Impromptus

Conversing with Christa, Part III

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. For the first two parts of the series, go here and here. The series concludes today.

We were talking about recordings. And in the old days, one took one’s time, notes Ludwig. “When we made Fidelio with Klemperer, we had 14 days.” When she and others recorded Beethoven’s opera, under the conductor Otto Klemperer, they had a full two weeks in which to do it. This is in part because Klemperer was old and sick, and could record no more than two hours a day. But it is also because people took more care, more time. The Fidelio team would record for two hours in the late morning, let’s say, and then in the late afternoon have a rehearsal with Klemperer — for the music to be recorded the next day.

But now, says Ludwig, “everything is done in two days. And that of course is not good.”

Even in her career, the recording world was changing, dramatically. That Fidelio was made in 1962. In 1976, she participated in a recording of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the Wagner opera. The conductor was Eugen Jochum. With three others, she recorded the famous quintet.

Three others? Where was the fifth singer? The tenor was absent. Plácido Domingo’s voice was dubbed in later. Just four singers recorded the quintet, live and on the spot. “This is not good,” says Ludwig, simply.

And she is not convinced that the move from LPs to CDs resulted in better sound. Sometimes she cannot tell who is singing — even herself. Once, “I was in Paris, with my husband, and I was doing my crossword puzzle and had the radio on. Someone was singing the Kindertotenlieder. I said, ‘You know, I don’t know who is singing, but she is doing everything I think is right.’ My husband said, ‘But Christa, it’s you!’ I couldn’t recognize my own voice.”

“That’s not good,” I comment. “That’s not good,” she repeats.

I ask, “Are you worried about the future of singing, the future of song?” (Many people are.) “No, no,” she says. “If something is worth staying on, it will stay on. If it’s not, it won’t.”

I tell her what Lorin Maazel (the conductor) said, when I asked him about the future of music: “Thank God for China.” Ludwig remembers attending a music festival in Sapporo, Japan, founded by Leonard Bernstein. She heard a tenor from China sing a Beethoven song. “And it was so good, I was crying. His pronunciation was excellent. I thought, ‘My goodness, they come from China and they sing Beethoven. It is incredible.’”

I’ve read that she sang Gershwin songs for American officers, after the war. “Yes,” she says, “and I stole everything possible to eat. Because, you know, after the war, we had nothing to eat. We had nothing. One egg a year. Can you imagine, one egg a year? And we could have 68 grams of butter a month.” (About two and a half ounces.)

“I went into the officers clubs, and they had everything. They would make a big loaf of bread or something, and whatever was not eaten, they threw away. And we had not the right to take it. Ja. It was not fraternité, not at all. Whatever I could steal, I did.

“Once, there was a brown paste. It was something to eat, so I took it.” It turned out to be peanut butter. “We had never heard of it.” I ask, “Do you like peanut butter?” “I don’t eat it, but yes: I like peanut butter with crunches in it. Fattening, though.”

So, do you like jazz, the popular standards? “Oh, yes. Just yesterday, I was listening to jazz, with long ears. There was a melody by Bach. It started in the double bass, and then the other instruments came in. They were changing everything, doing variations. I don’t know who it was, but it was wonderful. I love jazz very much.”

Then she goes in a completely different direction, surprising me: “I don’t like anymore” — here she sings the melody of “La donna è mobile,” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, in a mocking, brutal way. “I cannot hear it anymore. I cannot go into the opera anymore for this stuff. Oh, no. Oh, no.”

I say, “Do you feel this way about Rigoletto only or about other operas too?” “No, also other operas. I went [recently, I think] to Wozzeck [an opera by Berg]. I went to Peter Grimes [an opera by Britten]. I went to Baroque operas, which I don’t know, so I wanted to go to those . . .”

“Are you finished with Verdi?” I ask. “Not with Falstaff,” says Ludwig. “I would always like to hear Falstaff. It is an opera I love very much.” (It is also the last Verdi opera, and markedly different from all the Verdi operas that preceded it.)

“So,” says Ludwig, “I have to choose the operas I go to. But now I go with my kids to Butterfly [Madama Butterfly, the opera by Puccini]. I like very much Puccini. Because I think he does the right thing onstage so that it is not boring. He always does something different, suddenly different. My son doesn’t go to opera, so we go to Butterfly, because they don’t know it. I say to them, ‘It’s a very nice opera, believe me.’”

I note that Ludwig was a famous Suzuki (which is the mezzo role in this opera). “Oh, my God, no, I was so tall! But this is a wonderful film, with Freni. She was very good.” (In 1974, Ludwig participated in a film of Madama Butterfly, in which the title role was taken by Mirella Freni, the Italian soprano.)

I say that I regard her as lucky, in this respect: She survived the war (as so many did not). And, when it was over, she was in a free, democratic country — West Germany, not East. She then talks about the war: the Nazi organizations; the Jews with the yellow stars; the bombings; the chaos. Unsurprisingly, her memory of everything — including dates — is vivid.

“What did you think about the reunification of the Germanies?” I ask. “Were you happy?” “Oh, fantastic!” she says. “Oh, I was in Paris, and I called some relatives in West Berlin — and they didn’t even know!” They were blasé. “Here I was in Paris, sort of half Austrian, half French, and I was ravished” (she means delighted, ravie). But the relatives seemed indifferent (perhaps weary).

Ludwig continues, “But the difference is always there. They are not the same.” She is referring to the western and eastern halves of Germany.

I ask her about America. Is she optimistic for us? She remembers when Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, referred to “Old Europe.” She says, “Soon we will say ‘Old America.’ It is normal in life. We had Old Greece, Old Italy . . . The world is always changing. It doesn’t matter.

“But when I was here in ’58, in New York and Chicago, it was for me heaven. I wrote to my mother, ‘You know, when you want to buy the moon, you can buy the moon.’ It isn’t like that anymore. It is different, completely different.”

Christa Ludwig is what I call a “singing musician” — a musician first, a singer second. A musician, a real musician, whose instrument happens to be the voice.

“If you’re only a singer,” says Ludwig, “this is boring. You have to know the music: not just to learn it but to feel it. Bernstein told me that, in his passport, where it asked for occupation, he put ‘musician.’ If you say ‘conductor,’ this is nothing.”

Wrapping up, I say to her, “Do you think you would have found your way to music if your parents had been, let’s say, a butcher and a librarian” (instead of opera singers)? “Yeah, I had a voice. I always had the voice. In school, they always said, ‘Christa, sing.’”

And “my mother told me that, when I was three or four years old, I sang a little aria with all the high notes, and then I was so ashamed that I could do it, I crawled under the piano.”

I say, “After the war [with all the privations she has described], the rest of your life must have seemed easy. The hard part was at the beginning; all the rest was easier.”

“I didn’t feel it so,” she responds. “No, when you have nothing, you have your will. All you can think about is overcoming. Overcoming obstacles. You just go forward. You don’t think, you just do it. You have no choice. Then, afterward, you have choices — and that is difficult.”