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Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, 90; Soprano Brought Elegance, Perfectionism to Opera Roles, Lieder

August 04, 2006|Chris Pasles | 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."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 09, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Schwarzkopf obituary: The obituary of soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in Friday's California section erroneously reported that U.S. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf was her nephew. She was an only child, and her former agent, Klaus Stoehlker, said he was unaware of any family connection.

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.

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