Conversing with Christa, Part I

Christa Ludwig


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.