Thursday, August 03, 2006

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Dies at 90

The legendary German soprano died at her home in Austria this morning.

In addition to the lesson I had with her, the members of the Zürich opera studio participated in a grueling week of master classes. I initially approached them with great trepidation; not only because of the ubiquitous stories of her ruthless criticism, but also because, while I recognized her interpretive mastery and the vast wealth of wisdom she had amassed working with the greatest artists of her time, I had never really been a fan of her singing, so I was hesitant to take vocal advice from her.

I needn't have worried about the latter; throughout that week, I never heard her say anything I didn't completely agree with, and most of the time my reaction was, "Thank God someone finally said it!"

Perhaps the greatest frustration of my time in Zürich was that I just felt the people in charge of the program were incompetent. I was always given bad advice with regard to style, technique and repertoire, and so was put in the awkward position of having to try to pretend I was taking their instructions while ignoring them completely.

I couldn't even trust them on German style; one of my audition arias was "O du, mein holder Abendstern" from Wagner's Tannhäuser. Not to toot my own horn, but just before I went to Switzerland I sang it for the Metropolitan Opera's master coach Nico Castel who said, "Andrew, that was one of the most beautiful Abendsterns I've ever heard." It was also one of the arias I used to audition for Zürich, along with the Count's aria. You know, the one that doesn't show anything.

After working with the Zürich folks on the Wagner aria, the beautiful opening recitative became much harder to sing, and I was unhappy with it, though they assured me it was "much better than before." Then I had the opportunity work on it with one of Schwarzkopf's illustrious colleagues, Christa Ludwig. When I was done she said, "All this diction in the beginning is a waste of time. Your German is lovely, but this is poetry, it doesn't mean anything, it's not telling the audience anything they need to know. Tannhäuser is long and boring, and this is the most beautiful thing in it; the audience doesn't want diction, they want VOICE! Think warm, brown gravy, forget the diction, and SING!" So I went back to my old way and she said, "Na ja, that's Wagner!"

That afternoon, coincidentally, I used it to audition for a small German opera house -- which promptly offered me the role. (I had to turn it down, because they wanted me to alternate Wolfram with Germont, and I said I wasn't ready for the latter.)

Everyone in the program, of course, was getting similarly horrible advice. (Oh, I must also mention that I was told to learn "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata" from Verdi's Rigoletto -- because my legato needed improvement. Idiots.)

So the Schwarzkopf master-classes were actually something of a thrill for me because she just flat out said what a lot of the singers in the program needed to know but weren't getting. There was the very beautiful, very musical, very talented young woman who was singing as a mezzo soprano but was clearly a soprano; Schwarzkopf stopped her after one phrase and said, "Why are you singing me Dorabella? You're a Fiordiligi." The girl maintained no, she really was a mezzo, so Schwarzkopf said, "Fine, have it your way, but keep over-darkening your beautiful natural voice like that, and you're going to have problems. Continue, if you wish."

Then there was the 26 year old soprano who back in her native country had already performed Isolde and Kundry. Her voice was like an icepick plunging into your ear, it was a strident, metallic straight tone. The idiots in charge of the studio kept pushing the big repertoire on her for the concerts: it was always Elsa or Sieglinde or Isolde or Ariadne. So she brought "Es gibt ein Reich" for the master-class. Literally she got as far as "E-" before Schwarzkopf stopped her and said, "My dear, what is wrong with your voice?"

Lastly there was the poor Polish tenor. As I said before, Schwarzkopf insisted on speaking to you in your native language or, failing that (as in the case of the Korean soprano), the language you felt most comfortable in. Somehow Frau Schwarzkopf got the impression that the tenor was Italian. He brought in "Il mio tesoro" from Mozart's Don Giovanni, with its flashy coloratura. Of course, Schwarzkopf insisted that the runs be as smooth as possible, with no aspirate h's. The tenor, however, not being Italian, misunderstood what she wanted, and each time she stopped him, he would go back and do the h's even more forcefully. "Gran Dio!" she finally exploded. "What are you doing??? I want LESS ha-ha-ha, not MORE!" The tenor blushed, looked at us, looked back at her and said quietly, "Können wir bitte auf Deutsch reden?"

She paused. "Aren't you Italian?" "Nein, ich bin Polner." "FOR GOD'S SAKE, WHY DIDN'T YOU SAY SOMETHING?!?!?!?"


Burns said...

I love your Betty Blackhead stories! In fact, I love all master-class stories. Odd that it wasn't until her death that we hear that she was the aunt of Gen. Norman...

huomiseksi said...

Those are lovely recollections of Castel and Ludwig. I envy you your memories.

I also envy you, in a way, your memories of Schwarzkopf. You are lucky to have had personal contact with her because she really was a huge figure of our times. I have NEVER been a fan of hers, but I admit that she certainly made a mark on her world. With that voice, that was all tricks and mannerisms, she taught everyone a thing or two about sensibility, aesthetic, and the subjectivity of beauty.

She represents so much: the continuing strain of German culture which, though beautiful and truthful, cannot escape its connection to political and social cruelty. The power of ambition, talent, and image to overcome a variety of limitations. She is one of the people who dared to pick up the threads of the old German/Austrian music establishment and carry it on through the rubble to renewed nobility. We have her and Fischer-Dieskau and Walter Legge and heaven knows how many other mercenary, self-seeking egotists to thank. We don't want to thank them, but we must.

Obviously, I hate to give her her due, but I feel that her passing is somehow momentous. I am rueful that another face from the turbulent life of music in the 20th Century is gone. In terms of impact, she is right up there with Bernstein, Von Karajan, Callas, Pavarotti, and many others. For better or worse, the world that shaped us all is vanishing from view, perhaps never to be reclaimed or properly understood again.

Rachel said...

So sad! All the greats are dropping like flies. I still can't get over Birgit's passing this year. :(