Remembering Christa Ludwig, The Master Singer Of Opera And Song

Apr 27, 2021
Originally published on April 27, 2021 12:01 pm

Classical music fans are mourning the loss of Christa Ludwig, the beloved German mezzo-soprano celebrated both for her versatility and the warmth of her voice. She died at her home in Austria on April 24 at age 93.

Ludwig embraced a broad range of opera roles, with her silken tones, from the battered mistress Marie in Alban Berg's modernist Wozzeck, to the cheeky pageboy Cherubino in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro.

In a career that lasted nearly five decades, Ludwig made singing sound easy, says Anne Midgette, former classical music critic at The Washington Post. "When you listen to Ludwig it sounds like effortless pure music, and that is the byproduct of an exemplary technique. There's a tremendous amount to be learned from that alone."

Some of that technique Ludwig learned at the hands of her parents who were both opera singers. Born in Berlin in 1928, she debuted at the Frankfurt Opera as a teenager just after World War II, when her family was destitute. In 1955, she made a big career move to the storied Vienna State Opera, where she sang for more than three decades.

Although technically a mezzo-soprano, Ludwig soared high in soprano roles in operas like Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier and Beethoven's Fidelio. The breadth of her vocal range matched her wide repertoire, which she sung in Hungarian, Russian, French, Italian and, of course, German.

"If you want to sing German," Midgette says, "you could do no better than to listen to Ludwig, who managed to sing German art songs with tremendous nuance and feeling, but without the sort of preciousness that even some very great people get in that repertory."

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Ludwig excelled at art songs — especially the music of Gustav Mahler. His set of symphonic songs called Das Lied von Der Erde ("The Song of the Earth") was a Ludwig specialty, Midgette says. "The final song, 'Der Abschied,' which means 'the farewell,' will break your heart. It's some of the greatest music ever written, and she does it full justice."

At the end of her long career, Ludwig pointed to three conductors who were important to her. She credited Karl Böhm with discovering her artistry. Herbert von Karajan taught her how to sing beautiful phrases, and from Leonard Bernstein she discovered the greater meaning of music itself. She named three cypress trees in her garden after them. When she retired, in 1994, she passed that wisdom along to her students.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig has died. She was at home in Austria and was 93. If you were not familiar with her voice, open your ears for NPR's Tom Huizenga.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Christa Ludwig embraced a broad range of opera roles with her silken tones, from the battered mistress in Berg's modernist "Wozzeck" to the cheeky pageboy in Mozart's "Marriage Of Figaro."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LE NOZZE DI FIGARO, K. 492, ACT II, SCENE 3: VOI CHE SAPETE (CHERUBINO)")

CHRISTA LUDWIG: (Singing in Italian).

HUIZENGA: Ludwig, whose career lasted nearly five decades, always made singing sound easy, says Anne Midgette, former classical music critic at The Washington Post.

ANNE MIDGETTE: When you listen to Ludwig, it sounds like effortless, pure music and that that is a byproduct of an exemplary technique.

HUIZENGA: Some of that technique Ludwig learned at the hands of her parents, who were both opera singers. Born in Berlin in 1928, she debuted in Frankfurt as a teenager just after World War II, when her family was destitute. Ludwig moved to the revered Vienna State Opera, where she sang for more than three decades. Although technically a mezzo-soprano, Ludwig soared high in soprano roles in operas like Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier" and Beethoven's "Fidelio."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIDELIO, OP. 72, ACT I, SCENE 6: ABSCHEULICHER! WO EILST DU HIN? KOMM, HOFFNUNG (LEONORE)")

LUDWIG: (Singing in German).

HUIZENGA: The breadth of Ludwig's vocal range, Midgette says, matched her wide repertoire, which she sang in Hungarian, Russian, French, Italian and, of course, German.

MIDGETTE: If you want to learn how to sing German, you could do no better than to listen to Ludwig, who managed to sing German art songs with tremendous nuance and feeling but without the sort of preciousness that even some very great people get in that repertory.

HUIZENGA: Ludwig excelled at art songs, especially the music of Gustav Mahler. His set of symphonic songs called "Das Lied Von Der Erde," Midgette says, was a Ludwig specialty.

MIDGETTE: The final song, "Der Abschied," which means the farewell, will break your heart. It's some of the greatest music ever written, and she does it absolute full justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAS LIED VON DER ERDE: VI. DER ABSCHIED")

LUDWIG: (Singing in German).

HUIZENGA: At the end of her long career, Christa Ludwig pointed to three important conductors. She credited Karl Bohm with discovering her artistry. Herbert von Karajan taught her how to sing beautiful phrases. And from Leonard Bernstein, she discovered the greater meaning of music itself. She named three cypress trees in her garden after them. When she retired in 1994, she passed that wisdom along to her students.

Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAS LIED VON DER ERDE: VI. DER ABSCHIED")

LUDWIG: (Singing in German). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.