(Wow, it's like culture weekend in here or something, plus lawn tractors).
Normally when I idly explore Wikipedia links, I'm looking at stuff that happened a fair number of years ago — battles, famous speeches, documented UFO landings, etc. But occasionally I stumble across something up to the moment — such is the diligence of Wikipedia editors that they often get stuff before it hits the papers.
And then there's the events from the last couple of years that I somehow missed. That was the case recently when I discovered that one of my favorite opera singers, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, died in 2006 and no one had the decency to notify me.
Schwarzkopf was a tough-as-nails soprano who saw her international fame peak in the 1950s. She's the lead soprano on my three favorite Mozart recordings, all of which were made in that era and two of which were conducted by the incomparable Carlo Maria Giulini. Schwarzkopf's draw was not vocal sensuality or facility (though she had the vocal skill to be one of the preeminent sopranos of her century) but sheer beautifully terrifying power. Even in the most challenging roles, Schwarzkopf in her prime sounded like she had the dial turned up only to three or four, like a Lamborghini idling at the stop light on the way to pick up milk at the AM-PM. You always felt she could turn it up to 11 and blow the doors off the opera house and make Ethel Merman sound like a lispy three-year-old with a head cold.
Example: Consider Schwarzkopf singing Porgi amor from Le Nozze di Figaro, depicting the Countess sulking around about how the count was so dashing in The Barber of Seville but now just wanders around nailing the servants. Now consider another great soprano, like te Kanawa or Fleming. (In each case, the actual singing starts about a minute and a quarter in. It's a brilliant opera, but there's a reason that it's like four hours long.) Fleming and te Kanawa are magnificent, but Schwarzkopf is like a panther sunning herself and stretching, not using more than a teacupful of her power and range. Or compare her singing Per pieta ben mio (at about1:25, after the quasi-recetative) from Cosi with te Kanawa. Or — probably my favorite example — consider her singing the vengeful going-a-Bobbitting Dona Elvira in Ah! Che mi dice mai in Don Giovanni which shines through even on that brief Amazon preview (couldn't find a full clip from that sublime recording, sorry), and compare it to someone competent but just not in the same class, like Bartoli. Power!
She had her limitations, which were more dramatic than vocal. She never sounded convincing to me in more comic moments because her voice was beautiful but just slightly harsh, her diction too clipped and precise — the comic bits make her sound awkward, like the monster doing "Putting on the Ritz" at the end of Young Frankenstein. Nor were the sweeter dramatic roles her best, because her voice was a dry wine and not a sweet one — she excelled at the tragic, the heroic, the troubled, and the righteously pissed-off.
Her later life was taken up with the well-earned pleasures of making master class students wet themselves, appreciating music, and loathing Peter Sellars. She had a fine run. Sure, before the war she flirted with the Nazi party. But she was a German opera singer, for God's sake. You wouldn't get angry at a great mid-century Shakespearian for being a drunk, would you?
Though she hadn't sung in years, music is poorer without her. Brava, old girl.
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