LOUISE T. GUINTHER salutes the distinguished achievements of the matchless German mezzo, whose five-decade career in opera and lieder is being honored with an OPERA NEWS Award.
Ludwig in rehearsal with Leonard Bernstein in the 1970s
Don Hunstein for Columbia Records
There are great singers, and there are great artists. A great singer needs an exceptional voice, a masterful technique and the musicianship to conquer the most challenging repertoire. A true artist, of course, possesses these attributes, but there is something more — a soul-deep connection to the expressive content of the music; a sort of telepathic sympathy with the composer; and a yearning to communicate that fire of inspiration to anyone who will listen. Christa Ludwig was blessed with all these things, and the opera world has been blessed in turn by her unerring ability to understand the characters she played, and to carry their joys and sorrows to the audience with such humanity and tenderness that we could not help taking her into our hearts. The beauty, warmth and radiance of her instrument seem inseparable from the beauty, warmth and radiance of the human spirit that breathes forth that wondrous sound.
Purely in terms of the breadth of her repertoire, Ludwig's achievements are eye-popping: a spin through her YouTube entries turns up selections as diverse as Handel's Cleopatra (a languid, lavish-toned "V'adoro pupille"), Verdi's Lady Macbeth ("La luce langue," fearsome and febrile, yet with a certain savage eloquence that marks her as a queen), Mozart's Cherubino, Bizet's Carmen and a take-no-prisoners Ortrud whose curse is intense, riveting and just on the cusp of madness. Her musical and dramatic range was protean. As Adalgisa in Norma, she could match Franco Corelli's Italianate fire spark for spark; in Bach's "Schlafe, mein Liebster," from the Christmas Oratorio, she exuded a cool serenity and ethereal spirituality that are worlds away from the palpable passion of Bellini. Her habanera — lush of voice, simultaneously insouciant and fraught — makes one understand anew why Carmen, so often undersung and overplayed, is considered one of the great roles for a mezzo; it also proves that Ludwig was right when she told OPERA NEWS, in a 2000 interview, "You don't know how sexy I can be if I want to."
Ludwig can be light, charming and funny, too. Her Dorabella in a television film of Così Fan Tutte from 1969, mugging her way outrageously through "Smanie implacabili" in a shower of feathers she has torn from her pillow, then relating to a Punch-and-Judy puppet-lover in "Prenderò quell brunettino," fits in beautifully with the fanciful sophistication of Vaclav Kasˇlik's production. Joining Austrian TV personality Peter Alexander in a television appearance for Rossini's "Cat Duet," she gives an object lesson in feline capriciousness and human gemütlichkeit.
Ludwig's voice is a real mezzo, with a bottomless depth that a listener can sink into like a soft velvet cushion; yet she made thrilling forays into dramatic-soprano territory, singing the Marschallin as well as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and giving performances of Leonore in Fidelio that are now the stuff of legend. Perhaps most famously, she partnered her then-husband Walter Berry as the Dyer's Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten. In recorded excerpts, the richness, vulnerability and sheer feminine sensuality of Ludwig's singing are a revelation in a role that so often sounds shouted or shrewish. Ludwig is clearly outside herself here, letting the music sing through her, testing the furthest limits of her vocal powers. Despite the tessitura, the warmth and mellowness of the Ludwig sound are intact and beautifully reflect the character's essentially loving nature: in her no-holds-barred singing, one hears frustration, desperation and near hysteria, but one never loses sight of the abiding affection that keeps Barak's face ever before her.
Ludwig's brilliance shone far beyond the confines of the stage proscenium; she "crossed over" from opera to lieder with such grace and ease that there seemed to be no boundary at all between the two genres. The same dramatic sensibility and immersion in character — deeply founded in musical values and achieved chiefly through an extraordinary palette of vocal shadings — rendered her a magician in all areas of song, allowing her to conjure whole worlds in recital, peopled by multiple figures, all with their own distinctive inner lives.
Ludwig was born in Berlin, a cultural hot spot in the 1920s, and learned to sing from her mother, a dramatic soprano who had worked with the young Karajan. Her career as a professional singer began perforce when an Allied bombing of Giessen wiped out her family's possessions and obliged her to sing in American officers' clubs to make ends meet. Despite the hardship, her serious training continued unabated, and early engagements in Frankfurt and Darmstadt eventually led to her breakthrough at the Vienna State Opera, where she remained a fixture for some three decades. (In 1962, she was named a Kammersängerin; in 1980, she received the Golden Ring.) Her Met debut in 1959, as Cherubino, was not a great triumph, but by the time she bade farewell to the house, as Fricka in 1993 — a performance that not only conjured the awesome majesty of a goddess but reminded us through its vibrancy and womanliness why Wotan had married her in the first place — her 119 performances of fifteen roles had made her one of the most beloved artists in the company's history. It's a status she holds not only in New York but around the world. In a career of astonishing scope and unwavering integrity, Ludwig has lived by the advice of her mother — "Give yourself entirely to life; everything you give away will come back to you."
LOUISE T. GUINTHER
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