Skip to comments.Astrid Varnay — obituary
Posted on 09/08/2006 9:09:36 AM PDT by dighton
Astrid Varnay, the Swedish-born American soprano who died on Monday aged 88, earned an international reputation as a Wagnerian singer of great dramatic power after what must rank as one of the most daunting professional debuts in operatic history.
Her scheduled debut was to have been Elsa in in a Metropolitan Opera production of Lohengrin in 1942. But on the morning of December 6 1941, the day before the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Astrid Varnay was given a few hours notice by the Met to fill in for an indisposed Lotte Lehmann as Sieglinde for a matinée performance of Die Walküre.
Although she had no time to rehearse, she sang the part in a performance conducted by Erich Leinsdorf that was broadcast on national radio. The New York Times critic greeted the arrival of an exceedingly comely Swedish-American soprano who acted with a skill and grace only possible to those with an inborn talent for the theatre.
Six days later, she was parachuted in a second time to take over from an ailing Helen Traubel as Brünnhilde, perhaps the most demanding soprano role in the repertoire.
Astrid Varnay went on to establish an international reputation as a Wagnerian singer of unusual intelligence and was in demand in all the worlds main houses, particularly Bayreuth, where, after making her debut as Brünnhilde in the entire Ring cycle in 1951, she sang various roles in each of the subsequent 17 seasons.
She also excelled in emotionally-intense Straussian roles, notably Salome and Elektra, a role in which she led the field for some 20 years. She ranged widely, exploring the Verdian and contemporary repertoires and, as her upper registers began to falter, moved on to mezzo roles such as Klytemnestra, Herodias and the Kostelnicka in Janaceks Jenufa, a role she sang at Covent Garden in 1968.
She had a notably powerful voice, and though an occasional squalliness meant that she never achieved the stature of her contemporary and friend Birgit Nilsson, Astrid Varnay was always the better actress. In the theatre, her ability to move an audience with the dramatic intensity of her performance usually made up for any vocal inconsistency.
Ibolyka Astrid Maria Varnay was born in Stockholm on April 25 1918. Her parents, both Hungarian, were professional singers her mother Maria Javor a coloratura soprano, and father Alexander a spinto tenor.
When Astrid was born, they were working in Sweden waiting for the war to end so that they could take up offers of jobs in Buenos Aires. They moved there when Astrid was two and subsequently sailed to New York, where Alexander Varnay died, aged 35, in 1924. Subsequently Astrids mother married the tenor Fortunato de Angelis.
As a child, Astrid Varnay had her heart set on becoming a pianist and she studied the instrument at the New Jersey Musical College. Aged 18, however, she decided to become a singer and underwent a period of intensive training under her mother.
A year later Kirsten Flagstad, an old friend of the family, arranged for her to train privately under the Metropolitan Operas staff conductor and coach Hermann Weigert. By the age of 22 she had mastered an astonishing 15 leading soprano roles, 11 of them Wagnerian. In 1944 she and Weigert were married.
Astrid Varnay sang some 200 performances with the Metropolitan Opera over her career, though from the mid-1950s she was absent for nearly two decades after falling out with the director, Rudolf Bing.
She was said to have been particularly hurt by his failure to acknowledge her dedication after she had raced across the country to rescue a performance of Götterdämmerung at a time when her husband was seriously ill.
After Weigerts death in 1955 Astrid Varnay left the Met and transferred her base to Germany, buying a house in Munich. She went on to become a mainstay of leading opera houses in Europe, making her Covent Garden debut in 1948 as Brünnhilde in Siegfried, followed by Brünnhilde in Die Walküre and then Isolde. She returned in 1951 to sing Salome, Aida and Leonora in Il Trovatore.
The same year Kirsten Flagstad recommended her to Wieland Wagner who, without an audition, cast her as Brünnhilde for her Bayreuth debut under von Karajan. She returned in subsequent years to sing Isolde, Ortrud, Kundry and Senta, among other roles.
Wieland Wagner greatly admired her dramatic artistry. Once, when he was reproached for his minimalist stage settings, he is said to have remarked: Why do I need a tree when I have Astrid Varnay?
From the late 1960s, Astrid Varnay gave up her heavy-duty soprano roles and launched herself into a new phase of her career as a mezzo. I saw no reason to hang up my career on the nearest hook and proceed to sail off into the dull waters of retirement, she wrote later.
In the 1980s, when she was well over 60, she moved on to character roles, mainly, she explained, because she enjoyed seeing up close the work of her younger colleagues. Her last appearance on stage, as the Nurse in Boris Godunov, was at Munich in 1995.
Many of Astrid Varnays Wagner and Strauss performances are available on disc and she also recorded several of her mezzo roles. In 1998 she published her autobiography, Fifty-Five Years in Five Acts (co-written with Donald Arthur).
"Astrid Varnay was given a few hours notice by the Met to fill in for an indisposed Lotte Lehmann as Sieglinde for a matinée performance of Die Walküre.
"Although she had no time to rehearse, she sang the part in a performance conducted by Erich Leinsdorf that was broadcast on national radio. "
Damn. That's right out of some movie script. Brava.
May she rest in peace.
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Check out her Leonora picture.