Impromptus

Conversing with Christa, Part I

by Jay Nordlinger

Christa Ludwig is one of the greatest singers of all time. A German mezzo-soprano, born in 1928, she was exemplary in song, oratorio, and opera. She has been legendary for many years already.

Last week, she was in New York, to participate in a program led by Marilyn Horne at Carnegie Hall. Horne is another legendary mezzo-soprano, an American. The program she leads includes recitals and masterclasses. A masterclass is a session in which a teacher — a master, ideally — listens to and instructs students before an audience. Ludwig gave a masterclass in the Horne series.

Introducing her, Horne felt she lacked the words to sum up Ludwig’s ability and meaning. I knew just how she felt. And Ludwig gave a splendid masterclass, by the way. (I will touch on it in a forthcoming issue of The New Criterion.)

The day before, I interviewed Ludwig at her hotel. She was vibrant, snappy, no-nonsense, candid, funny, and altogether delightful. That is to say, she was herself.

I began by saying, “Tell me, do you do any singing, just for yourself?” “Oh, no, oh, no,” she said immediately. “I’m not a rival to the singer I was 50 years ago! Oh, no. I don’t even sing to my dog. My dog is dead now, so I don’t sing anymore.”

But the voice: Is it still Ludwig? “No. That is the reason I don’t sing anymore. No, my vocal cords are . . . For your eyes, you have glasses when you’re older. We have no glasses for vocal cords.”

Do you still feel like a singer, in the way you stand, the way you breathe? In your physical comportment? “Ah, no. Feel like a singer? No, I feel like a grandmother.” Furthermore, “I’m not the type to be sad not to be singing anymore. I was very happy to stop.”

It must have been good for your mental health (I say).

“Oh, it is only mental, singing.” Ludwig continues, “I sang almost 50 years — five-oh — and that meant not speaking, not going out, protecting my health, sacrificing a lot. When I stopped singing, I could speak all I wanted, I could socialize, I could smoke if I wanted . . .”

Do you smoke today?

“No, not at all. When I was in Gottfried von Einem’s opera, The Visit of the Old Lady, I had to smoke a cigar onstage. And suddenly I thought cigar-smoking was wonderful. I smoked cigars, for fun. Then, once, I had a wonderful seafood dinner in Paris — mussels and so on. Afterward, I smoked a cigar, and I was so sick . . . Never again.”

That killed it?

“Yes, that killed it.”

Fischer-Dieskau smoked, didn’t he? (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the great German baritone.)

“Yes, a lot. A lot.”

We talk a bit about the world of song and the world of opera. “Today, you have to be good-looking in opera,” says Ludwig, “because everything is picked up by TV. The seeing takes away from the hearing. People see more than they listen. If somebody is not singing well but is good-looking — well, okay.”

I mention that, in America, there are many fewer recitals than there used to be. “In Europe, too,” says Ludwig. “You know, we have a saying: ‘There are many singers who sing lieder, but there are no lieder singers.’ A lieder singer is something different from an opera singer. It is a different profession.”

But you did it all. You were one-stop shopping!

“Ha, ja, because I started with lieder singing. I was too young for opera, 17 years old, so I sang lieder. And after the war, it was modern music. The modern composers were not allowed in Germany under Hitler. Then after the war, I was always asked to sing at modern-music festivals.” There were three reasons for this, says Ludwig: “I learned very quick. I had a nice voice. And I didn’t cost much money.”

What composers did you sing?

“Oh, Boulez, Nono, Hindemith. With Nono, I had mostly to speak, not to sing. García Lorca!” (Ludwig is referring to Luigi Nono’s Tre epitaffi per Federico García Lorca.)

Ludwig is the child of a singer — two singers, actually, two professional singers (a tenor and a mezzo-soprano). She had a child, with Walter Berry, her first husband. (The late Berry was a famed Austrian bass-baritone.)

“My son didn’t want to be an opera singer,” says Ludwig, “but he had a wonderful voice — like my husband, my first husband.” He did not want to do what was necessary to be an opera singer. He became a composer, writing several German musicals. He also married and had a son of his own.

“My son said, ‘I don’t want my son to be raised the way I was raised, with my parents never there.’ So, the family is the chief point. That’s it.”

Ludwig’s mother, Eugenie Besalla, was her first singing teacher, and her only singing teacher, really. Was this an advantage — strictly an advantage? Was there any resentment, at any level?

“Well, it didn’t cost money! It was wonderful, fantastic, and she was very good.”

At one juncture, Ludwig wasn’t sure whether she was a soprano or a mezzo-soprano. “Mezzo-sopranos are in between. We have not very good high notes and not very good low notes. Only a little bit in the middle.”

I laugh at this, because Ludwig had, of course, great high notes and great low notes.

Anyway, Ludwig consulted a famous older singer whom she had heard on the radio, and whose technique she admired — a Kammersängerin (master singer, essentially). Ludwig sang for this lady an aria from Aida (soprano) “and something else” (she can’t remember). And the Kammersängerin agreed with Ludwig’s mother: Christa was a mezzo.

She speaks of a time she sought help from Zinka Milanov, too. (Milanov was a famous soprano, “Yugoslavian,” as we used to say, who was born in 1906.) “Vienna asked me to sing Lady Macbeth, with Karl Böhm.” (The role of Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s opera Macbeth, with Böhm as conductor.) “I was in New York and bought two records: the one with Leinsdorf and Rysanek and the one with Callas.” (Leonie Rysanek was a soprano, Leinsdorf a conductor.) “I thought, ‘I can never sing this. Why did I say yes?’

“At the time, we had an apartment at Central Park West and 68th Street. Around the corner, on 72nd, was Zinka Milanov. I went to her and learned Lady Macbeth. Otherwise, I was always with my mother.”

(Lady Macbeth, let me note, is a “tweener” role, one that has been sung by sopranos and mezzos alike.)

I ask, “Did you know people who worked a lot with Strauss?” (Richard Strauss, the composer.) “No, just Böhm — only Böhm. He was always saying that Strauss did this or that.”

Ludwig relates the following story: Strauss once told Böhm, “Never conduct with the left hand, only with the right hand. Use the left hand only to make the orchestra softer.” One night, Strauss was conducting an opera, and used his left hand freely and significantly. Looking up, he noticed Böhm sitting in a box. And he quickly put his left hand in his pocket.

Mahler died in 1911 (Strauss in ’49). Did Ludwig know people — older people — who had known and worked with Mahler? “No — I only read about him in the book by Leo Slezak, for example.” (Slezak was a famous tenor.)

Ludwig, though, was a very good friend of Mahler — one of his greatest interpreters ever. We’ll talk more about him in tomorrow’s installment, Part II.