TV & Radio
Schwarzkopf's Career Had Somber Side: Norman Lebrecht (Update1)
Aug. 4 (Bloomberg) -- The soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who died yesterday at the age of 90 at her home in Schruns, Austria, fashioned herself twice in the image of power.
Endowed with a magnificent voice and trained by the finest teachers in 1930s Berlin, she cozied up to the Nazis, joined the party and, according to her assiduous biographer Alan Jefferson, acted as an eager informant on less enthusiastic colleagues in opera houses.
Rumors linked her amorously with Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who operated a vigorous casting couch, and subsequently with the notorious Hans Frank, music-loving governor-general of occupied Poland who was hanged at Nuremberg in 1946. Schwarzkopf sang in Poland repeatedly during the Holocaust years. She subsequently denied any involvement with the Nazis; when confronted with proof of her party membership, she dismissed it airily as ``like joining a union.''
As a member of the prodigious Vienna Opera cast after the war, Schwarzkopf was spotted by Walter Legge, an ambitious and unscrupulous EMI producer who brought her to London to make records, join Covent Garden and become his second wife (the first, soprano Nancy Evans, was quietly discarded).
Blonde, bubbly voiced and more elegant than the norm in austere Britain, Schwarzkopf was a hit with opera audiences in carefully chosen roles from Mozart to Strauss that showcased her effulgent beauty and rock-solid technique, an ability to take long lines without so much as a flutter of self-doubt.
With Legge as her mentor, she starred in dozens of mainstream opera recordings at the dawn of the LP and stereo boom, many of them conducted by Legge's other Nazi catch, Herbert von Karajan -- most famously, their 1957 recording of ``Der Rosenkavalier.'' As the music industry waxed mighty, Schwarzkopf became a fixture in any home that owned classical records and, with her husband and the conductor, enjoyed a wealth unprecedented in the previously austere classical sphere.
Not all, however, was as rosy as it seemed. Her relationship with Legge was mutually abusive, often vocally so. She fell out with von Karajan after he refused to help her husband when he was sacked by EMI for making heavy profits from an orchestra he owned on the side.
Her unpopularity with fellow singers was an ill-kept secret. Schwarzkopf held herself apart from backstage life and shared little of her art, even in master classes where she seemed more intent on disciplining young singers than encouraging them.
She retired from opera in 1971 and from lieder singing on Legge's death eight years later. Self-regarding to the last, when she appeared on BBC's Desert Island Discs, a radio program where celebrities pick eight albums they consider indispensable, Schwarzkopf chose her own records.
(Norman Lebrecht is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on this story:
Norman Lebrecht at email@example.com.
Last Updated: August 4, 2006 16:25 EDT
August 4, 2006
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, 90; Soprano Brought Elegance, Perfectionism to Opera Roles, Lieder
By Chris Pasles, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, whose luminous soprano voice and searing musical intelligence set standards for postwar singers of lieder and opera, has died. She was 90.
Schwarzkopf died peacefully at her home in Schruns, Austria, near the Swiss border, late Wednesday or early Thursday, Austrian state television reported. No cause of death was given.
One of the supreme interpreters of Mozart, Richard Strauss and Hugo Wolf, among other composers, Schwarzkopf sang with such famous conductors as Wilhelm Furtwaengler, Otto Klemperer, Vittorio de Sabata and Herbert von Karajan. She also collaborated with such eminent artists as baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Gerald Moore.
Her interpretations of the Marschallin, the aristocratic heroine of Strauss' 1911 opera, "Der Rosenkavalier" — captured on video and recording — are considered virtually ideal, and her recording of the composer's "Four Last Songs" with conductor Otto Ackermann may merit the overused word "definitive."
At the composer's request, Schwarzkopf created the role of Anne Trulove in Stravinsky's opera "The Rake's Progress" in Venice in 1951. Her other operatic roles included Violetta in "La Traviata," Gilda in "Rigoletto," Mimi in "La Boheme" and the title character in "Madame Butterfly." But her repertory was wide and included an unforgettable account of the title role in Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow."
"She was mannered. She was beautiful. She was a perfectionist," Times music critic Mark Swed said Thursday. "With her exceptional elegance, extraordinarily fine musicianship and creamy, gorgeous voice, she was simply irresistible. Opera's Garbo, she was probably the most sexually inviting Marschallin of all time."
But, Swed added, "all it took was a short Schubert song for her to wrap an audience around her little finger. And once she had you, she never let go."
Schwarzkopf was born Dec. 9, 1915, in Jarotschin in what was then eastern Germany; it became the Polish town of Jarocin after World War I. As a teenager, she studied at the Berlin Musikhochschule, now part of the Berlin University of the Arts. An erroneous analysis by her first teacher, who thought she was a contralto, nearly derailed her career. But her mother recognized the error and ordered her to change teachers.
Schwarzkopf made her operatic debut as a Flower Maiden in Wagner's "Parsifal" at the Berlin State Opera in 1938. Within two years, she was singing leading parts, including such staggeringly highflying roles as Zerbinetta in Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos."
After her recital debut as a singer of lieder, or art songs, in 1942 in Vienna, she was engaged by conductor Karl Boehm to sing at the Vienna Staatsoper, but a bout of tuberculosis forced her to rest for a year. She made her debut there in 1944, but the house was soon shuttered because of Allied bombing.
After the war, however, she became a leading member of the Vienna company. Her "de-Nazification" was delayed because of conflicting statements she made to Allied authorities about party membership, but she was allowed to resume her career.
That issue would come back to haunt her.
When she made her American recital debut at Town Hall in New York in 1953, she was picketed over allegations that she had joined the Nazi Party in 1938 while a young singer in the Deutsche Oper ensemble in Berlin. The protests soon died out, but rumors about her party membership continued. The singer remained silent.
When new material came out in 1983, Schwarzkopf admitted having joined the party, telling the New York Times that year: "Everyone at the opera joined. We thought nothing of it. We just did it."
The controversy resurfaced when she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1992 and, especially, in 1996, when Alan Jefferson wrote the first comprehensive biography of her. Still, Jefferson concluded that she was more career-driven than a devoted Nazi believer. Schwarzkopf, who was known to have a prickly and tough personality, did not respond to the book.
Her postwar international career began to take off in 1953 after she married British record producer Walter Legge, who was often considered her Svengali. Their collaborations for EMI, which began in 1946 and ended in 1979, were beloved and remain among the label's top sellers.
Former Times music critic Martin Bernheimer called a four-record set covering 1946 to 1955, which was released in 1986, "one of the most staggeringly beautiful collections ever to grace the catalog." A three-CD set, "The Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Songbook," was issued in 1995. Her recording legacy is documented in "Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: A Career on Record" by Alan Sanders and J.B. Steane, published by Amadeus Press.
Schwarzkopf and Legge also taught master classes for aspiring singers at the Juilliard School in New York in 1976. Legge died in 1979.
Schwarzkopf made her La Scala debut in Milan, Italy, as the Countess in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" in 1949, her U.S. opera debut as the Marschallin at the San Francisco Opera in 1955 and her Metropolitan Opera debut, again as the Marschallin, in 1963.
Her last operatic performance was also in that role, in Brussels in 1971.
She made a farewell recital tour — which included a stop at El Camino College in Torrance — in 1975.
Schwarzkopf had her critics. Some thought her meticulous attention to interpretive detail at the expense of long, flowing lines precious. Others called her a cold, calculating performer, lacking spontaneity.
Schwarzkopf, who became a British subject in the 1950s, published her husband's memoirs in 1982 and her own memoirs 20 years later. The two had no children.
Among her relatives is a nephew, U.S. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who led American forces in the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
Some of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's works on compact disc:
Richard Strauss, "Four Last Songs." Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Ackermann, conductor. (EMI)
Richard Strauss, "Der Rosenkavalier." Philharmonia Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus, Loughton Girls School Chorus, Herbert von Karajan, conductor. (EMI)
Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2. Philharmonia Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus, Otto Klemperer, conductor. (EMI)
Gustav Mahler, "Das Knaben Wunderhorn." London Symphony Orchestra, George Szell, conductor. (EMI)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, "Le Nozze di Figaro." Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna State Opera Chorus, Herbert von Karajan, conductor. (EMI)
Giuseppe Verdi, "Falstaff." Philharmonia Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus, Herbert von Karajan, conductor. (EMI)
Richard Wagner, "Die Meistersinger," Herbert von Karajan, conductor. Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Bayreuth Festival Chorus. (Naxos Historical)
Hugo Wolf, "Italienisches Liederbuch." Gerald Moore, piano. (EMI)
Franz Schubert, Lieder. Edwin Fischer, piano. (EMI)
Researched by John Jackson, Los Angeles Times