Mythic Themes in Opera: The Unknown Bridegroom

Lohengrin arrives with his swan.


Some while ago, I wrote a series of articles about operas based on myths. Now I want to examine a certain mythic theme that shows up in operas. Having just listened to a recording of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” for the purposes of a review, the theme of the “Unknown Wooer” or the “Unknown Husband” came readily to mind.

The oldest version is that of Apuleius in the 5th  century. Here we have a young girl married to a man she must never look upon. When, Cinderella-like, she is taunted by her sisters, she sees him sleeping, learns it is Cupid himself, and loses him for her disobedience. You see, “Love cannot live where there is no trust” (as Edith Hamilton translates it).

Well, the story of Elsa and Lohengrin bears too strong a resemblance to be a mere coincidence. Accused by Friedrich and his evil wife Ortrud of murdering her brother, Elsa is championed by a wondrous knight who arrives pulled to shore by a swan and easily defeats Elsa’s accuser. Since she has already announced that her champion will also be her husband, the knight agrees but on the sole condition that she never ask his name or origins.

Ortrud easily convinces the otherwise perfect Elsa that her accuser had been overcome by magic, and that Elsa had best find out the forbidden details lest she be wed to a sorcerer. True to the tradition of Eve in the story, Elsa cannot resist the temptation and asks her husband on their bridal night. Now he must tell his secret to the whole world, but he can no longer stay with her.

It turns out that he is the Knight of the Holy Grail, Lohengrin, the son of Parzifal; and off he goes, pulled by his “beloved swan”–which just happens to be Elsa’s missing brother, transformed by Ortrud to advance her husband’s status. As for Elsa, there is nothing for it but to sink to the ground as her virtuous spouse sails off.

51oJAJptQqL._AA160_There is a neat twist on this theme in Puccini’s “Turandot.” Here a nameless suitor successfully answers three riddles at the risk of his head and wins the haughty Princess Turandot as his bride. But in a burst of fair play, he tells her that he will lose his head if she can find out his name before dawn.

Another variation comes in Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” in which his new bride Judith cannot resist insisting that he show her the contents of several rooms in the castle. The last one contains all his former wives, who asked the same fatal question about that room, and she joins them as he laments her loss.

Son of the Mikado in disguise (Derek Oldham as Nanki-Poo)

(You might even think of “The Mikado,” in which a semi-divine man, Nanki-Poo, is disguised as a wand’ring minstrel; but he willingly reveals his identity as soon as he is alone with Yum-Yum, so that does not count.)

One artist’s view of Cupid and Psyche

Now what exactly is the meaning of all this? One very obvious similarity is that it is always the Male who imposes the conditions for marriage; and I suppose (alas) that historically this is the correct way of doing things. But why should a man impose such ignorance upon a bride to begin with? Cupid would not allow himself to be seen, no less named. We know from other Greek myths and writers of the time that while Immortals often succumbed to the charms of mortals, they felt degraded afterwards. This, perhaps, lets us into Cupid’s motivation for imposing those restrictions. He was, of course, an immortal and they worked by their set of rules.

Lohengrin was a little more than simply mortal, but he had all sorts of divine backing, which imposed upon him the the duty not to reveal himself. Therefore he had to make those demands on Elsa, since he was required to do so. The Prince in “Turandot” was just being a Good Sport and did not want her in the mood she was in when he unexpectedly won her.

Granted: males can impose conditions and females cannot. But why this condition? Why the prohibition against asking a name? We know that in very ancient Greece, you could put a curse on a chap by scraping his name into a piece of lead and throwing it into the sea. The name IS the man. If you do not know my name, you do not know me; and if you do not know me, I am not vulnerable to you, I am in no danger from you, you have no power over me.

Bluebeard and latest wife, according to Gustave Dore

Well, that seems to fit Cupid and Lohengrin to a greater and lesser degree. The Prince is daring Turandot to find his name, knowing full well that she will not succeed. Though why this should make her love him is only for the mythographers to say. Bluebeard might bring us closer to the answer by forbidding his wife to look into his rooms. Of course, here the symbolism is pretty obvious. The rooms of a man’s mind are not always open to others, even to a Beloved. So it is not so much No Girls Allowed but more of a general No Admittance, Private Property to one and all.

I am not offering any definitive answers. Just consider the power of this mythic element and perhaps ask yourself a few questions.