Conversing with Christa, Part II


“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.