Renowned Coloratura Soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, 90

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 4, 2006

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, 90, an opera luminary celebrated as one of the finest coloratura sopranos of her generation but whose early membership in the Nazi Party long haunted her reputation, died Aug. 3 at her home in Schruns, Austria. No cause of death was reported.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, few opera stars were as highly prized for their interpretations of Strauss and Mozart, and Ms. Schwarzkopf was one of the leading promoters of German lieder, or art songs, of Bach, Schubert and Hugo Wolf.

As a coloratura soprano, she mastered the very highest octaves with remarkable precision and breath control. Adding to her allure were her stunning Teutonic looks and a commanding stage presence. She had long and fruitful collaborations with conductor Herbert von Karajan (although she later spoke derisively of his personality) and had powerful backing from her husband, EMI Records executive Walter Legge.

Ms. Schwarzkopf's admirers included pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who professed to appreciate lieder through her, and opera authority J.B. Steane, who once wrote after seeing her perform, "What one hears is the most beautiful legato, the finest of lightenings, the least fussy and most sensitive of interpretations."

Yet she could be a polarizing figure, musically and politically. She famously chose all but one of her own recordings when asked to compile her selections for the Desert Island Discs program, and composer Robin Holloway once criticized her for "narcissism to the point of incest."

Ms. Schwarzkopf's ambition was at the core of her most enduring controversy -- the extent of her Nazi Party involvement during World War II. She was a particular favorite of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and later dismissed her party membership as necessary for career advancement, "akin to joining a union."

Olga Maria Elisabeth Frederike Schwarzkopf was born Dec. 9, 1915, to Prussian parents in what is now Jarocin, Poland.

Her family later moved to Magdeburg, Germany, where at age 12 she made her opera debut in a school production. In 1934, she was accepted into the Berlin High School for Music, where she trained as a coloratura soprano.

In 1938, she made her first professional stage appearance at the Deutsches Opernhaus in Charlottenburg, near Berlin. She had a small part as a flower maiden in Richard Wagner's "Parsifal," but she impressed many when, given the role on short notice, she mastered it overnight.

This led to better parts, among them the role of Zerbinetta in "Ariadne auf Naxos" in 1940. Hungarian soprano Maria Ivogun, whom Strauss had originally chosen for the role, saw her and became a mentor. She trained Ms. Schwarzkopf for lieder recitals and pushed her through an exhaustive schedule.

Ms. Schwarzkopf had obscured her Nazi affiliation by the end of the war and was permitted by Allied military officials to perform abroad. In 1946, she was hired at the Vienna State Opera Co., where she was Rosina in "The Barber of Seville" and Gilda in "Rigoletto." She also made acclaimed performances at the Salzburg Festival in Austria and the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, the latter a major staging ground for Wagner's operas.

At La Scala in Milan, she was a sensation as the flirtatious Marschallin in Strauss's comic opera "Der Rosenkavalier," which became one of her signature pieces. On the same stage in 1951, composer Igor Stravinsky cast her as Anne Trulove in his world premiere of "The Rake's Progress."

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