Astrid Varnay

Astrid Varnay

Ibolyka Astrid Maria Varnay (April 25 1918 - September 4 2006) was an operatic dramatic soprano of Hungarian heritage and Swedish birth, who did most of her work in the United States and Germany.

Both her parents were Hungarian, but she was born in Stockholm, Sweden. Her mother Maria Javor was a noted coloratura soprano with acoustic recordings to her credit, and her father Alexander was a spinto tenor. Opera was the family business and Varnay grew up backstage at the world's opera houses. Her father founded, and both parents ran, the Opera Comique Theater in Kristiania (later Oslo), Norway. At one time Astrid was swaddled in the lower drawer of the dressing room table of the young Kirsten Flagstad.

The family moved to Argentina, then New York, where her father died at age 35 in 1924. Two years later her mother married tenor Fortunato de Angelis. Varnay had been studying to be a pianist but decided at age eighteen to become a singer and had intensive vocal lessons with her mother.

A year later, Flagstad arranged for her to start preparing roles with Metropolitan Opera staff conductor and coach Hermann Weigert (1890-1955). By the age of 22 she knew Hungarian, German, English, French and Italian and her repertoire consisted of fifteen leading dramatic soprano roles, eleven of which were Wagnerian parts.

She made her sensational debut at the Metropolitan Opera on December 6, 1941 at a broadcast performance singing Sieglinde in Wagner's "Die Walküre", substituting for the indisposed Lotte Lehmann with almost no rehearsal. This was her first appearance in a leading role, and it was a triumph. Six days later she replaced the ailing Helen Traubel as Brünhilde in the same opera. Varnay and Weigert became closer and were married in 1944. It was also at this time that she had lessons with former Metropolitan Opera tenor, Paul Althouse.

In 1948 she made her debut at Covent Garden and in 1951 in Florence as Lady Macbeth. In that year she also made her debut at Bayreuth after Flagstad, who had declined the invitation to Bayreuth, recommended that Wieland Wagner engage Varnay. She sang at Bayreuth for the next seventeen years, and appeared regularly at the Metropolitan until 1956.

She left when it was clear Met director Rudolf Bing did not appreciate her, and went on to become a mainstay of the world's other great opera houses, especially in Germany, in Wagner and Strauss but also several Verdi and other works. She had already made Munich her home, where audiences considered her a goddess.

In 1969 she gave up her repertoire of heavy dramatic soprano roles and began a new career singing mezzo roles. After being the world's leading Elektra for over twenty years, she now established herself as a great interpreter of Klytemnestra. The role of Herodias became her most often-performed role: 236 performances. She returned to the Metropolitan in 1974 and last appeared there in Weill's "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" in 1979.

In the mid-1980s, character roles now became Varnay's metier. Her last appearance on stage was in Munich in 1995, fifty-five years after her Metropolitan debut. In 1998 she published her autobiography "Fifty-Five Years in Five Acts: My Life in Opera", written with Donald Arthur (German title is "Hab'mir's gelobt").

In 2004, a documentary about her life and first New York career entitled "Never Before" received acclaim in the USA. Her recordings of Strauss heroines such as Elektra and Salome along with the Wagnerian roles are among the treasures of the medium, while transcriptions of broadcast performances of her great roles document her art in sound, and a few video recordings of her late career preserve evidence of her acting ability.

Astrid Varnay died in Munich on 4 September 2006, aged 88.

External links

* Arthur, Donald (2006), " [ Astrid Varnay, Famed Wagnerian, Dies at 88] ", WQXR Website, September 5, 2006.
* [ Site dedicated to Isoldes Liebestod in German with bio of Varnay with photo gallery]
* [ Site dedicated to Varnay with photo gallery, interviews, and other tidbits ]
* [ Discography] (Capon's Lists of Opera Recordings)

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