Swedish American Soprano Astrid Varnay

By David Rising
Associated Press
Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Astrid Varnay, 88, the Swedish American soprano who made her Metropolitan Opera debut -- virtually without rehearsal -- in a nationally broadcast performance and went on to sing for half a century, died Sept. 4 of a pericardial infection in a Munich hospital.

Astrid Ibolyka Maria Varnay was born April 25, 1918, in Stockholm to Hungarian parents involved in opera. The family moved to the United States in 1920, where her father, tenor Alexander Varnay, died at age 35 in 1924.

Ms. Varnay trained her singing voice first under her mother, Maria Javor Varnay, then New York Metropolitan Opera staff conductor and coach Hermann Weigert, whom she married in 1944.

Because an opera career in the United States was deemed unlikely, she also was taking courses in stenography and typing.

Ms. Varnay got her break Dec. 6, 1941 -- a day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor -- when she filled in for an indisposed Lotte Lehmann as Sieglinde in Richard Wagner's "Die Walkure" in a performance conducted by Erich Leinsdorf that was broadcast nationally on radio.

Although accounts over the years said Ms. Varnay had no rehearsal, a report in the New York Times later that month said she had filled in as Sieglinde during an orchestral rehearsal three weeks before her debut, and she wrote in her autobiography that she had had a rehearsal with piano the previous day.

Six days after her debut, Ms. Varnay sang her second professional performance, taking over for an ill Helen Traubel as Brunnhilde, one of the toughest soprano roles in the repertoire.

"The exceedingly comely Swedish-American soprano acted with a skill and grace only possible to those with an inborn talent for the theater," Noel Strauss wrote in the Times the day after her debut.

"Miss Varnay is a valuable addition to the Metropolitan roster, but her fine abilities would be employed to much better purpose in roles making less heavy demands on her voice, a voice of such innate beauty that it should not be used in parts like this, which might easily impair its quality."

She would sing about 200 performances with the Metropolitan Opera in her career, although she left in 1956 for nearly two decades over conflicts with general manager Rudolf Bing.

Ms. Varnay originated the role of Telea in the world premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Island of God" at the Met on Feb. 20, 1942.

Ms. Varnay was seen for the first time in Europe in 1948, where she put on a guest performance at London's Royal Opera in Covent Garden.

From 1951 to 1968, she sang at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany as Brunnhilde and Isolde (from Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde"), among others.

After her husband's death in 1955, she made Europe her permanent home, settling in Munich.

She became a mainstay at some of the world's great opera houses, particularly in Germany, where she sang at venues across the country.

She returned to the Met in 1974 after an 18-year absence, singing Kostelnicka in Leos Janacek's "Jenufa." Her final Met performance was as Leocadia Begbick in Kurt Weill's "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" on Dec. 22, 1979.

In the mid-1980s, Ms. Varnay turned more to character roles. Her last stage appearance was in Munich in 1995.

She wrote an autobiography, ghostwritten by Donald Arthur, "Fifty-Five Years in Five Acts: My Life in Opera."

She leaves no immediate survivors.

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