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Astrid Varnay, 88; Soprano Sang With Intensity, Passion

September 06, 2006|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Astrid Varnay, a Swedish-born American soprano who made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City as a last-minute substitute and went on to become one of the most beloved classical singers of her generation, died Monday. She was 88.

Varnay died of a pericardial infection in a hospital in Munich, Germany, the city where she had resided since the 1950s, said Donald Arthur, a friend.

In her career-making debut, Varnay was called upon to sing the role of Sieglinde in Wagner's "Die Walkure," after the scheduled soprano fell ill. Varnay was 23 at the time and the fifth alternate singer prepared to fill in for the role. The other four singers happened to be unavailable, recalled Arthur, who worked with Varnay on her memoir, "Fifty-Five Years in Five Acts, My Life in Opera" (2000). The performance was broadcast live.

Six days after her unplanned debut, Varnay was called to fill in for another ailing soprano and sing the role of Wagner's Brunnhilde at the Met. The combined forces of her two surprise performances launched Varnay's career.

Her intense, passionate singing style led her to the most demanding roles in German opera. She was particularly well known for performances in Wagner's dramatic works, singing the parts of Isolde and Kundry as well as Brunnhilde, a part she sang more than 300 times.

She also performed leading roles, including Lady Macbeth in Giuseppe Verdi's "Macbeth" and "Elektra" by Richard Strauss.

Starting in 1951, Varnay made regular appearances at the annual festival of Wagner's operas in Bayreuth, Germany, through 1967. She also recorded a number of operas, most of them Wagner's massive works, singing with the greatest talents of her era: baritone Hans Hotter, tenor Wolfgang Windgassen and soprano Birgit Nilsson among them.

In an unusual career shift in the early 1960s, Varnay changed course to accommodate her maturing voice. She went from singing soprano to mezzo-soprano roles, from leading ladies to smaller, character parts.

Having sung the lead in "Elektra" in her prime, she moved on to the smaller part of Clytemnestra in the opera. She also sang the part of Herodias in Strauss' "Salome."

"I saw no reason to hang up my career on the nearest hook and proceed to sail off into the dull waters of retirement," Varnay wrote in her memoir.

"It takes a certain amount of guts to do that," Martin Bernheimer, music critic for the Los Angeles Times through the height of Varnay's stage career, said Tuesday. Varnay had the advantage of being a talented actress, he said, an uncommon thing among opera singers of her generation.

"Astrid was unique," Bernheimer said. "She was a great, singing actress who could act, using her face, her body and her voice. She gave everything on stage."

While watching her perform, he would imagine Varnay at the end of a performance, "getting carried away in a basket," he said.

She was born Ibolyka Astrid Marie Varnay in Stockholm on April 25, 1918, to parents who were both professional musicians. Her mother, Maria Javor, was a soprano. Her father, Alexander Varnay, was a tenor.

The family moved to Norway and later Argentina before settling in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1920. Soon afterward, Varnay's father died at age 35. She and her mother remained in the United States.

Varnay graduated from high school and took a secretarial job while she took voice lessons from her mother and later Hermann Wiegert, a well-known music coach whom she eventually married.

She continued to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City for five years but then concentrated on a career in Europe.

She returned to the Met in 1974 to sing in "Jenufa," by Leos Janacek. Two years later she gave her last performance there, in "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," by Bertolt Brecht with music by Kurt Weill.

Varnay's husband preceded her in death. She has no immediate survivors.


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