Conversing with Christa, Part III


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.”