleveland Orchestra and a stellar cast of soloists, is less well known and rarely performed.  

Described by Strauss as a "bucolic tragedy," Daphne is based on the ancient Greek myth of the wood nymph who, pursued by both god and mortal, is saved from their amorous intrigues by being transformed into a sacred, laurel tree. The score encapsulates—above all in the title character's transformation scene—some of the composer's most ravishing music. (No surprise, it was Strauss's wife Pauline's preferred work among her husband's operasit's said that she was so moved during the final rehearsal that she gave the conductor Karl Böhm a kiss.) Daphne is a hidden jewel, and here are five reasons why.

  • It's a new direction for Richard Strauss.

    With a libretto by Joseph Gregor, Daphne followed in the wake of Strauss's dedicated, 23-year collaboration with the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal that resulted in the operas Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Die Frau ohne Schatten, among others. The achievement of the celebrated partnership overshadowed Strauss's other collaborative efforts, even with the writer Stefan Zweig, the author of the fine libretto for Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Lady), which also suffered the fate of obscurity in the 1930s because Zweig was Jewish. Libretto aside: In Daphne, Strauss, the experienced man of the theater, created an opera that represents a distillation of his achievement as a composer, pointing the way to a new and final creative phase. [Photo: New York Philharmonic Archives]

    • It suffered from bad timing.

      Begun in 1935, completed in 1937, and given its premiere the following October 1938 in Dresden, led by young conductor Karl Böhm, Daphne arrived on the operatic stage at an inauspicious time, in the midst of the Third Reich and about 11 months before Germany invaded Poland and the world fell into turmoil. Although Strauss had been named or had served as the first president of the Third Reich's music office beginning in 1933, his relationship with the Nazi regime became increasingly strained, in part  because of his refusal to stop supporting the work of Jewish musicians and librettists (Strauss's collaboration with the aforementioned Zweig led to his resignation from the position in 1935).

      • It's fiendishly difficult to sing.

        In addition to the vocal demands placed on the title character—notably, her extended final aria, with its soaring, lyrical unfolding that rests in the soprano's high register—Strauss wrote not one, but two challenging tenor roles:  Leukippos and Apollo (played by Andreas Schager, pictured), Daphne's suitors. It's a one-act opera, but its principal roles, Daphne and Apollo, require the stamina necessary for a full-evening work. (Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra have drawn together a superb international group of singers, led by standout soprano Regine Hangler (pictured), as Daphne, with the vocal range—from resonant low notes to a silvery, light top–and mix of resonant power and evanescence to make this music soar. [Photo: Roger Mastroianni]

        • It calls for a huge orchestra.

          The orchestral writing is no less demanding, and the score overall is one of Strauss's most technically complex (strings divided into 15 parts; frenzied dances with broken rhythms). Numbers add to the complexities.  Strauss's opulent instrumentation calls for the strange, wonderful alpenhorn—a 12-foot long, curved wooden horn used for signal calls in the Alps—in addition to organ and basset horn, along with a full, Romantic-sized orchestra. Not surprisingly, performances are rare. [Photo: Roger Mastroianni]

          • It's not your usual opera tragedy.

            Although Strauss described Daphne as a "bucolic tragedy," based on Greek myth, it is not an opera about loss, as is Orpheus, or about retribution, as in Elektra, but rather something else altogether. Daphne, a child of nature, embodies both chaste purity and bewitching glamour, rejects two suitors, and, through metamorphosis, turns into a tree, becoming for all time a part of the natural world she ardently loves. In Strauss's drama, the greater weight is placed on the bucolic, the pastoral, and on humanity's relationship to the natural world. Given the turbulence of 1930s Germany, when the piece was composed, Strauss's artistic response also suggests a meditation on humanity—the good and the badand an homage to the ideals of Hellenism that had informed German musical culture from the time of Goethe to Strauss's present day (ideals that were increasingly under the shadow of the rising nihilism that seemed intent on destroying that very culture). Notwithstanding the opera's special, evocative, dreamlike quality, there remains plenty of dramatic actiona cattle stampede, the trajectory of Apollo's chariot, Dionysian revels—that delivers full-on bravura.