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.”