Conversing with Christa, Part II


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.”