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Remembering Christa Ludwig, The Master Singer Of Opera And Song

German mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, circa 1965.
Erich Auerbach
Getty Images
German mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, circa 1965.

Classical music fans are mourning the loss of Christa Ludwig, the beloved German mezzo-soprano celebrated both for her versatility and the warmth of her voice. She died at her home in Austria on April 24 at age 93.

Ludwig embraced a broad range of opera roles, with her silken tones, from the battered mistress Marie in Alban Berg's modernist Wozzeck, to the cheeky pageboy Cherubino in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro.

In a career that lasted nearly five decades, Ludwig made singing sound easy, says Anne Midgette, former classical music critic at The Washington Post. "When you listen to Ludwig it sounds like effortless pure music, and that is the byproduct of an exemplary technique. There's a tremendous amount to be learned from that alone."

Some of that technique Ludwig learned at the hands of her parents who were both opera singers. Born in Berlin in 1928, she debuted at the Frankfurt Opera as a teenager just after World War II, when her family was destitute. In 1955, she made a big career move to the storied Vienna State Opera, where she sang for more than three decades.

Although technically a mezzo-soprano, Ludwig soared high in soprano roles in operas like Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier and Beethoven's Fidelio. The breadth of her vocal range matched her wide repertoire, which she sung in Hungarian, Russian, French, Italian and, of course, German.

"If you want to sing German," Midgette says, "you could do no better than to listen to Ludwig, who managed to sing German art songs with tremendous nuance and feeling, but without the sort of preciousness that even some very great people get in that repertory."

Ludwig excelled at art songs — especially the music of Gustav Mahler. His set of symphonic songs called Das Lied von Der Erde ("The Song of the Earth") was a Ludwig specialty, Midgette says. "The final song, 'Der Abschied,' which means 'the farewell,' will break your heart. It's some of the greatest music ever written, and she does it full justice."

At the end of her long career, Ludwig pointed to three conductors who were important to her. She credited Karl Böhm with discovering her artistry. Herbert von Karajan taught her how to sing beautiful phrases, and from Leonard Bernstein she discovered the greater meaning of music itself. She named three cypress trees in her garden after them. When she retired, in 1994, she passed that wisdom along to her students.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.

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