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The Two Elisabeths – Rethberg and Schwarzkopf.

No, not the English Queens, but two German Queens of Opera.
Elisabeth Rethberg was 24 years old in 1918 when Germany lost World War I and her country was plunged into an economic and political depression.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was only three years old then, but by the time she was 24, Germany was in the control of Hitler and on its way to losing the Second World War.
Rethberg left Germany for America before Hitler came to power, Schwarzkopf lived through that time in Germany, and the economic and political disintegration of her country that followed, and she made choices that Rethberg never had to face.

Lisbeth Sättler was born in Schwarzenberg, Saxony in 1894. Her parents were good amateur musicians and there was always music in her home. In 1912 she enrolled at the Dresden Conservatory as a piano student and planned to become a concert pianist, but a vocal coach persuaded her otherwise. There doesn’t seem to be much information on when or why she changed her name, but by 1915, when she made her operatic debut, she was Elisabeth Rethberg.

She made that debut at the Dresden Opera in the Strauss operetta “The Gypsy Baron” singing opposite Richard Tauber. They never recorded a duet from that operetta, but only a few years later, they did record a duet from “The Bartered Bride.”

Rethberg stayed with the Dresden Opera until 1922 when she moved to America and made her Metropolitan Opera debut in “Aida” and she was so well received that she made America and the Met her home for the next 20 seasons. She sang mostly spinto roles in operas such as Madama Butterfly, Andrea Chenier, Verdi’s Aida, Otello and Il Trovatore, and the Wagner heroines. Rosa Ponselle was her only competition at the Met and she had a larger and more luxuriant voice, but aside from the Verdi roles, they sang essentially different repertoires.

Rethberg was an international star now and sang at Covent Garde, at La Scala, and at the Salzburg Festival. In 1928 she returned to Dresden to create the title role in Richard Strauss’s “The Egyptian Helen.”

She was never much of an actress, but she used her lyric voice with purity and focus. Her Wagnerian singing was superb, but she was also ideal in delicate Mozart roles and an excellent Verdi soprano. Arturo Toscanini said she had “the most beautiful in the world” and compared her voice to a “finely played Stradivarius.”

Rethberg was married to Ernst Albert Domann, who she divorced in 1937. Later she married the baritone George Cehanovsky, who was a comprimario at the Metropolitan for over 40 years. In between she had an affair with bass Ezio Pinza, which was made public when Mrs. Pinza sued her for “alienation of affections” and asked $250,000 (Later that year, another woman sued Pinza for breach of promise and asked $200,000. Reporters asked why Pinza’s affections had dropped in value by twenty percent.)

In a 1930 she sang with Pinza and tenor Beniamino Gigli in a trio from Verdi’s “Attila” which is one of the finest recordings ever made, then or now.

They called her a “singer’s singer” which meant that she combined her wonderfully pure voice with a delicate, feminine sound, great vocal intensity, superb musicianship and breath control, and exquisite phrasing. It was also true that she rarely used those qualities to express great emotion, which may be why her reputation today is less than that of other dramatic sopranos such as Claudia Muzio, Rosa Ponselle, or Leontyne Price.

She continued sing the Wagnerian heroines and the heavier Verdi roles such as roles such as “Aida,” and even Rachel in Halevy’s “La Juive,” and her voice began to lose some of it’s freshness. By the early 1940’s the decline had become noticeable and she retired from the stage in 1942. Elisabeth Rethberg died in 1976 at the age of 81 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.

But as late as 1940, singing “Un Ballo en Maschera” with the San Francisco Opera, she was still able to hold her own with a 29 year-old Jussi Bjorling.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf had a smaller, lighter, voice than Elisabeth Rethberg and she scrupulously avoided the heavier dramatic Verdi and Wagner roles that might have damaged it. She combined intelligence and dignity with a lustrous and opulent voice and a gift for characterization. Her specialties were Mozart, Schubert, Strauss, Hugo Wolf, Lieder and operettas.

The critic J.B. Steane wrote: “What one has in Schwarzkopf is a high degree of awareness — of colors and styles, and of the existence of choice.”
Of course, not everyone agreed. One critic wrote about her “excessively mannered and affected phrasing and expressive hamming, exaggerated pouting, archness, gasps and whispers.”

Olga Maria Elisabeth Friederike Schwarzkopf was born in 1915, in Jarotschin a part of Prussia that is now Poland. Her parents were Friedrich and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Her father was a headmaster at a local school. Elisabeth began her training Elisabeth as a mezzo-soprano but her mother demanded a different vocal teacher and she became a coloratura soprano. She performed in her first opera in 1928, in a school production of Orfeo et Euridice. She also sang concerts and local amateur performances.

In 1933, her father was dismissed from his position for having refused to allow a Nazi party meeting at his school. In order to try and find other work he moved the family to Berlin. He was also banned from taking any new teaching post.
Schwarzkopf remembers her father saying “Please put the flag out…please do the greeting. You bring us in the devil’s kitchen if you do not comply. Please, you know that we are observed and suspected.”
As the daughter of a banned schoolteacher, Elisabeth was not allowed to enter the university to study medicine as she had planned, so instead she applied for entrance to the Berlin Hochschule für Musik and was accepted. In 1938 she auditioned for the Berlin Deutsches Opernhaus and was made a probationary junior soprano.

Once, she was angry at having been demoted to the role of Ida in “Die Fledermaus” and kicked off her shoe during a performance, damaging the canvas screen at the back of the set. As punishment, she wasn’t allowed to sing using her own name for a month. So she sang as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in the first act of “Parsifal,” and as Maria Helfer in the second act, making Schwarzkopf probably the only singer in history to sing under two names in a single performance.

When war broke out her father was sent to war zones, identifying the dead and notifying relatives, and returning bodies. He warned his wife and daughter that they must obey the authorities in all respects and with as much conviction as they could muster, since they were all under surveillance.

In 1940 Elisabeth was awarded a full contract with the Deutsches Opernhaus, requiring membership in the Nazi party. Which may help explain why she joined the Nazi Party in 1940. But she also joined the National Socialist People’s Welfare Organisation and the Nazi Student League. Her explanation later was that did it for the sake of a job and to protect her father. “Everybody at the opera joined,” she told the New York Times. “We thought nothing of it. We just did it.”

And in fact, about half of all female university students did become members. However, Schwarzkopf volunteered to become an Student Leader and she performed during the war at Nazi party conferences and for units of the Waffen-SS. This may have indicated less of a belief in Nazism than a desire to get ahead quickly in her profession. The problem is that in later years she denied all of this before finally admitting the truth, which harmed her reputation.

She had also taken a lover, a high-ranking SS officer, a General who had been a doctor specializing in tuberculosis, and when she contracted tuberculosis during the war, she was allowed to stay for a year in a mountain sanatorium. After the end of the war, she was barred from the Metropolitan Opera by Rudolf Bing, who was a Jew born in Vienna.

In 1945, Schwarzkopf was granted Austrian citizenship to enable her to sing in the Vienna State Opera and in March 1946, she auditioned for Walter Legge, one of the most respected names in the classical music recording business and a founder of Angel Records. She sang a song by Hugo Wolf’ and Legge signed her to an exclusive contract with EMI. Legge (who was Jewish) became her manager and they were married in 1953. Legge was a British citizen, so Schwarzkopf acquired British citizenship by marriage.

She joined the Vienna State Opera and toured with them, making her Covent garden debut at in 1947 as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and her La Scala debut the next year as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. Her Metropolitan Opera debut wasn’t until October of 1964, after Rudolf Bing had left the Met.

Schwarzkopf made her American debut with the San Francisco Opera on 20 September 1955 as the Marschallin, and her debut at the Metropolitan Opera on 19 December 1964, also as the Marschallin. In the 1960s, she concentrated nearly exclusively on five operatic roles: Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro, Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, Countess Madeleine in Strauss’s Capriccio, and the Marschallin and on recodings of lighter works like Strauss’s The Gypsy Baron and Lehár’s The Merry Widow.

Schwarzkopf’s last operatic performance was as the Marschallin on 31 December 1971, in the theatre of La Monnaie in Brussels. For the next several years, she devoted herself exclusively to lieder recitals. On 17 March 1979, Walter Legge suffered a severe heart attack. He disregarded doctor’s orders to rest and attended Schwarzkopf’s final recital two days later in Zurich. Three days later, he died.

After retiring, Schwarzkopf began teaching and giving masterclasses. She was created Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. She died in her sleep in August of 2006 at her home in Austria. She was 90 years old.

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