Christa Ludwig in a 90th-birthday interview with Thomas Voigt.
The 11-CD re-mastered Complete Warner Classics Recitals box set is out now.
TV: Vienna, 1955-56. The director of the State Opera, Karl Böhm, is introducing a new mezzo-soprano: Christa Ludwig. He will also record three complete operas with her for the 1956 Mozart bicentennial – The Magic Flute, Così fan tutte and The Marriage of Figaro – marking the beginning of a stellar recording career.
Christa Ludwig: I was a new addition to Vienna’s famous Mozart ensemble. Eberhard Wächter, Walter Berry and I were the youngest members of the team.
You were married to Walter Berry from 1957 to 1970. Viewed from the outside, your union seemed to be a godsend: two singers evolving in parallel and jointly advancing on international careers ...
Yes, for a long time it seemed ideal. The only hitch is that you can never switch off in your private life: the main focus will always fall on your profession. And it’s not as if one party can calm the other’s nerves in joint appearances. On the contrary, it only compounds the nervousness!
How did the recording contract with Columbia (Europe) come about?
Through a Figaro performance under Böhm at the 1956 Salzburg Festival. I sang Cherubino opposite Fischer-Dieskau, Schwarzkopf, Seefried and Kunz. Schwarzkopf’s husband Walter Legge, the Columbia producer, was planning a recording of Rosenkavalier with Schwarzkopf and Karajan, and he signed me up for Octavian.
What did Legge's expertise mainly consist of?
Mainly his deep knowledge of the repertoire and his extraordinary grasp of how a work might ideally sound. He managed to extract new subtleties and hues from even the best artists. He was, after all, the only person allowed to talk back to Karajan on artistic matters. Legge never let a thing pass until it sounded just as he had imagined it. He taught me how to make sunlight sound like sunlight, and rain like rain. I have a perfect recollection of our first recording session for my début song recital: it took us three hours to record Schubert’s Lachen und Weinen!
When we visited him at home he often played us things we could learn from. In my case it was recordings of Lotte Lenya. He said, “You have to interpret the classical lied repertoire in the same way that Lenya sings the songs of Brecht and Weill”. I remember how deeply impressed I was by Lenya in a phrase from Surabaya Johnny: Nimm doch die Pfeife aus dem Maul, du Hund!
The first person to serve you as a major source of inspiration was your mother, Eugenie Besalla. She was a mezzo-soprano in Aachen who sang Leonore and Elektra under its then general music director, Herbert von Karajan.
Those were the high points of her vocal career. Sadly, those excursions into the soprano register caused her voice to age prematurely. That’s why she always warned me not to make the same mistake. I was, after all, no less tempted to sing Isolde, Brünnhilde and Elektra; there were attractive offers from the three central conductors of my life: Karajan, Böhm and Bernstein. But with a heavy heart I resigned myself to singing only the highlights in concert and recordings: Isolde’s Liebestod, Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene and the Recognition Scene between Elektra and Orestes.
The only exceptions to your rule were Leonore in Fidelio and the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten.
And Ariadne, which I put back on the shelf after one season in Salzburg. Renouncing those roles didn’t come easy to me, but it was the right decision. One of my mother’s sayings, which I often quote, is, ‘I hope you’ll keep your voice long enough to discover what it’s all about’. Later I learned what she meant: to read between the lines and enter the depths of the music. Unless you’re a genius, you can only do this at a mature age.
What do you think today when you hear your first recording of Das Lied von der Erde with Wunderlich and Klemperer?
I can’t say, I haven’t heard it in ages. But I know that, at the time, I hadn’t yet discovered ”what it’s all about”. Take those long orchestral passages in Der Abschied, for example. Klemperer asked me, “What does this music mean?” “I don’t know.” “But it’s a funeral march.” “Oh, is it?” I didn’t have the foggiest notion! It was only later, when working with Bernstein, that I understood what Mahler was driving at.
Even so, everything is there in terms of expression. The listener never feels you don’t know what it means.
I’m happy to hear that, and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to make those recordings with Legge and Klemperer. They’re still much sought-after today. I only know that, at the time, I interpreted the music almost entirely from intuition and instinct. I sang for sheer pleasure and didn’t reflect on it. That’s why I was always open to tips and suggestions. I was always a learner, first with my mother, and later with the great conductors and producers such as Legge. I also learned as a listener, whether from Maria Callas, Leonard Bernstein, Marlene Dietrich, Jimi Hendrix or the great violinists who show you what a beautiful legato can be.
In your memoirs you write very candidly about your severe crisis of the mid-1970s, when ruptured veins on your vocal chords forced you again and again to interrupt your career. For years you hovered between hope and despair. What helped you to overcome this crisis?
My mother’s positive attitude, the love from my second husband, the actor-director Paul-Emile Deiber, and the realisation that there are other important things in my life besides singing. In retrospect, I have to say that the crisis helped me to discover my limits, to live with greater awareness, and thus to find the path to myself.
Thomas Voigt, 2018
Translation: J. Bradford Robinson
At one of the glitziest events of the season, held on Sunday at New York’s famed Plaza Hotel, a who’s-who of international opera stars gathered for the ninth annual Opera News Awards.
Presented by Joyce DiDonato, who herself took home Opera News’ prize for distinguished achievement in 2009, the ceremony’s illustrious presenters included Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine.
Hailed “the perfect 21st-century diva” by the New York Times, DiDonato was able to express her profound admiration for a twentieth-century legend, Christa Ludwig, who was among the evening’s honourees in recognition of her 50-year contribution to opera and lieder.
The 86-year-old German mezzo-soprano accepted the accolade in person, clad in an elegant lavender two-piece as inspiring matriarch to a new generation of singers in attendance. Ludwig recorded for EMI from the late 1950s and was appointed Kammersängerin at the Vienna State Opera in 1962, performing with the company for more than thirty years. In 1960, she performed as Adalgisa alongside Maria Callas’ Norma. She had the great gift of moving seamlessly between opera and song recital; among her greatest recordings are Schubert lieder partnered with pianists Geoffrey Parsons and Gerald Moore.
Ludwig has always been known in the opera world as a hard-working, gracious and humble singer, but she can be playful too: in a 2000 interview, at the age of 72, she told Opera News, “You don't know how sexy I can be if I want to.”