Christa Ludwig, Superstar

Friday, January 24, 2014 - 01:00 PM

Last week, Christa Ludwig led a master class as part of the Marilyn Horne "The Song Continues” events at Carnegie Hall. In her introduction, Horne described her fellow mezzo-soprano as "one of the greatest singers of the 20th century."

Ludwig's was one of the first opera voices I knew, well before I ever laid eyes on her. Growing up in a household full of LPs, I was particularly drawn early on to a Carmen starring Ludwig. I absorbed all of the music and could pronounce most of the text – even as I later discovered the performance was in German! Back then, operas in the German-speaking world were often performed in that language, no matter which one the libretto was written. Here is her “Habanera."

Ludwig was born in Berlin on March 10, 1928 and grew up in Aachen. Her parents were singers and her mother was her first teacher. Her father became a stage director and manager. She grew up in the milieu of music and theater and absorbed it all. When Ludwig was seven, she heard her mother sing in Elektra and Fidelio conducted by a young Herbert von Karajan. Germany soon fell under Nazism and then came the horrors of World War II. When she was 16, her family home was destroyed by bombs. After her nation lost the war, Ludwig sang for American GIs in exchange for cigarettes, which were valuable as currency when money was worthless. 

Christa Ludwig was able to understand the awfulness of war and allow her emotional development to deepen without being derailed from her goals. She kept learning music, reading literature, thinking about characters. When German opera houses reopened in 1946, they needed good singers and few were in supply. Ludwig, at 18, was talented, attractive, tall and well-prepared. She was in the right place at the right time. She sang Orlovsky in Die Fledermaus in Frankfurt and was on her way, ultimately to Vienna, where she became a beloved star.

She made her Met debut on December 10, 1959 as Cherubino in a performance of Le Nozze di Figaro with an amazing cast conducted by Erich Leinsdorf that included Lucine Amara (Countess Almaviva); Elisabeth Söderstrom (Susanna); Giorgio Tozzi (Figaro); Kim Borg (whom I do not know of, as the Count); Regina Resnik (Marcellina) and a young Teresa Stratas as Barbarina. The reviewer in the World Telegram and Sun singled out “the new Cherubino – Berlin-born Christa Ludwig, a leading mezzo at Darmstadt, Salzburg and a valuable acquisition. Gifted with a bright, warm voice; Miss Ludwig was a lively and believable Cherubino. Her singing was precise and even, each tone clear and true, and her Italian rippled along like a second music.”

Ludwig had a remarkable first season at the Met, her only one in the old house. Two weeks after Cherubino came Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, with Lisa della Casa (Marschallin), Söderstrom (Sophie) and Leinsdorf conducting. Two weeks after came played Amneris, and then a week later Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde, with Birgit Nilsson and Karl Leibl in the title roles, and Karl Böhm conducting. In short order, she was in big leagues and acquired a large and passionate following in New York.

She returned in 1966, to the new house, as the Dyer’s Wife in the Met premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten, with Leonie Rysanek (Empress), James King (Emperor) and the man who was then her husband, Walter Berry, as Barak. During the run, she added Ortrud from Lohengrin in a new production that was to be staged by Wagner’s grandson Wieland in his Met debut. But he died suddenly a few weeks before opening night. Nonetheless, it was very effective as staged by Wagner’s assistants.

If you are a younger reader whose operagoing has been based mostly on seeing physically attractive, even-tempered singers, I want you to listen to this short segment from a live performance of Lohengrin. It is incredibly rare for there to be applause during an act of a Wagner opera. And yet Ludwig’s performance of Ortrud’s curse of Elsa was so hair-raising that it brought the performance to a halt as the crowd went wild. This is the level of artistry and intensity we want from opera singers, no matter the role, that is in such short supply today. When you meet older operagoers who pine for the way things used to be, this is what they are missing. Listen:

Even as she sang the heavier roles, her voice and technique remained supple enough that she could make a film in 1970 to capture her endearing Dorabella in the complete Così fan tutte. Save this for a rainy day:

She occasionally ventured into soprano territory, carefully picking roles for which she was vocally and temperamentally suited. These included Leonore in Fidelio and the Marschallin.

Ludwig had a special relationship with Leonard Bernstein. Their supreme musicianship and incandescent personalities provided kindling for some blazing nights of music-making. I was fortunate to attend many, but will note only two here. In 1987, I heard all four performances of the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall with the maestro leading Mahler's “Resurrection” Symphony in which Ludwig sang an otherworldly rendition of Urlicht. It was recorded and I encourage you to get it. Here they are in an earlier collaboration in this music.

When Bernstein conducted his Candide and wanted someone both saucy and worldly wise to play the cheeky old Portuguese lady (who only has one buttock) to sing “I am Easily Assimilated," he turned to his old friend.

Christa Ludwig, more than most singers of her time (apart from Marilyn Horne and few others), was as brilliant in song repertory as she was in opera. She refers to a song as “an opera in one minute.” She became an exacting teacher, one who is demanding in the best sense. Space does not permit me to address these aspects of her career now, so I will do it at a future date.


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Comments [21]

Fred Plotkin

Very well stated, GinaK

Feb. 25 2014 05:31 AM

I would like to take a slightly different direction in this discussion that was set off (I guess we can say) by an intelligent appreciation by Fred Plotkin of Christa Ludwig.

Ludwig was one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, and I think perhaps we should be asking what made Christa Ludwig a great singer and what we can learn from her.

First of all, Ludwig did have certain advantages. Her father was a stage manager and director and his principal conductor in Aachen was a very young Herbert von Karajan, one of the greatest (and eventually one of the most powerful) conductors of the 20th century. Her mother was a singer who had almost exactly the same kind of voice as her daughter, so she knew how to make the best of such a voice. Ludwig was also a child during the Second World War and knew homelessness, poverty, and what it is like to be trapped in the nightmare that war and its aftermath is.

But what did Ludwig do as an artist? Just for fun I was watching “I am easily assimilated” on UTUBE, a “role” that was difficult for her but which shows a lot of her strengths. I should say first, though, that what keeps coming through is her glorious voice, which was both God-given but also carefully nurtured and trained. Listening to her “play” with her voice is delightful.

What I hear is a singer who knows the little part she is playing inside out and backwards and does a really extraordinary job with every word and has a good time “making sense” of what is often nonsense. She doesn’t throw anything away or take anything for granted or act superior to the part. Her object here is to let the audience have a good time, and from the reaction I hear on the tape, the audience does. Imagine what a singer like this can do in a language where she is more comfortable and in a part that is much richer musically and psychologically.

Ludwig did the same things at the opera time and again as she did with "I am easily assimilated." She always knew her part inside out and backwards, and she had thought long and hard about the human being she was trying to portray on the stage in a deeply human way, whether it was a silly boy like Octavian who grows up during the opera, or a scolding wife (Fricka and perhaps Klytamnestra), or a human being trapped in a horrible situation (Kundry). She uses everything – the words, the music, her body, and her ideas to give a performance designed to move and/or delight the audience. She never sang a role. She always sang a human being.

These I think are what singers can learn from Ludwig.

Feb. 24 2014 03:44 PM
Suzanne 57 from Ithaca, NY

Here's a comment from a different person, also named Suzanne--

What I love about the situation, when people today say "You should have seen / heard X," is that in so many cases, there's a decent recording that captures at least something of what made X special.

When we were young, there was the same amount of "Opera today is nothing, you should have heard Y," which maybe says something about the human condition, I don't know!

Sadly, there wasn't nearly the documentation of THOSE old singers, and of course some great names (who still deserve to be remembered, after all, because they are links in the tradition that stretches back to the beginning) were never recorded.

It's fun to read constructive things that people have to say, on this site; the sniping about who's being rude and discouraging is much less engaging.

Thank goodness for recordings, and for people's memories. I'm glad I was listening to WQXR in the days of George Jellinek; I learned so much from him.

Jan. 29 2014 07:17 PM

I am not a younger fan technically (although the average age of the opera fan is significantly above mine, no?), but I spend a fair bit of time with the younger fans on Twitter, as well as fans of all ages, who are tired of this 'the past was better, you just don't KNOW what good opera is' schtick. I think many of us find the "kids these days' approach to opera patronizing and unwelcoming, and unrealistic since these performers got their fair share of bad notices and comparisons to the greats of the past in their day as well. This rose-coloured glasses of the musical past applies across genres every time a significant new artist, be it in pop, rock, classical, etc, appears. I've said many times that the tired old comparing of the hot young soprano to Callas is basically the kiss of death to aspiring opera singers, for example.

I'm not grandstanding; I'm angry that this is what discussion of music amounts to time and again; with the message to today's performers always underlined with the reminder that they couldn't possibly be as good as the singers of the past. We aren't supporting the art in its present form by doing this; we're setting goals and standards that today's singers can't possibly attempt to reach because no matter what they'll be told they're no Callas/Sutherland, et al. I am angry that we're continuing to damage the art from one side of our mouths, and then lamenting the decline of opera companies from the other. What are we achieving by doing this but turning off potential newcomers to the art? This is a question nobody will actually answer, but it's just masturbatory to write stuff like the above.

Opera is certainly not a purely theatrical art, but it is being delivered nowadays with the emphasis on such, and the visuals are likely what's going to initially attract new fans. With opera audiences aging rapidly, this is the group that opera companies are marketing towards, because they have to face the financial reality of running the company, and that isn't attracting an audience like this who complain that the singers today aren't like the so-called greats of the past. I reiterate; if we don't make a place for newcomers to the art in opera, the art will die, and writing stuff like the above just closes another door to newcomers. Please, I implore you, let's stop using singers of the past as a tool to beat the singers of today with; I wouldn't be motivated to be a great artist either if I had to endure these fruitless comparisons.

Jan. 28 2014 11:14 AM
Rotund Falstaff from A Restaurant

Mr. Plotkin and Mr. Atamian; if I were you, I wouldn't even bother responding to this. She's just grandstanding and going way off the deep end regarding things you're not even writing. I think, Suzanne, that you've failed entirely to define what you mean by theater. If you mean theater is a solely visual experience, that's just false. What Mr. Plotkin and Mr. Atamian are praising are artists who manage to combine musical talent, physicality, and emotion to form a complete and powerful performance. These types of singers, as they mention regarding Ludwig, are always rare, no matter the age, and I don't think they're discrediting other performances, simply by acknowledging that there are ghosts of the past. In no way are either saying that "young people" don't or are unable to understand the art form. Mr. Atamian's radio show would prove the exact opposite of that.

I've now read and/or listened to both these men's work for years (I believe I've heard Mr. Atamian on the radio for at least two years), and I've never heard them look down on singers due to anything that did not relate to their performances. Judging how often both these men describe current performances (and, more often than not, very positively at that) at the Met on their shows, I don't think they really live in the past, and it's insulting to them when you say that they do. They clearly find value in attending modern-day performances, for why else would they spend hours (and probably large parts of their respective budgets) on attending performances? More importantly, judging by their work, I hardly believe they look down on young audience members who like Grigolo, whatever their opinions are of the singers. Both of them seem driven by their love of this art form, and they celebrate both the past, present, and even future in their work. The world needs more commentators like them.

And sorry, dear, but, if you're in your late 30s, are you necessarily the best spokesperson for what "young audiences" respond to most strongly?

Jan. 28 2014 09:12 AM

Oh heavens, looks have been part of the package from the beginning of our operatic history. Flagstad herself was told not to run to fat when she was coming to the Met for the big Wagnerian roles, as she was told "Your slender, youthful figure is not the least reason you were engaged." It's much less an issue of physical beauty than it is of weight; it's simply really hard to believe that someone who can hardly move around on stage (I am thinking of Johan Botha's recent outing as Otello) is a dashing romantic figure worthy of love and romance, quite frankly. I also disagree with your belief that Carmen need not be attractive; she is a mysterious figure dramatically speaking and without some sort of physical attraction it's hard to think why she captivates Don Jose. It's the same story with Violetta; very little reason to drive the initial attraction without an attractive woman behind it. Anna Netrebko's sensuality in her Violettas made her really come to life and made us believe that Alfredo could be captivated by her, for example. It isn't that unattractive people don't fall in love, it's simply that people don't particularly come to the theater to see that happen. Again, let's face reality.

I agree entirely that guts and personality are what really drive a singer to greatness; that's why so many of them remain bland and in the background. I'd far, far rather see someone on stage who is less ideal vocally and yet is so dramatically compelling that it doesn't really matter than a pretty voice with no security in their self on stage. The talent to me lies mostly in their ability to get that across. Hildegaard Behrens comes to mind; she was really not very well suited vocally for the heavy dramatic roles she did, and it exposed the expanding hole in the middle of her voice, and yet her stage performances were so compelling that it simply became secondary to this.

I reiterate; it isn't about wanting to see pretty faces. It's about attracting a younger audience by capturing their interest theatrically first, and vocally second, to an art that takes time and learning to understand and love fully. If all we do is shred them and the companies that put them on stage and long for the artists of the past, we may as well call a halt to the art altogether. Opera cannot survive if it's just enjoyed as a relic, and kneecapping criticism of young artists and fans is a surefire way to help kill it forever.

Jan. 27 2014 12:30 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York City

Suzanne, It looks like we wrote our comments at the same time, so any confusion is due to timing. I am hardly living in the past (or I would not go to opera as often as I do). I have taught opera for decades (I wrote the book!) and I am very mindful that when I encourage students of all ages to attend performances, they will be seeing and hearing the singers on hand. And there are plenty of good ones, as I have stated. I think you understand by now that I don't find fault with them, but with opera companies and the managers who make decisions. And with the artist's managers who pick one singer rather than another to represent based on looks rather than talent. They have become subservient to the opera companies and their demands. All of them are doing a disservice to the art form. I know some plus-sized sopranos who have glorious talents and voices--real artistry--and they are entirely ignored. I have seen numerous handsome tenors who look like onstage boyfriend material but have mediocre voices and above all are really bad singers. This is not good for opera and ultimately will not develop audiences. Needless to say, one can have a great voice and be a bad singer, or have limited vocal resources and be a wonderful singer. The luckiest ones have gorgeous voices, great talent, physical beauty, charisma and are good colleagues. But there are only a few of those in every generation. By the way, I think Rene Pape is one of the greats, and have said so in print and in public discussions. He has it all. Just to warn you, the next column will also be about a singer from the past. I am not trawling memory just happens that there is a major anniversary. And we can learn from the past. All great singers do, and audiences can too. But most of what I write about, as I am sure you will agree, is in the here and now.

Jan. 27 2014 12:28 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York City

Suzanne, Thanks for your comments. I am glad you care enough about opera to engage in this discussion. However, you completely disregarded my central point in my previous response: that the fault lies with the opera companies who insist on pretty faces and bodies where they might not contain the best voices and artistry. It does not lie with the singers themselves. If the entire package is there, then great. Jonas Kaufmann is clearly very handsome and charismatic, which helps in certain roles, but the key thing about him is that he is a marvelous artist. Piotr Beczala is elegant as a man, but also as a singer. No compromise in artistry there. I think mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, a young singer I commend to you if you do not know her, is quite beautiful but she also is a serious and superb artist. She, Kaufmann and Beczala also have great voices. I am happy to attend their performances any time. But if there are other singers who lose work opportunities because they are not considered attractive even though they have wonderful voices and are great artists, that is not their fault and it also is really bad for opera. If Deborah Voigt (whom I adore) felt intimidated by the long shadows of Nilsson and Flagstad, she is hardly alone in that. But part of any great singer's toolkit are the guts and enthusiasm to go onstage and seize the moment. Voigt has this, and so does Anna Netrebko (avoid "Trebs" please). In addition to Netrebko's vocal and physical beauty, audiences respond to her immediacy and energy, which have nothing to do with looks. It is called talent.

Jan. 27 2014 12:00 PM

Fred, I'm answering your reply separately: I have read your articles fairly regularly, and they've finally reached with me a point of complete frustration and exasperation, topped off by your needling remark to younger fans (who you aren't attempting to teach anything here but how to effectively insult and turn off an entire generation of opera fans). You really are harming the art in your writing like this, and it's time you hear this.

First of all, please stop pretending that all of the great artists that are now dead or retired were one of a kind and universally admired and cannot be replaced. That dreadful Manuela Holterhof book on Cecilia Bartoli pointed out that after Callas left the stage, she would sit alone in her apartment and read her old notices where she was routinely shredded, and wonder aloud to visitors why they didn't like her. This is the artist who posthumously is referred to as the 'bible of opera', who is the benchmark of comparison for all singers (kiss of death that is aside). She had to sit alone in her apartment and wonder why people didn't like her, and now she's practically an operatic fetish. This is the horrible, cannibalistic way we treat artists, again and again, discouraging and berating them while they're on stage, and the minute they leave bemoaning how we've lost a great artist. I saw this recently when Natalie Dessay announced her retirement, with everyone wailing about What A Shame it was. I don't disagree that Natalie is in pretty rough vocal estate, but she endured bad review after review after finally throwing up her hands and quitting, and making no secret of how discouraged she was by opera in general. We cannibalize these artists by doing this, and this type of writing is to blame.

Secondly, it's time to face reality. If you want to encourage new opera fans to like the art, you have to make it attractive to them. It isn't that unattractive people don't fall in love, but people attending a theatrical performance are paying close attention to the visuals. Yes, it's a bit shallow, but it's time to realize that the visuals are becoming an important part of the performance, and if that's something opera companies with dwindling resources need to maximize to keep the art alive, then you should hold off on critiquing them for that more than you do. Sometimes you have to use slightly cheaper techniques to achieve a longer lasting, more pure artistic effect in the end, and you are starting to reap the benefits of that. Look at Trebs; she gives remarkable, outstanding performances and is moving securely into some really fine Verdian work. Look at Rene Pape being the greatest Wagnerian of our generation; women respond to him not for his looks, but for his visceral intensity and forcefulness on stage. There is more happening here than looks, but looks can be gateway for a younger crop of fans. Don't ruin that with whiny purism when it's saving an art for a generation to develop deeper tastes and understanding.

Jan. 27 2014 11:58 AM

Thank you Stepan, but I should point out I've been listening to opera for 20 years, although I'm not quite yet out of my thirties, and am well familiar with most operatic artists, both of the distant past and the current crop, Ludwig included. I'm aware of what a fine artist she was, entirely.

However, I remain firm in saying that I think this type of crappy remark about how 'younger fans just won't understand' doesn't serve the art of opera; rather it just kneecaps the interest of younger fans, as well as kneecapping the artists of today by indicating that they are merely just pretty faces thrown on stage rather than any great talent. How motivated would you be to discover more about such an art if you had older fans rolling their eyes at your enjoyment, say, of Vittorio Grigolo? While I realize he's very much in the light-and-fluffy operatic category, if he's the doorway for younger fans to discover the art, who are you and Fred to dismiss that? And how dare you sweepingly dismiss all but a few of the efforts of modern opera singers by sneering that they couldn't possibly be as good as their predecessors?

Deborah Voigt indicated that that was one of her greatest frustrations in performing Brunhilde; while she didn't wish to be declared better than the legacies of Nilsson, Flagstad, et al, she wished to be evaluated on her own merits and not compete with the ghosts of the past. This is a courtesy fans like you don't extend to her, and not only does it undermine her artistic ability or her unique contributions, it makes it so that opera cannot continue because it can't trump its predecessors, and so, according to your critiques, we'd be better off winding the whole art into its shroud and sitting at home weeping to our old Bohm and Abbado recordings of the past.

No, I maintain; if you want to keep the art alive and infuse new generations with enthusiasm for it, you have to stop this crappy undercutting of both newer artists and fans, and give them time and encouragement to grow into the art and to develop richer, better performances, which will in turn help us step away from the bright shiny marketing technique of putting pretty faces on stage to attract new viewers and help us aim for better artistry and finer, richer performances. However,it is worth pointing out that putting pretty girls on stage to give the disinterested parties accompanying their spouses something to look at is a staging trick that is old as the hills.

Living in the past with opera is a surefire way to ensure it'll become part of the past, nothing more. This type of criticism is just operatic necrophilia, and just kills the art little by little.

Jan. 27 2014 11:37 AM
Fred Plotkin from New York City

To Suzanne and Stepan, Thanks for your discussion. I am glad to see younger people discussing opera seriously. That bodes well for the art form. Suzanne, I suspect you either don't read my articles that often or don't quite understand what I am after in what I publish. As someone who teaches opera to people of all ages, I very deliberately do not try to suggest that there are no good singers now. There are. Where I find fault is not with the singers, but with the opera companies who insist on putting forward pretty faces and nice bodies, thinking that is what will please audiences. The point about opera (and I say this as someone who came up in theater) is that this is an art form where music and voices come first. The believability comes in how the singer sings, not how she or he looks. And I suggest that you reconsider the notion that only attractive people fall in love. Look around. There are people with every kind of appearance falling in love, and having relationships, all the time. Who says that Mimi and Rodolfo are supposed to be good-looking? I think a fair case could be made that they both are plain-looking. That to me would be more believable in the context of La Bohéme. There are very few roles in which being good looking is a requirement and those that are will be cast with singers who have pretty faces. Examples of these might be Violetta or Billy Budd. But, to name two very famous sexy roles, there is no reason that either Don Giovanni or Carmen have to be physically attractive. But they do have to be sexy and charismatic, which plenty of people who are not traditionally pretty are. When I present singers of the past and present in my articles and describe what makes them special, it is about how they sing and act. It is about how they connect to roles and bring them to life in an opera production. The fact that Christa Ludwig actually was and is a very attractive woman did not enter into my discussion of her. She is a great artist, one of the very greatest, and it was my hope that readers would draw from my words, and especially from the audio and video I posted, how really extraordinary she is. There are certain artists--including Nilsson, Sutherland, Horne, Domingo, Pavarotti, Ludwig, Rysanek, and more--who are one of a kind and whose likes we will never see and hear again. We should be glad that we have recordings and video so we can experience these singers to some extent. I happen to not be nearly as ancient as you seem to think, so I too discovered many of these artists through performances documented on disk and on screen. I encourage you to do the same.

Jan. 27 2014 02:09 AM

Well spoken (and written) Suzanne and Stepan. How nice to see serious discussion here.


Jan. 27 2014 12:46 AM
Stepan from New York

Part 2

Christa Ludwig was that type of singer, and yet she never allowed her ego to trump her own artistry. Each time she went on the stage, Ludwig gave her entire body, soul, and voice to the audience. Even in roles like Fidelio, which she described as her problem child and with which she always had difficulties, her dramatic commitment always remained. I'd ask you just to listen to this live performance of Abscheulicher to get an understanding of what I'm saying:

In the case of Christa Ludwig, she probably was a once in a lifetime singer. Despite my respect and love of so many singers, I can't think of one singer who contributed so much in his/her capacities as a singer. In opera alone, it's hard for me to think of better performances of Fricka, Waltraute, Ortrud, Venus, Fidelio, Kundry (Waltraud Meier excluded, perhaps), der Komponist, Dorabella, Brangäne, die Färberin, Klytämnestra and countless other roles. Yet I always hope to, and I am pleasantly surprised on the occasions that I do. Christine Goerke, for example, just gave one such performance as the Färberin in the Met's Frau in November. I don't understand your belief that criticism from older audiences is discouraging, for it simply is not. Comparison enriches debate, and the idea that a certain and significant sector of the audience should be ignored is maybe the worst reaction possible. I've had fascinating discussions with both neophytes and individuals who've been attending the Met since Kirsten Flagstad's heyday.

Perhaps to the dismay of your argument, I doubt Mr. Plotkin would suggest Ludwig only gave vocal purity to her work, for she never just gave vocal purity to any of her performances; she gave everything. That was her gift to us all.

If I am wrong about Mr. Plotkin's intentions with this piece, I do hope he'd correct me, but that's my two cents on the matter, Suzanne. I hope, at the very least, that my response piqued your interest in Ludwig's work, and I'd encourage you (a small promotion of my own work) to listen to WKCR 89.9FM New York tomorrow from 9:30AM-noon, when we'll be playing her Winterreise recording. I'd also recommend your checking out our website to hear the interview we did with her from last week.


P.S. I'd just like to add that Christa Ludwig often looked stunning on stage. Check out photos of her Dyer's Wife or Carmen, not to mention her Marschallin!

Jan. 26 2014 10:01 PM
Stepan from New York

Part 1

Dear Suzanne,
I understand how upsetting it can be to have older opera audiences look down on you, if you are a younger operagoer. I also understand how frustrating it is when your opinions aren't taken as seriously by others due to your age. Mr. Plotkin kindly mentioned me in his comments; I am a student programmer at WKCR and have been an avid operagoer for years. I would like to defend Mr. Plotkin's article, regarding what you suggest he is stating.

First off, I disagree strongly that loving opera requires a lot of time studying opera. While I think study and education can and do enable us to better appreciate, understand, and love opera (as is the case with studying any subject), I'm sure many here, both young and old, would agree with me that the moment they loved opera had little to do with studying. I remember the visceral reaction I felt when attending an outdoor HD screening of Suor Angelica. With little knowledge of music, Italian, or the thematic material, I still felt the same overwhelming emotions the most experienced opera goers feel at a good performance of this work. I find that the barriers you're describing actually emphasize the fact that young opera goers are attracted by the "shallow superficial aspects of opera," which you justly recognize as wrong.

I don't think Mr. Plotkin is suggesting that young people don't understand the deeper attraction behind opera, but he is reinforcing the unique qualities a singer like Christa Ludwig possessed. Sadly, I wasn't alive by Ludwig's last Met performance, but, the moment I discovered her performances, I recognized the extraordinary talent of this particular performer. Simply put, Ludwig had one of the most glorious voices of all time, and, more importantly, she knew how to express and communicate through her voice better than just about anyone else.

If you are offended that Mr. Plotkin described our generation as being more accustomed to "physically attractive, even-tempered singers," I can't exactly find fault with his particular sentiment. While there are some singers who bring extraordinary dramatic potency to their work with enormous personalities to match (a singer like Karita Mattila comes to mind), normalcy has taken a certain hold in the opera world. While I can see oversized personalities as not particularly desirable in the age of director-driven stagings (imagine Leonie Rysanek in a Robert Wilson Wagner production), those same singers often manage to bring electricity to stagings of umpteenth revivals of Tosca and Boheme. Among all singers, there are some who express the mystery of their souls every moment on the stage.

Jan. 26 2014 09:59 PM

Thanks for the crappy potshot at younger opera fans, Fred. You really make the opera universe welcoming to newcomers to the art when you kneecap them like that. Well done. Add another nail into the coffin of opera, but do enjoy the satisfaction of snubbing people who perhaps are attracted to the art for the first time by a remarkable performer who happens to be a nice-looking person. Very witty.

Honestly, why do you think such a remark does anything but help kill this art form, little by little? Opera is not an easily accessible art form due to the typical barriers (language, plots that are often nonsensical in modern times, the style of singing which is unfamiliar, the various regional styles in which the opera is written, etc), and it takes some learning and patience to get to really loving it. When you write stuff like that patronizing bit of garbage, all you do is shut the door in the face of younger fans, because we 'couldn't possibly understand' what the great singers were like and are just attracted to shallow superficial aspects of opera, rather than good old-fashioned vocal purism, hmm? This, right here, is the heart of why older and younger operagoers have nothing to say to each other, because you shut the door before we can even begin to glimpse inside with such dreadfully catty writing. It's hard to long for richer performances when you are told you just don't know what real opera is.

I'd like also to point out that opera is delivered to us in modern formats now; both in HD and online, and that's how most younger viewers access it. It is much more so than in the past less of a vocal art and much more of a theatrical and visual one, because that's how opera companies are staying afloat now, instead of prying the pennies out of the pockets of the older crowd like you who do nothing but gripe about today's performances. If it's going to be more of a visual and theatrical art, then, the performers simply have to look better than they used to. It's not just about liking to watch Trebs and her pretty face, for us, it's about really being able to be able to believe that the young ingenue who is playing Violetta or Juliet or whatever is going to be the love interest of her tenor. It is, in a more visual format, harder to swallow when you're looking at a larger or older singer. I say this hesitantly because opera seems to be the last theatrical art form where body weight isn't supposed to matter....but in the digital era, it's beginning to matter much more.

All you do in writing such things is wind the art form little by little into its shroud. Opera criticism from the older crowd is discouraging, and hurts the performers and the art form, and you should be properly ashamed of yourself for contributing to that.

Jan. 26 2014 02:50 PM
Gregory Mowery from Portland, OR

I can't believe the Met--no Rudolf Bing--waited six full years before re-engaging Christa Ludwig for the Met after such a spectacular first season. Imagine singing Cherubino, Otrud, Octavian, Amneris and Brangane and then having to wait for six seasons to return!

Christa Ludwig's great career was truly spectacular. She sang everything and soprano parts too. I love her records to this day and I'm grateful I lived in New York when giants like Ludwig were regular visits to the Met. She left a huge legacy and an adoring audience.

Jan. 25 2014 02:50 AM
Fred Plotkin from New York City

Thanks, readers, for your comments and corrections. Indeed, Ludwig sang Cherubino on Nov 6, 12 and 24, 1960, which was part of the 1960-1961 Met season. I did not hear the WKCR broadcast because I was in Italy. But I know the very talented young man who conducted the interview. Stepan Atamian, not quite 20, gives all of us opera lovers hope that there will be teachers and experts on the art form for many decades to come. There are other students at Columbia who are passionate and knowledgable advocates for opera. You might recall my article from about a year ago about opera and Columbia University [!/story/281582-columbia-university-great-books-great-opera/], a long and rich relationship. I too was at Ludwig's farewell at the Met, an extraordinary performance and an incredible ovation. I think it is very sad that few audiences react to singers nowadays (and few singers seem to elicit such reactions) where, even twenty years ago, it was quite common. The biggest ovations I have heard lately are for Christine Goerke in Chicago and New York, Karita Mattila in New York and London, and Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros in Salzburg. I gather that Plácido Domingo got such an ovation the other night in Vienna after a performance of I Due Foscari.

Jan. 25 2014 01:58 AM
Rotund Falstaff from A restaurant, NYC

Thank you, dearest Freddy! I wasn't sure if you knew this, but I heard a wonderful interview with her on Columbia University's WKCR last Saturday night on their great opera show. Here's the interview the impressive Columbia student did with her the week Ludwig was in New York! Such an extraordinary treat to hear her on NY airwaves :)

Jan. 25 2014 12:11 AM


Jan. 24 2014 11:09 PM
Peter Danish from Nyack

It's extremely hard to put into words the artistry of Christa Ludwig. My fondest memory of her was her final performance at the Met as Fricka in a Saturday afternoon radio broadcast. Her ovation at the end of Act One was ferocious, complete with flowers being thrown and confetti from the rafters. I ran into her on the Plaza in front of the Met one afternoon shortly after and got her autograph. I told her we are all terribly sad to see her retire. She replied with a wink: "Oh thank you! But you know, I really not as young as I look!" What a treasure. Great article Fred!

Jan. 24 2014 09:48 PM
Simon Rich from CT

Fred..left you a note on Facebook too.
1959-60 was not the only season Ludwig sang at the old Met.

She came back in the fall of 1960 and sang three more performances of Cherubino -- one of which I saw as my first performance at the Met.

A great article, Fred..about one of the greatest of artists

Jan. 24 2014 09:40 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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