Thursday, July 20, 2006

My Date with Liz

I didn’t want people to get the impression from the post below that my voice lesson with renowned soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was some kind of mutual Aryan love-fest.

Madame Schwarzkopf, former card-carrying member of the Nazi Party, was known during her stage career more for her meticulous interpretive artistry than for her vocal gifts. After retirement, her reputation centered more on legendary stories of ruthless masterclasses; even prima donna assoluta Renee Fleming suffered under what one author called Schwarzkopf’s “confidence-shattering tutelage.”

When I told my teacher back in New York that I was going for a lesson with Schwarzkopf, she said, “Oh boy…”

I walked in and introduced myself in German, and she responded by greeting me in English. The accompanist, also a member of Zürich’s young artist program as an apprentice coach, explained to her that the studio preferred that its members speak in German as much as possible, to strengthen their skills.

She raised a skeptical eyebrow and asked, in English, “How long have you been studying German?”

“Oh, about four months now,” I said.

“Pfft! Then we will speak in English, for I guarantee that my English is superior to your German, and this lesson will be for nothing if you do not understand what I am trying to teach you. Du kannst ja im Migros Deutsch üben, gel? Now, what have you brought for me today?”

“I would like to sing ‘Wohin’ from Die schöne Müllerin by Schubert –“

“I know who wrote Die schöne Müllerin. You DARE to sing Schubert for ME?”


“Then you are either very brave, or VERY stupid. Very well, let us begin.”

Her big issue with me was a good legato, which is an Italian word which means the binding of each note to the next using a solid and steady stream of breath, not punctuated by any aspirant h’s. Unfortunately, the first line of ‘Wohin’ is riddled with them.

If you’re not careful, “Ich hört ein Bächlein rauschen wohl aus dem Felsenquell” comes out, “I-hich hört ein Bächlein rau-hauschen wo-hohl aus dem Fe-hel-se-hen-quell.”

We probably spent 10 minutes with me going, “I-hich –“ “No.” “I-hich –“ “No.” “I-hich –“ “No, again.” “I-hich – “ “No.” “I-ich…” “Yes! That was right, why did you stop?” “Sorry.” “Again.” “I-hich –“ “No.” “Argh. I-hich – “ “No.” “I-ich..” “Yes! Again!” “I-ich hört ein Bächlein rau-hau – “ “NO!”


For 90 minutes. It’s a three page song. We never got to the end.

When time was up she said, “For your age, you are singing this very, very well, however, I must tell you to put it away until you are at least 40.”

Now, Die schöne Müllerin, about a young man who goes off in search of love and adventure, is typically one of the sets of songs that all young baritones start with, so this came as something of a surprise to me.

“You are too young to understand it.”

The accompanist, who was normally a total asshole, surprisingly came to my defense. “But he’s about the same age as Schubert was when he wrote it.”

“Yes,” said Madame. “But Schubert was a genius…and he,” she paused, looking at me, “er ist überhaupt kein Genie.” That much German I understood.


huomiseksi said...

What a withering story. It certainly confirms her existing reputation.

Und was heisst denn auch "Migros"?

Andy said...

It's the main grocery store chain in Switzerland, along with Co-Op.

Andy said...

Basically, for those who are germanically challenged, she said, "You can practice your German at the grocery store."

little-cicero said...

You reminded me of you at my age. Did that make sense? Probably not. Could we say that Andy is the Elizabeth Schwarzkopf to my Little Cicero? :)

David in KC said...

In 1967(when I was almost as young as Little Cicero), I heard Madame Schwartzkopf in recital at Lincoln Center. What I remember most about the performance was the almost hysterical response of the audience at the end. It was more about diva-dom than artistry. She seemed to expect and encourage the response.

I wish I remembered more about the recital. I had just begun listening to her lieder records from the 1950's and had very high expectations. But, by 1967, her voice was not as fresh as it had been.

Congratulations for having made a positive impression on such a great artist.

Anthony said...

I don't know whether this anecdote is well-known across the world, so this is one way of finding out.

As a guest on the BBC radio programme Desert island discs (on which well-known people select 8 records they would take to an imaginary island), Schwarzkopf infamously chose 8 records of herself singing. It's since been suggested that her husband, Walter Legge - the EMI producer of the day - bullied her into doing this.