Christa Ludwig, Superstar

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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.