Christa Ludwig, reigning mezzo-soprano of the opera stage, dies at 93

“They weren’t useful for anything else anyway,” she wrote years later in a memoir, “In My Own Voice” (1994). “None of the soldiers ever guessed what I was wearing.”

From those beginnings, Ms. Ludwig, who died April 24 at 93, went on to one of the most illustrious careers in 20th-century opera. Her death, although no other details, was announced by the Vienna State Opera, where Ms. Ludwig sang for decades. Music critic Donal Henahan, writing in the New York Times, once described her as “the Lotte Lehmann of her generation,” a reference to the acclaimed German-born soprano who died in 1976.

Ms. Ludwig performed on European stages including Milan’s La Scala, the Paris Opera, London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden and the Bayreuth Festival in Germany and collaborated over the years with influential conductors including Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein.

At the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, she gave 119 performances in 15 roles between 1959, when she debuted there as Cherubino in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” and 1993, when she gave her final Met performance as Fricka in “Die Walküre,” the second installment in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. She retired the next year.

Appreciations of Ms. Ludwig noted that her repertoire spanned the works of the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi, who was born in the 16th century, to those of the 20th-century 12-tone composer Alban Berg. She also ranged from the mezzo-soprano to the higher soprano register. But Ms. Ludwig became especially known for her interpretations of Mozart and Wagner.

In Richard Strauss’s opera “Der Rosenkavalier,” she played both the Marschallin and her young lover Octavian (a trouser role, like Cherubino, in which a female singer represents a male character onstage). She sang Leonore in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and said she felt a particular affinity for Kundry in “Parsifal,” Wagner’s story of the quest for the Holy Grail.

One of few recitalists who also excelled on the opera stage, Ms. Ludwig was also celebrated for her interpretations of the lieder, or art songs, of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Mahler. “Many singers do not understand that [lieder] cannot be sung without flesh and blood and emotion,” the New York Times once quoted her as saying at a master class. “It is like an opera in two or three minutes.”

A particular achievement in this genre was her performance of Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise,” or “Winter Journey,” based on texts by the German poet Wilhelm Müller. The cycle was traditionally performed by male singers — although Lehmann was a notable exception — before Ms. Ludwig offered an interpretation that critics came to regard as definitive. One of her seminal recordings, made for Deutsche Grammophon, was a performance of “Winterreise” with piano accompaniment by James Levine, the longtime music director at the Met.

“I think that women can sing the cycle with great empathy for the wanderer,” Ms. Ludwig wrote in her memoir. “It’s a journey of the soul,” she continued, “which bring us, consciously or unconsciously, a bit closer to our goal, whatever we choose to call it, and from which there is no turning back.”

Ms. Ludwig was born in Berlin on March 16, 1928. Her father, who had sung at the Metropolitan Opera, became the stage manager at the opera house in Aachen, Germany, where her mother also sang.

By the war years, the family lived in the city of Giessen. After their home was destroyed in a firebombing, they moved into a miserable apartment with a piano that soldiers had used as a toilet.

“Cleaning it was a terrible experience,” Ms. Ludwig wrote, “but we didn’t care. We had a piano, and that was the important thing.”

She wrote that her father had belonged to the Nazi Party and, after the war, was not permitted to work until his denazification. Her mother supported the family for a period giving voice lessons, also mentoring her daughter as Ms. Ludwig embarked on her musical career.

“My mother never had time really to teach me, but she overheard me all the time. She would tell me something I was doing wrong on her way to the kitchen to see if the potatoes were burning,” Ms. Ludwig told the Times in 1981.

But when Ms. Ludwig debuted in Frankfurt in 1946 as Prince Orlofsky (another trouser role) in Johann Strauss’s operetta “Die Fledermaus,” her mother “packed her bags and came with me,” Ms. Ludwig recalled. “She lived with me and came to every rehearsal. And she still helps me.”

Through the careful cultivation of her voice, Ms. Ludwig maintained a singing career that lasted nearly half a century. Reviewing one of her final performances, Martin Bernheimer of the Los Angeles Times wrote that her voice had “lost astonishingly little, and the mezzo-soprano uses what she has with uncommon suavity. She never stoops to exaggeration, never succumbs to mannerism, never betrays a hint of expressive distortion.”

Ms. Ludwig’s first marriage, to Austrian bass-baritone Walter Berry, ended in divorce. In 1972, she married Paul-Emile Deiber, a French theatrical and opera director, who died in 2011. Ms. Ludwig and her first husband had a son, Wolfgang Berry, but a complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Ms. Ludwig joked that she was “too lazy” to be a prima donna and said she found a measure of relief in her retirement from the stage.

“I always lived in the past, in the text, with the poems of dead poets, with the music of dead musicians,” she told the Times. “And it’s nice living in the past. But I never had a real life. I saw real life through the television screen, or through the windows of the hotel rooms.” In her retirement she remained engaged with music by giving master classes, immersing herself in her old operatic roles and others, teaching young singers how to make them their own.

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