Lisa Della Casa, nonpareil interpreter of Mozart and Strauss heroines, dies at ninety-three; activist and diva Galina Vishnevskaya; trailblazing soprano Gloria Davy.
Farewell to Lisa Della Casa
Ellinger, Salzburg/OPERA NEWS Archives
LISA DELLA CASA
Bergdorf, Switzerland, February 2, 1919 — Münsterlingen, Switzerland, December 10, 2012
Lisa Della Casa was an artist of extraordinary gifts — a woman whose cool, serene loveliness was reflected in, and enhanced by, the luminous poise of her singing. Her allure was breathtaking: the impact of Della Casa's exquisite dignity and glorious voice made her a nonpareil interpreter of the heroines of Mozart and Richard Strauss during the 1950s and '60s, the years of her greatest international success. Although she was often referred to as "the most beautiful woman in opera" — and there are few, if any, who would have denied her that title — Della Casa was considerably more than that. Her performances were sharpened by rare intelligence and acuity. In her best roles — Countess Almaviva, Arabella, Donna Elvira, the Countess in Capriccio — Della Casa achieved small miracles of subtlety that made it impossible to tell the difference between the artist at work and the character she was playing.
Della Casa was born in Switzerland, the daughter of a Bavarian mother and an Italian–Swiss father, a physician who was a gifted amateur singer. In a 1963 OPERA NEWS interview, Della Casa told Gerald Fitzgerald that her ambition to be an opera star began at age eight, when she heard German soprano Else Schulz sing Salome in Zurich. She started studying voice at fifteen, working in Zurich and in Bern with Margarete Haeser, who was to remain her only teacher, and made her professional debut in 1941, as Cio-Cio-San (in German) at the Theater Biel-Solothurn in Switzerland. Two years later, Della Casa joined the ensemble at Zurich Opera, where she made her debut as the First Genie in Die Zauberflöte. Della Casa sang an astonishing range of roles during her first four years under contract in Zurich, where her early assignments covered coloratura parts (Mozart's Queen of the Night, Frau Fluth) and mezzo roles (Dorabella, Marguerite in La Damnation de Faust, Annina in Der Rosenkavalier), as well as the lyric Mozart and Strauss roles that would remain in her core repertory throughout her career, such as Sophie, Pamina and Donna Elvira. She was even cast as Clara in Zurich Opera's Porgy and Bess, singing "Summertime" in blackface.
Della Casa received an enormous professional boost in 1946, when she was cast as Zdenka to the Arabella of Romanian soprano Maria Cebotari, an important star in postwar Europe who had been hired as a guest in Zurich. Della Casa sang so well that the composer himself, who was present at the Zurich Arabella rehearsals, predicted, "One day [Della Casa] will be the Arabella." When Cebotari was in Vienna a few months later, she heard that the Salzburg Festival was looking for a Zdenka and recommended her young Swiss colleague. As Della Casa recalled in a 1995 OPERA NEWS interview, "In Vienna, they asked 'Who is Della Casa? We don't know any Della Casa.' But Cebotari said, 'I'll put my hand in the fire for her.'" Della Casa was engaged without an audition and made her Salzburg debut in 1947, with Karl Böhm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, whose members applauded the soprano at her first rehearsal. A month later, Della Casa was engaged by the Vienna State Opera, where she made her debut as Nedda in Pagliacci. Although Della Casa continued to sing in Zurich for the next several seasons, the centers of her artistic life became Vienna, where she was a beloved artist for the better part of three decades, and Salzburg.
Within the next few seasons, Della Casa made debuts at the Paris Opera, Glyndebourne, La Scala, the Bayreuth Festival, Covent Garden, the Bavarian State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, where she bowed as Countess Almaviva in 1953. Della Casa sang 174 performances in New York and on tour during her fifteen seasons on the Met roster. The soprano admitted that she was not particularly happy at the Met, where her repertoire was generally confined to her Mozart and Strauss specialties and short on the Italian parts she craved, such as Mimì, the role of her San Francisco Opera debut in 1958. Her most frequent Met roles were Countess Almaviva, Donna Elvira — a low-lying part she disliked, claiming that it was more tiring to sing than Salome — and Wagner's Eva. She memorably took on Arabella and Ariadne in New York, as well as the Marschallin, although Della Casa's best-remembered Rosenkavaliers for the company are probably her eight 1964 performances as Octavian to the Marschallin of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, one of her few genuine rivals in the Mozart–Strauss repertory, during the German soprano's debut season. Della Casa also sang Saffi in a 1959 English-language production of Johann Strauss's Der Zigeunerbaron at the Met, staged by actor Cyril Ritchard, an artist whose charm she admired more than his directing talent. Della Casa's favorite stage directors were Herbert Graf, with whom she worked on several Met projects, including her first Arabella in English, and Rudolf Hartmann, who collaborated memorably with Della Casa in Salzburg, London and Munich, where he was intendant of the Bavarian State Opera, one of the soprano's preferred theaters.
Della Casa was justly proud of her association with the great conductors of her era. Furtwängler conducted her as Marzelline in Fidelio at Salzburg; Solti paced her Arabella at Covent Garden; Mitropoulos was in the pit for her first Chrysothemis. Böhm's work with her included her first Salome, in 1961, as well as the three leading female roles in the world premiere of Gottfried von Einem's Der Prozess, which Della Casa created at Salzburg in 1953. Dazzled by her beauty, Herbert von Karajan offered Della Casa Venus in Tannhäuser, which she refused. He later engaged her for Sophie, Marzelline and the Marschallin. Erich and Carlos Kleiber, Joseph Keilberth, Rudolf Kempe, Clemens Krauss, Thomas Schippers, Erich Leinsdorf, Eugene Ormandy, Fritz Busch, Pierre Monteux and Hans Knappertsbusch all collaborated with Della Casa in the opera house or the recording studio.
After a brief, unhappy early marriage, Della Casa wed Dragan Debeljevic, a handsome Yugoslav journalist and musician, in 1949. In 1970, after the Debeljevics' twenty-year-old daughter, Vesna, suffered a life-threatening aneurysm, Della Casa began to curtail her professional appearances. She stopped singing before the end of the decade, choosing to spend her time at Schloss Gottlieben, the castle on the shores of Switzerland's Lake Constance that she and her husband had purchased in 1950.
For all her unearthly loveliness of face, voice and figure, Della Casa was a woman of great practicality and shrewdness and little or no sentimentality. During a contract negotiation with Karajan, the maestro called her "a very tough Swiss businesswoman." She retired when her voice was still in excellent shape — and when she had several seasons' worth of pending contracts. There were no valedictory tours or gala farewells, despite her status as a Kammersängerin in both Vienna and Munich. Della Casa stepped off the opera stage in 1973 with the same quiet, unhurried grace that marked her entire career. When she sang her last Arabella at the Wiener Staatsoper — a theater she had served for twenty-six seasons without interruption — Della Casa chose not to deliver Arabella's line of farewell, "Dann fahr ich fort von euch auf Nimmerwiedersehn" (Then I shall leave you, never to see you again), to the bass singing Lamoral but instead sang the words straight out to the audience in the auditorium. It was a great artist's singularly elegant, economical way of saying goodbye to the public that adored her.
F. PAUL DRISCOLL
Leningrad, Russia, October 25, 1926 — Moscow, Russia, December 11, 2012
In the 1950s and '60s, when the Bolshoi was the cultural jewel of the U.S.S.R., Galina Vishnevskaya was the queen of its stage — a bold, daring performer whose blazing interpretations of Tatiana in Eugene Onegin, Lisa in Pique Dame and the song literature of Shostakovich and Mussorgsky set the standard for an era. Vishnevskaya was an outspoken, uncompromising woman of formidable courage and impressive self-awareness — a true diva in every sense of the word. Unlike many divas, Vishnevskaya was also a superb musician — Britten and Shostakovich both composed works for her — and an imaginative actress, whose riveting performance as a widowed grandmother in Alexander Sokurov's 2007 film Alexandra brought her a new generation of admirers more than two decades after she had retired from the opera stage.
Galina Pavlovna Ivanova was born in Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was then known, and was raised principally by her paternal grandmother after her father, an alcoholic, tried to murder her mother. (Vishnevskaya's professional surname was taken from Gyorgi Vishnevsky, who was briefly her first husband.) Vishnevskaya survived the siege of her native city by the German army during World War II and as a teenager was awarded a Defense of Leningrad medal, an honor she often called the "most valuable" of her life. In 1944, she became a member of the Leningrad Operetta Theater, a troupe run by musician Mark Rubin, who became her second husband. Vishnevskaya auditioned successfully for the Bolshoi in 1952, beginning her career there in small roles and achieving significant professional recognition in 1953, when she sang her first Tatiana in Eugene Onegin for the Bolshoi. It was to be her signature role: she recorded it three times and made her farewell to opera in Eugene Onegin, in Paris, in 1982.
In 1955, Vishnevskaya left her husband to marry the incomparable cellist and pianist Mstislav Rostropovich. Their personal and artistic partnership, which produced two daughters and scores of memorable performances, ended with Rostropovich's death, in 2007, at the age of eighty.
Vishnevskaya was awarded the lioness's share of prize roles at the Bolshoi during her great years. In addition to standard-repertory assignments such as Aida, Tosca, Cio-Cio-San and Leonore in Fidelio, she took leading parts in the Bolshoi premieres of Vissarion Shebalin's The Taming of the Shrew (Caterina, 1957), Prokofiev's War and Peace (Nastasha Rostov, 1959), Vano Muradeli's October (Marina, 1964) and Prokofiev's Semyon Kotko (Sofiya, 1970). After news of Vishnevskaya's artistry reached the West, she began to perform outside of the Soviet Union, albeit on a limited basis, while she was very much in her vocal prime. In 1961, she made her Met debut, as Aida, as part of a forty-six-day North American tour arranged by impresario Sol Hurok. Vishnevskaya sang five Met performances — four Aidas, plus one Cio-Cio-San — and sang eleven solo concerts throughout the U.S. during the 1961–62 season. She made several important European debuts in the next few years as well, among them Covent Garden (as Aida, 1962) and La Scala (as Liù, 1964).
Benjamin Britten wrote the soprano part in his War Requiem for Vishnevskaya, but she was not allowed to travel to England for the world premiere in Coventry in 1962. Vishnevskaya was permitted to participate in the making of the Decca recording of the Requiem in 1963. Other key events in her recorded legacy are her 1956 Onegin, with Boris Khaikin leading the Bolshoi Orchestra; the live 1960 Verdi Requiem paced by Igor Markevitch; and her 1979 recording of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, with Rostropovich conducting.
In the late 1960s, Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich became more vocal in their support of Soviet dissidents, such as the physicist and human-rights activist Andrei Sakharov and the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who lived and worked in the couple's country home outside Moscow from 1969 to 1973. After the Rostropovichs, who were by then restricted from performing outside the U.S.S.R., left the Soviet Union in 1974, the soprano's name was removed from the official history of the Bolshoi, and she and her husband became "non-persons" in the U.S.S.R. They made their home in Paris and in Washington, where Rostropovich led the National Symphony. Vishnevskaya continued to sing recitals and opera. She made her San Francisco Opera debut, as Lisa in The Queen of Spades, in 1975, the same year that she returned to the Met for a single performance of Tosca. Her voice had lost much of its luster, but at forty-nine Vishnevskaya was still a Tosca in the grand manner. Her work in Act II was so ferocious that it seemed to many that her Scarpia, Ingvar Wixell, died of fright rather than his stab wounds.
In 1978, Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya were designated "ideological renegades" and stripped of their Soviet citizenship, which was not restored until 1990. Vishnevskaya did not reconcile with the Bolshoi until 1992, the year that the company telecast a three-hour gala marking the forty-fifth anniversary of her career. She retired from singing in 1988. She continued her humanitarian activities with the Rostropovich–Vishnevskaya Foundation, which works to improve the health of the world's children, and taught voice, chiefly at the Galina Vishnevskaya Center for Opera Singing, which opened in Moscow in 2002.
Vishnevskaya remained unafraid to speak her mind. In 2006, she was so angered by the Bolshoi's untraditional new staging of Eugene Onegin, directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, that she termed the production "vandalism" and vowed never to set foot in the Bolshoi again. She canceled her planned eightieth-birthday celebrations at the theater that had been her artistic home and marked the occasion instead at Moscow's Tchaikovsky Concert Hall.
Davy signing autographs after Aida in Zagreb, 1957
OPERA NEWS Archives
Brooklyn, NY, March 28, 1931 — Geneva, Switzerland, November 28, 2012
The daughter of immigrant parents from Saint Vincent, in the Windward Islands, the soprano was educated at P.S. 129 in Brooklyn, the High School of Music and Art and the Juilliard School, where she studied with Belle Julie Soudant. She was twice a Marian Anderson Award winner and received the top prize of the National Music Education League. In April 1954, while doing a post-graduate year's special study in opera at Juilliard, Davy appeared as Countess Madeleine in the U.S. premiere run of Richard Strauss's Capriccio.
Davy's beauty, poise and grace — as well as her attractive, well-schooled lirico-spinto soprano — seemed ingredients for sure-fire stardom, but success was hard won for African–American singers in the 1950s, and repertoire was often limited to those roles considered "acceptable" for artists of color. As was the case with her fellow Juilliard alumna Leontyne Price, Davy had one of her first big successes as Gershwin's Bess. In 1954, Davy replaced Price as Bess in an international tour of Porgy and Bess, which performed throughout North America and Europe. When the tour hit Milan, conductor Victor de Sabata was so impressed with Davy that he recommended she study the role of Aida for a future engagement at La Scala. Davy stayed in Italy for fifteen months, working on the role, and began to make a name for herself as a concert singer, with engagements in South America as well as in Europe. The scheduled La Scala Aida was canceled "because of a political upheaval," as Davy explained in a 1958 OPERA NEWS interview, but the role served for her professional opera debut, in Nice, in January 1957, and for her opera debuts in Italy (Bologna) and Yugoslavia (Zagreb).
In July 1957, Davy won favorable reviews in a New York Philharmonic concert of Aida excerpts at Lewisohn Stadium in Manhattan, with Thomas Scherman conducting. In October of the same year, Davy sang Anna Bolena to the Giovanna Seymour of Giulietta Simionato in the American Opera Society's concert presentation of Donizetti's opera, paced by Arnold Gamson, at Manhattan's Town Hall. A few months later, Davy made her Metropolitan Opera debut, on February 12, 1958, as Aida. Although other African–American artists had appeared with the Met before Davy's debut — chief among them Marian Anderson and Robert McFerrin, who both made Met debuts in 1955 — Davy was the first artist of her race to sing the role of Aida, an Ethiopian princess, with the company. Time magazine announced, "Davy proved that the Met is where she belongs." Despite good reviews, Davy's Met career was limited to just fifteen performances in four seasons; her other assignments for the company were Nedda in Pagliacci, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte (in English) and Leonora in Il Trovatore, the role of her last Met performance, in April 1961.
After Davy married Swiss stockbroker Herman Penningsfield, in 1959, she chose to base her professional activities in Europe, where she had important engagements in Berlin, Aachen, Geneva, Vienna, London, Strasbourg, Mannheim and Milan in the early 1960s. She continued to make notable U.S. appearances: in October 1960, Davy sang the title role in a concert performance of Strauss's Daphne with Thomas Scherman's Little Orchestra Society at Town Hall and was the soprano soloist in an international telecast of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony relayed from the United Nations and conducted by Eugene Ormandy.
Davy's linguistic and musical skills made her a valuable interpreter of twentieth-century works. In 1957, she sang the world premiere of Hans Werner Henze's Nachtstücke und Arien, and in 1972, she sang the first performance of Stockhausen's revision of Momente, which was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon. After Davy stopped performing, she taught voice. Following her retirement from Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, where she served on the voice faculty for more than a decade (1984–97), Davy made her home in Geneva. She died there after a long illness.
Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 6, 1924 — December 23, 2012
A longtime critic in Argentina for OPERA NEWS and OPERA, Arnosi was also the author of several books on opera, including biographies of Lauritz Melchior and Claudia Muzio.
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