Impromptus

Conversing with Christa, Part II

by Jay Nordlinger

Editor’s Note: Christa Ludwig is a German mezzo-soprano born in 1928. She is one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, or indeed ever. She was in New York last week, on a rare visit to America. Jay Nordlinger interviewed her. The first part of his series appeared yesterday, here.

We are talking about Mahler — one of the composers for whom Ludwig is most famous. “I love his symphonies,” she says. “I love some of his songs — not all of them.” I ask, “Do you like the Kindertotenlieder” (Songs on the Death of Children)?

“Oh, yes,” she says. And then she makes a most interesting point: When she was young and childless, she got very emotional in the Kindertotenlieder. One night, in Brussels, she was singing “Wenn dein Mütterlein” and had to leave the stage. “I was crying. I couldn’t sing anymore.” But when she had a child of her own, she had no such problems in the Kindertotenlieder.

“I was too sentimental when I didn’t have a child. You have not to be sentimental in Mahler. That’s it. No, because if it is sentimental, it is not right.”

Here is a further interesting point: She enjoyed singing Mahler with Leonard Bernstein, who she says understood Mahler — and he is often thought of as Joe Bathos.

I say, “I feel lucky to have been born into the English language, for several reasons. Do you feel lucky to have been born into the German language — for all those lieder?”

She says, “Italian is the easiest language to sing in. German is a bit more difficult. And the English language, I couldn’t sing in at all.” (Some natives have a hard time singing in English.)

Her late husband was a Frenchman — Paul-Emile Deiber, an actor and director. “When I sang in French, my husband said, ‘Christa, what is that? It is not French. It’s another language.’ I had not the feeling for French. I had the feeling only for German.”

I think she is being far too modest. I say, “After all your years of living in France, do you speak French like a Frenchwoman?” “Oh, no,” she says. “I speak French with hands and feet.”

She claims not to be able to speak English either, though she gets by just fine. “My son and daughter-in-law — they went to the American school, the international school, in Vienna, and they speak American English. They tell me, ‘Mama, you speak terribly.’” Ludwig laughs (as she does a lot). She has not spoken English for many years, and yet, to say it again, she gets by perfectly fine.

I say, “Wunderlich and Prey recorded all those Italian arias and duets in German.” (Fritz Wunderlich was a German tenor, Hermann Prey a German baritone.) “Hardly anyone would do that today, but that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Ludwig says that, when she was growing up, she was constantly in the opera house, because her parents worked in opera. And everything was in German. “I knew all the Italian operas in German, by heart. And when I listen now to Otello or whatever, I translate it at once into German.”

I talk a little bit about Prey: “I consider him underrated. He was always in Fischer-Dieskau’s shadow. But he was good, wasn’t he?” Ludwig says, “Ja, but Fischer-Dieskau had more brain. He was more intellectual. And it helps, no? It helps to have a brain. Prey was more the type to be a nice guy. Wonderful voice, and a nice guy. And Fischer-Dieskau was never, never a nice guy. He was a schoolmaster! Ja, ja.”

Speaking of nice and not nice: “Was Schwarzkopf nice to you?” (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the great and fearsome soprano.) “To me, she was very nice. But . . . But . . . But . . .”

I understand. (She wasn’t very nice to others.)

“Her husband too.” (Walter Legge, the English record producer.) “They were both very nice to me, I cannot say otherwise. And to other people, they were not so nice. I was lucky in my life. I had only nice people. No, it’s true — I never had a quarrel or anything.”

“Who were the singers before you whom you especially admired?” “I cannot tell you, because we had the war. There was no radio, no concerts, no nothing, and I was raised in a small German city [Aachen], so . . .

“I didn’t know when I came to Salzburg who Irmgard Seefried was. And today young singers also have no idea. It is so quick” (fame).

How about singers of today? “Whom do you especially admire?” She gives me three names: Anja Harteros, the German soprano; Joyce DiDonato, the American mezzo-soprano; and Piotr Beczala, the Polish tenor. There is also an English baritone, whose name she can’t quite remember. We think it might be Simon Keenlyside.

I ask about another singer whom I regard as first-rate. Ludwig, always so very honest, says, “Jo, jo, jo. Jo . . . Jo . . . She seems very nice. Yeah, of course, but nothing I would go to the opera for.”

“Tell me about Callas. How did she treat you?” “Fantastic. She was so nice. She was a very nice person. But I read once in a book that a real prima donna has to have in a year seven scandals and seven great successes. She lived like that.

“I saw her only once, when we made this Norma together.” They recorded Bellini’s opera Norma, under the conductor Tullio Serafin. “I had no idea of the style of Bellini. I was in Salzburg, and Legge said to me that some singer had canceled — it may have been Stignani. He said, ‘Can you sing it?’ I said, ‘I have no idea.’ He said, ‘Here is the score, you have eight days.’ So I learned it quickly. I said to Callas, ‘I have no idea of the style. I don’t know how it goes.’ She said, ‘Just imitate me.’”

I ask, “Was she singing well?” “No,” says Ludwig, “she had this wobble. But she sang a phrase ten or twelve times to get the wobble out a little bit. Today, when I listen to the radio, I think, ‘It could be Callas, but where is the wobble?’

“But when she sang a recitative or something — I start to cry, because this is such . . . I think that all the Greek tragedy is in her life. In her voice also.”

I say, “She was very smart, wasn’t she?”

“No, she was really a prima donna. She knew how to interpret, how to do it. The voice was not beautiful, no, not at all. But how she was doing it — this was fantastic.”

We do some more talking about composers. “My beloved composer for lied,” says Ludwig, “is Hugo Wolf. If I was crying when I stopped singing, it was only because I could no longer sing Hugo Wolf. This is the high point of lieder-composing, for me.”

She goes on, “Schubert? Sometimes. Ja, some. Brahms? Some.” She especially likes those sad Brahms songs for mezzo-soprano. “I had a brother-in-law, he was an American, and he said, ‘Christa, in your recital, could you sing one happy song, just for me?’”

I say, “What does Bach mean to you?” She says, “Oh, everything. He is for my desert island. All the partitas . . . everything. I loved Gould [the pianist Glenn Gould], when he would sing during the Goldberg Variations.” Bach is “mathematics,” she says — the best kind.

And Bach is “not of a certain time” or subject to fashion. He is “for all time,” eternal.

I say, “I was listening to you sing Bach just this morning — ‘Es ist vollbracht’” (from the St. John Passion). I add, “I also heard you in the Liebestod” (the final music from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde). “Ah, this is good, no?” she says. “Damn good,” I say.

Ludwig continues, “I must say, I don’t listen to my recordings, but sometimes when I have a young singer who wants to learn something, I go back to see what I did. And then I have to say, ‘Christa, you sang it very good.’ So . . .”

We’ll be back tomorrow for our final installment — talking about the war, the future of music, America, and other things.

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