The German opera singer Christa Ludwig, died on Saturday 24 April at the age of 93 in Klosterneuburg, Austria, where she lived. Blessed with infallible vocal means and musical intelligence, she was a reference point in a repertoire ranging from Mozart to Wagner and Strauss to Verdi and the Lied.
In 1994 she retired from the stage at the end of her 769th appearance at the Vienna State Opera. She was one of the greatest singers of the 20th century and over the course of a very long career, she established herself as one of the most influential and prestigious voices of her generation in both opera and Lieder.
In an interview she was asked if she was crying at the end of Der Abschied, which was filmed with Bernstein conducting:
It’s true, it often happened at that point, as though something arrived from the heart, the soul, the music, or even Leonard. When my son was 18 he asked me why I always cried as I sang the last words of the Lied. With Kindertotenlieder, which are songs full of emotions, it’s different; in Das Lied von der Erde, also because of the text, the mezzo-soprano voice arrives at a kind of Nirvana, an other-worldly dimension. Suddenly the voice conveys sadness, a tear, and then in an instant it rises again as though rising to the top of a hill…
Ludwig was born in Berlin on 16 March 1928. Her father was a tenor and an opera administrator, and her mother a mezzo-soprano and Ludwig’s first voice teacher.
Ludwig made her debut in 1946 at the age of 18 as Orlovsky in Die Fledermaus at Frankfurt, where she sang until 1952. After appearances in Darmstadt from 1952 to 1954, she sang in 1954-1955 in Hannover. She joined the Wiener Staatsoper in 1955 where she became one of its principal artists and was made a Kammersängerin in 1962. She remained with the company for more than 30 years. In 1954 she appeared in Salzburg as Cherubino and returned there until 1981. In 1960, she was Adalgisa alongside Maria Callas for the renowned EMI recording of Norma.
Ludwig also sang several times at La Scala in Milan. Karajan brought her to La Scala in April 1958 as Waltraute in Die Walküre with Suthaus, Rysanek and Nilsson, and a few months later Georg Szell conducted her in the Missa Solemnis. In 1960 she was Barbarina in Karajan’s Nozze di Figaro with Sena Jurinac and Graziella Sciutti, but above all she sang Adalgisa in the recording of Norma with Maria Callas and Franco Corelli conducted by Tullio Serafin.
In 1961 she was, for one evening, Princess Eboli in Don Carlo alongside Leyla Gencer, conducted by Gabriele Santini. In the same year, she brought her legendary Oktavian to Milan in a historic production of Der Rosenkavalier conducted by Karl Böhm with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in the cast.
She returned for concerts in 1969 with Das Lied von der Erde conducted by Eliahu Inbal and in 1971 with an unusual programme conducted by Zubin Mehta that combined Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder with Beethoven’s Ninth. Claudio Abbado conducted her in 1975 with Lieder from Des Knaben Wunderhorn together with Siegmund Nimsgern, while in 1978 she gave a recital entirely dedicated to Schubert accompanied by pianist Erik Werba.
Ludwig’s last appearance at La Scala was in 1992 during the Philharmonic Season with Rückert-Lieder conducted by Riccardo Muti.
Christa Ludwig’s American debut was in Chicago as Dorabella in 1959. In December 1959 she made her first appearance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as Cherubino and returned there regularly until 1990. Her repertoire was of mezzo-soprano and also some dramatic soprano roles, including the Dyer’s Wife, Judith, Leonora, Dido, Ortrud, Kundry, Marschallin, Charlotte (Werther), Waltraute, Fricka (Die Walküre), Lady Macbeth, Didon (Les Troyens) and Klytemnestra. She appeared at the Bayreuth Festival for the first time as Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde in 1966 and later appeared there as Kundry. She sang at Covent Garden in 1968 as Amneris, returning as Carmen. The three conductors most associated with her are Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein.
In addition to her appearances as an opera singer, Ludwig was one of the most superb Lieder and oratorio singers of her time. She was also an excellent singer of Bach and performed and recorded most of his major vocal works.
In March 1993 Christa Ludwig made he farewell appearance at the Met singing Fricka in Die Walküre. In 1993 she appeared in a farewell Lieder tour in Europe and the USA. Her career closed with concert and operatic farewells in Vienna in 1994.
In 1980 she received the Golden Ring of the Vienna State Opera, and in 1981 she was made its honorary member. In 1989 she was honoured by the French government as a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur and as a Commandeur de l’Ordre des arts et des lettres.
Photo: Franz Johann Morgenbesser from Vienna, Austria, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons