Opera star Christa Ludwig dies aged 93: 'Her Italian rippled along like a second music'

The retired mezzo-soprano died at her home in Austria on Saturday

Christa Ludwig, a renowned interpreter of Wagner, Mozart and Strauss who starred on the world’s great stages for four decades, has died at her home in Klosterneuburg, Austria. She was 93.

Her death was announced on Sunday by the Vienna State Opera, which said she died on Saturday.

An illustrious career

A mezzo-soprano who also succeeded in soprano roles, Ludwig made her Vienna State Opera debut as Cherubino in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro on April 14, 1955, when the company was temporarily in the Redoutensaal. She was heard in the rebuilt opera house for the first time that December 26 as Octavian in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier.

She sang 769 performances of 42 roles in Vienna.

"The words of the Marschallin often quoted by Christa Ludwig – 'With a light heart and light hands, hold and take, hold and let' – which she repeatedly referred to as a personal motto, were actual and true expressions of her way of life," Vienna State opera director Bogdan Roscic said.

“She took art as seriously as one can take it seriously, subordinated her life to it, but at her own request she said goodbye to the stage 'with a light hand'. Later she was able to talk about her decades almost without melancholy, always with a pinch of irony, self-knowledge, but also without false modesty.”

Ludwig made her debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on December 10, 1959, as Cherubino, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting a cast that included Giorgio Tozzi as Figaro, Elisabeth Soderstrom as Susanna, Lucine Amara as the Countess, Regina Resnik as Marcellina and Teresa Stratas as Barbarina.

She was certainly regarded by Met audiences as one of the greatest mezzos of the second half of the 20th century

"Her singing was precise and even, each tone clear and true, and her Italian rippled along like a second music," critic Louis Biancolli wrote in New York World-Telegram and The Sun. "The ovation was fully deserved."

She sang 119 performances of 15 roles at the Met.

"Her debut season at the Met in '59/'60 was the stuff of legends when she sang Octavian, the Marschallin, Brangane and Amneris, all within a few months of each other," Met general manager Peter Gelb recalled in an email. "Even if most of her career was centered in Europe, she was certainly regarded by Met audiences as one of the greatest mezzos of the second half of the 20th century."

Who was Christa Ludwig?

Ludwig was born in Berlin on March 16, 1928, to tenor Anton Ludwig and mezzo-soprano Eugenie Besalla-Ludwig. She grew up in Aachen, where her father was an opera administrator and as a young girl watched her mother sing with conductor Herbert von Karajan.

She debuted in 1946 at Oper Frankfurt as Prince Orlofsky in Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus and went on to the Staatstheater Darmstadt and Staatsoper Hannover before her breakthrough in Vienna.

Just before her first appearance at the Met, she debuted at the Lyric Opera of Chicago as Dorabella in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte in on November 9, 1959, with conductor Josef Krips, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Fiordiligi, Fernando Corena as Don Alfonso and Ludwig's husband, bass-baritone Walter Berry, as Guglielmo. In Chicago she also sang Elena in Boito's Mefistofele and Preziosilla in Verdi's La Forza del Destino.

FILE - Retired German-born mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig poses during the 42nd MIDEM (International record music publishing and video music market) in Cannes, southern France, on Jan. 28, 2008. Ludwig, a renowned interpreter of Wagner, Mozart and Strauss who starred  the world’s great stages for four decades, died Saturday her home in Klosterneuburg, Austria. She was 94. Her death was announced by the Vienna State Opera. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau, File)

In the 1970s, her career was hampered when capillary veins in her throat burst.

“It was an experience necessary for my art,” she told The Associated Press in 2001. “I like to climb over obstacles, otherwise life is so boring.”

Ludwig sang her Met farewell as Fricka on April 3, 1993, and her Vienna State Opera farewell as Clytamnestra in Strauss's Elektra on December 14, 1994. She retired from singing while teaching occasional masterclasses.

“I could no longer compete with myself,” she said,

After her last performance she recalled it snowing and feeling relief.

“I went through Vienna without a shawl around my neck, with an open neck – and I was so happy,” she said.

Ludwig was married to Berry from 1957 to 1970 and in 1972 married French actor Paul-Emile Deiber.

Her notable recordings include Fricka in Die Walkure on conductor Georg Solti's landmark Decca version of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) and Octavian in Rosenkavalier with Schwarzkopf, Stich-Randall, Otto Edelmann and Karajan conducting.

She was a frequent collaborator with conductors Karl Bohm and Leonard Bernstein. She sang at Bernstein's New York Philharmonic memorial concert in 1990.

Ludwig was made an Austrian Kammersangerin in 1972, made an honorary member of the Vienna State Opera in 1981 and awarded a Knight of the French Legion of Honour in 1989 and a Commander of the French Legion of Honour in 2010.

Berry died in 2000 and Deiber in 2011.

Ludwig is survived by a son, Wolfgang Berry, and stepson Philippe Deiber.