Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Adoring the Anti-Diva: Christa Ludwig

Today is the birthday of my very favorite mezzo ever, Christa Ludwig! This provides an excellent excuse for me to gush, so brace yourselves, Gentle Readers.  I've been an admirer of hers since first listen, which was to her Brangäne for the 1966 Böhm Tristan.  I will always imagine "Habet Acht!" in her voice.  The fact that Ludwig's Brangäne is so emotionally as well as vocally rich contributes no small part to the recording's success, for me.  (She recorded the role again under Karajan.)  So much for the grounds of initial respect.  But it was her Leonore which made me fall in love.

With Jon Vickers, (c) EMI, presumed from Fidelio recording sessions
As long-time readers of this blog will know (all too well?) I have a bit of a thing about Fidelio.  The first recording of the opera I heard was the Bernstein/Janowitz/Kollo.  But the one I decided I needed to own was the famous Otto Klemperer recording.  I still remember the impatience with which I stripped the award-sticker-bearing cellophane from the CDs.  I already knew it was legendary.  I wanted to know what it was like.  And I had a quasi-religious experience sitting in the corner of my couch.  There were pictures of the recording sessions in the booklet: Ludwig was a very ladylike figure in suit, pearls, and perfect posture behind the microphone.  I stared at the photograph trying to see what she was channeling to create Leonore: tender and courageous, resolute on the edge of despair.  And I listened to the recording--over, and over, and over again.  I'm sure the way I bonded with it has something to do with the fact that I was living alone and writing a Master's thesis at the time, but I also think it is just pretty darn great.  Someday I plan to own Ludwig's live Fidelio under Böhm, and find the DVD of the 1963 Berlin performance.  But my obsession with her artistry goes far beyond Fidelio.

I once sent my Respected Father--in response to an inquiry! little did he know what he was letting himself in for--an e-mail trying to represent Ludwig's repertoire.  It included Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Saint-Saens, Mahler (criminally abbreviated,) Wagner (I could listen to her invoking Wotan and Freia forever,) Rachmaninov, and "I am easily assimilated" from Bernstein's Candide  Obviously I left a lot out, including Carmen (I had a hard time imagining that one, I admit, but I was won over,) and her very moving Suzuki and Adalgisa.  (Vaguely apropos, Ludwig has my vote for best opera memoir title ever, as well: Und ich wäre so gern Primadonna gewesen.)  Another happy confluence of my obsessions occurs when Ludwig sings Lieder; check out the dark, passionate energy of her Gretchen am Spinnrade, or the text-caressing of Sapphische Ode.  I recently decided to treat myself to the (cheap for a set!) 5-CD collection The Art of Christa Ludwig, which, while far from exhaustive, does include lots of Lieder, and makes me very happy.

In addition to all this fabulousness, Christa Ludwig strikes me as the sort of warm, sharp-sighted person who would, were she an aunt, dispense good coffee, possibly biscuits, and definitely no-nonsense advice.  See, for instance, this three-part interview (in French.)  Predictably, my favorite bit is when the interviewer asks if she has a favorite role, and she answers "Fidelio--Leonore in Fidelio," almost before the words are out of his mouth... and then, after a pause, adds with burbling laughter: "Or the witch, in Hansel and Gretel! That was fun!"  Then there are gems like her dancing a tango, or the column on page three of a brochure from the Salzburg Festspiele where she cheerfully reminisces, and talks about the present and future of opera with equal good spirits.  And she quotes Rilke (original here):
I live my life in ever-growing circles
that reach out over all things.
I may not bring the last task to completion
but I will make the attempt. 
I circle around God, around the oldest tower,
and I have been circling for thousands of years
and I don't know yet--am I a falcon, a storm,
or a great song?
 May she have many more full years.


  1. Since forever I have admired and loved CL.

  2. That Christa Ludwig is a Good Thing is one of the very few certainties in life.

    Inexplicable that her memoir is not translated in English. Do you think she was a greater star in Continental Europe than the anglophonia? Where did she perform more?

    And it appears she didn't do much bel canto (not unlike my favourite mezzo)?

    I'm bombarding you with questions, but it's Ludwig Day!

  3. (Correction, after I saw the Twitter exchange betwixt you and George: There is an English translation. Carry on...)

  4. @Dr. B. Well, I feel myself in good company. Did you ever get to hear her live?

    @DTO It is comforting to have such certainties. :) Yes, sorry my comment was misleading; the memoir's been translated (,) but "In my own voice" is not a translation of "And I would have so liked to be a prima donna!" She did perform mostly in Europe (close ties to Wiener Staatsoper,) and had some very amusing things to say about the prudishness of American audiences when it came to Octavian. There were Met appearances over several decades, though. And no, not much bel canto; the Norma was rather an exception. Some nice baroque work, though.

  5. I discovered Christa Ludwig last summer, around the time I discovered Fidelio. She's such a beautiful singer, and just seems like a really cool woman. I love the proper title of her memoir.

  6. "...had some very amusing things to say about the prudishness of American audiences when it came to Octavian."

    Please tell more!

  7. What you said Lucy. She is pretty amazing. I love her in Fidelio, she makes a great Octavian and Marschallin, a superb Dorabella (with Janowitz - I also like her in the Bernstein Fidelio all though there are some issues there). A bunch of other things.

    And I did hear her live! I was a wee lad and I came up from school to hear her in Walkure for what I think was her last appearance at the Met.

    Must read bio.

  8. @Christie Isn't it great? Glad, if unsurprised, to know you also love her Leonore.

    @DTO I wish I could find my source to get you the direct quote, but she was commenting on the fact that she was rarely cast for Octavian in the U.S. Paraphrasing: "American audiences want their Octavian to look like a boy. I'm curvier and that's a problem for them. European audiences understand very well that Octavian is played by a woman - it adds something!"

    @marcillac I still haven't heard her Marschallin! It's on the list, as is the Cosi with Janowitz, of which I've only heard sections, somehow. Fricka was her last at the Met... how neat that you got to see it.

  9. The "I am easily assimilated" videos are a hoot. I wish her BDay could last a whole month.

  10. @DTO Well, any day is a good day for Ludwig Day around here...

  11. Liebe Lucy, you may enjoy this then:
    In fact, I am certain you will like it for more reasons than one, or
    p.s. the link may disappear come this Sunday, alas!

  12. Lucy,

    (She recorded the role again under Karajan.) So much for initial respect.

    Actually, I consider her recording with Karajan superior to the others.

    And why would her working with Karajan make you lose 'respect'?

  13. @Pelleastrian: First, I must congratulate you on your chosen moniker, and secondly, I must apologize for unclear prose. I have just revised that sentence to (hopefully) make it clearer that I count the Karajan recording among those which cemented my early respect for Ludwig. I love it; I find the fearless sensuality of Karajan's interpretation a delight, and Vickers' Tristan leaves me speechless every time.

  14. Hi Lucy,

    "First, I must congratulate you on your chosen moniker"


    Yes, Pelleas et Melisande is one of my musical shrines. My only regret is that Debussy couldn't write more music for Genevieve. And how I wish that Acts 1 and 2 would never end!

    "Vickers' Tristan"


    Vickers' Tristan and George Shirley's Pelleas. They reign supreme in my book.

    Btw, your site is very nice: the layout, the typeface and the beige background.

    Well done.


  15. @kalena: Vielen Dank!! What a neat documentary... some refreshingly candid conversation about the state of opera as art and business, I thought. And Ludwig was wonderful. My favorite bit from her is the priceless: "Of course baritones want to sing some of the tenor roles, and mezzos the soprano roles: the parts are prettier! That's what it is: they're prettier! Fidelio was different. Fidelio I always wanted to sing, come what might. Sing it once and then die!"

    @Pelleastrian My first full experience of Pelleas was at the Met this past winter, and it was shattering/transformative/sublime. Genevieve is so fascinating--you know she would have interesting things to say with more music! I must admit that I haven't heard Shirley's Pelleas yet, but I will work to remedy this. Thanks for your kind words.


    Christa Ludwig sings Bernstein's "I am easily assimilated" from Candide


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