Work on the opera began in 1911. Hofmannsthal’s earliest sketches for the libretto are based on a piece by Goethe, “The Conversation of German Emigrants” (1795). Hofmannsthal handles Goethe’s material freely, adding the idea of two couples, the emperor and empress who come from another realm, and the dyer and his wife who belong to the ordinary world. Hofmannsthal also drew on portions of the Arabian Nights, Grimm's Fairy Tales, and even quotes Goethe's Faust. The opera is conceived as a fairy-tale on the theme of love blessed through the birth of children. Hofmannsthal, in his letters, compared it with Mozart’s Magic Flute, which has a similar arrangement of two couples.
Strauss began composing immediately. He and Hofmannsthal worked on music and words in parallel, each receiving inspiration from the other. Strauss was happy with Hofmannsthal’s text, but asked him to rewrite many passages for the sake of dramatic effect. Hofmannsthal was adamantly opposed and was more worried about the symbolism beneath his libretto. The opera was finished in 1915, during the First World War, but had to wait for its premiere until 1919. The sometimes difficult genesis of the opera is documented in their correspondence.
Strauss himself called this opera his “child of woe” (he even called it "Die Frosch", which in German means frog, that is "Die Frau ohne Schatten"). The complexity of the text and the stress of wartime made its composition a laborious task, and Strauss was also disappointed with the first productions.
Musically, Die Frau ohne Schatten is one of Strauss’s most complicated and colorful scores. In contrast to the quickly-moving Salome and Elektra, it includes extended monologues and scenes. The opera remains a challenge to stage, even for a major opera house, calling as it does for five top soloists in the demanding principal roles, first rate secondary roles, a large orchestra, and elaborate sets and scenic effects.
Scenically, it is also demanding, with all the scene changes and special effects. Children singing out of a frying pan is particularly demanding, as is the final golden waterfall scene. Few opera houses are capable of staging the work.
In 1946 Strauss created a one-movement orchestral piece, the Fantasy on Die Frau ohne Schatten, based on high points from the opera. It was premiered in Vienna in 1947.
The opera's story is set in the mythical empire of the Southeastern Islands and involves five principal characters: the Emperor (tenor), the Empress (soprano), her Nurse (mezzo-soprano or contralto), Barak, a lowly dyer (bass-baritone), and the Dyer's Wife, (dramatic soprano). A sixth character, Keikobad, King of the Spirit Realm and father to the Empress, sets the plot in motion, but never appears on stage. The Empress is not human: she was captured by the Emperor in the form of a gazelle. She assumed human shape and he married her, but she has no shadow. This symbolizes her inability to bear children. Keikobad has decreed that unless the Empress gains a shadow before the end of the twelfth moon, she will be reclaimed by her father and the Emperor will turn to stone.
It is dawn, outside the bedchambers of the Emperor and Empress. The Messenger of Keikobad arrives, and tells the Empress' Nurse that the Empress must acquire a shadow within three days, or will be forcibly returned to his realm, and the Emperor turned to stone. The Nurse is excited about the prospect of returning to the spirit world, since she hates humans and having to dwell with them. The Messenger leaves and the Emperor emerges from his bedchamber. He departs on a three-day hunting trip, seeking his favorite falcon, which he drove away for attacking a gazelle that later turned into the Empress. He leaves his wife to the Nurse's care. The Empress emerges from her chamber and reminisces about times when she had the ability to turn into any creature she wanted; it is revealed that after being attacked by the red falcon that the Emperor is seeking, she lost a talisman that gave transformation powers, and on which was inscribed a curse that foresaw the fate she and the Emperor are about to face if she does not acquire a shadow. The red falcon appears and warns the Empress about it and begs the Nurse to help her get a shadow. The Nurse, who is steeped in magic, suggests descending to the mortal world and finding a woman who will sell her shadow to the Empress.
Barak, an old dyer, shares his hut with his Wife and his three brothers: the One-Eyed Man, the One-Armed Man, and the Hunchback. The three brothers fight about a stolen item and are separated by the Wife, who throws at them a bucket of water. The brothers-in-law then argue with the Wife. Barak enters and stops the argument. The Wife wants to have her in-laws thrown out, but her husband refuses. The Dyer desires children, but his Wife fears the responsibility and has secretly sworn not to have any. The Dyer and his brothers leave, and the Empress and the Nurse arrive in disguise. The Wife wants them out of her house but the Nurse conjures up visions of luxury and promises them to the Wife in return for her shadow. The Wife agrees to deny her husband for three days during which the Nurse and the Empress will live at the Dyer's hut as poor relatives who have come to work as servants. Barak approaches and the Wife is worried that dinner is not ready, the Nurse once more uses her magic to have everything ready, including the separation of Barak's bed. The Nurse and Empress disappear, while the Wife hears the offstage Voices of Unborn Children lamenting, which emerge from the fish that are cooking on the fire. The Dyer returns, to find he is barred from his marital bed; he initially considers this as a good omen, for he knows that women act strangely "during the first days", assuming that his Wife might be pregnant, he hears the Town Watchmen sing of conjugal love and agrees to sleep on the floor.
The Empress, acting as a servant, helps the Dyer leave for work, but is troubled by her role, because Barak is very kind to her. The Nurse conjures up the image of a handsome youth by bringing a broom to life, which tempts the Dyer's Wife. The Dyer returns with his hungry brothers and beggar children. He has had a magnificent day at the market, selling all his goods, and has invited everyone to celebrate. However, his Wife manages to ruin the celebration.
The Emperor, led by the red falcon, sees the Empress and Nurse surreptitiously enter his hunting lodge, and is suspicious. When he comes closer, he smells a human odor trailing the Empress. He resolves that he must kill her. He first thinks of using the falcon, and then an arrow, but both have associations with his finding the Empress and making her human that prevent such a use. He resolves that only his bare hands can be used, then realizes that he can't do it. He resolves to seek out some isolated ravine to be alone with his misery.
At the Dyer's house, the Dyer is drugged into sleep by the Nurse. The Nurse again conjures up the young man for the Wife, who grows frightened and rouses the Dyer. Barak is surprised to learn that there is a man in his house but then is quickly turned on by his Wife, who shouts at him, then leaves for the city, leaving her confused husband. Left alone with the Barak, the Empress feels more guilty than before.
The Empress goes to sleep at the hunting lodge, but in her sleep she is further troubled by her crime and by the possible fate of the Emperor. She sees the Emperor walk into a big hall that she recognizes as her father's realm. Unseen choruses chant the curse of the talisman.
The next day, the Wife gives up her shadow. When light reveals that she has no shadow, the Dyer moves to strike her with a sword that appears in his hand. He is stopped by his brothers as the Wife begs for mercy. The Empress refuses to take over the shadow as it is covered in blood. Everyone is swallowed into the earth. A river floods into the house, and the Empress and Nurse depart on a magic boat, waiting judgment from Keikobad.
In a grotto beneath the realm of Keikobad, the Wife is haunted by the Voices of Unborn Children. She protests that she loves the Dyer, who regrets his attempted violence. A voice directs them up separate staircases.
The Empress and Nurse arrive before Keikobad's Temple. The Nurse tries to convince the Empress to escape but she remembers the doors from her dream and knows that her father is waiting for her on the other side. She dismisses the Nurse and enters. The Nurse foretells terrible tortures awaiting the Empress and misleads the Wife and Barak, who are looking for each other, she to die at her husband's hand, he to forgive her and hold her in his arms. Keikobad's Messenger condemns the Nurse to wander the mortal world.
Inside the Temple, the Empress speaks to Keikobad, asking for forgiveness and to find her place amongst those who cast shadows. Keikobad does not answer but shows the Emperor already almost petrified. A voice urges her to drink from the Fountain of Life, which is there, and claim the Wife's shadow for herself. But the Dyer and the Wife are heard offstage, and the Empress refuses to steal their future happiness and become human by robbing humanity from someone else, singing "I will - not!" This act of renunciation frees her: she receives a shadow, and the Emperor is restored. The scene changes to a beautiful landscape. Barak and his Wife are reunited and she regains her own shadow. Both couples sing of their humanity and praise their Unborn Children.
The opulent 164 piece instrumentation includes:
woodwind: 4 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (one doubling English horn), 4 clarinets, bass clarinet, basset-horn, E-flat clarinet, 4 bassoons (1 doubling on contrabassoon)
brass: 8 French horns (4 doubling on 4 Wagner tubas), 6 trumpets, 4 trombones, bass tuba
percussion: musical glasses, 4 timpani, 5 Chinese gongs, cymbals, snare drum, rute, xylophone, sleigh bells, bass drum, tenor drum, big field drum, triangle, tambourine, 2 castanets, tamtam, whip (slapstick), xylophone, bells,
other instruments: strings (16 I violins, 16 II violins, 6 I violas, 6 II viola, 6 I celli, 6 II celli, 8 double basses), glass harmonica, 2 celestas, 2 harps, glockenspiel
stage orchestra: 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets in C, bassoon, horn, 6 trumpets, 6 trombones, wind machine, thunder machine, organ, 4 tamtams
on-stage: woodwind and horn may play in pit if necessary; two of the on-stage trumpets move to the pit for Act III, thus a total of 10 trumpets is required.