Astrid Varnay, Ben Heppner

Dear New York Folks,

This is Jiwon. Astrid Varnay, 88, Dramatic Soprano, Dies


This is anyway my tribute to her memory. “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.” 

Forumite 1: [JIWON: This guy, who is called himself a Barenboim’s big fan for musical reasons, says that Wagner is not his favorite. Weird… Or funny, honestly speaking.] Very sad news. I’m not so big a fan of Wagner, and my favorite Varnay recording is her unbelievably sensitive performance of the big duet for father and daughter from the first act of Simon Boccanegra, which she recorded with Leonard Warren and Renato Cellini: a recipe for something approaching the ideal in the performance of this repertory. Varnay doesn’t sound like a young girl, but she’s in good shape vocally, and her supreme musicality is everywhere in evidence. There’s also a complete live Met Boccanegra of similar vintage with Varnay, Warren, and Tucker on Preiser (I think). I really must check it out.

Forumite 2: The last to die among the women…

Forumite 3: Very sad news. A marvellous stage presence as well as a superbly dramatic singer.

Forumite 4: I have heard from two sources that Astrid Varnay passed away today – she was the last of the great Wagner singers – terrible news but what a full life

Forumite 5: Sad news indeed! I wish I had had the pleasure of hearing her live. I have a few of her CDs and the Elektra film. A marvellous singer she was. Didn’t have the beautiful voice or the Nilsson high C, by my! What she did with that voice was jaw-dropping. Her autobiography is a page turner too. I’m jealous of the gods up in Valhalla…. Now that Modl, Nilsson, Rysanek and Varnay are all there. What a full house they’re having! Will we ever see an era like the one they occupied again, I wonder.

Forumite 6: When I lived in Vienna (Wien), she was singing Herodias in Salome. She was imposing and wonderful. Interesting to think that 20 years before she was singing the title role. She was a star.

Forumite 5: [She was a star.] – She was indeed! I wish she wasn’t so over-shadowed by her friend Birgit in later years, but then she probably liked it that way. Not much for publicity, that one. I’m glad she wrote that autobiography. I made a mistake of starting on it before going to bed… and ended up never going to bed that night reading the whole thing. A real page-turner. That was some era that had just passed, wasn’t it? All those great hochdramatischen… and they got along handsomely! Did you read what Varnay wrote about Nilsson when the latter passed away earlier this year? I should be so lucky if my friend would write me an obit like that when I snuff it.

Forumite 7 on June 30, 2006: I came across this link […]: which is the full text of an interview with Martha Moedel, Astrid Varnay and Brigit Nilsson about their Wagnerian roles and adventures with conductors. Interested correspondents may enjoy the flavor of their comments as performers which really ring true to me although I wasn;t there myself. One of them asked Knappertsbusch why he never conducted from memory and always used the score. His reply was “I can read music.” Big capital “I” of course. Somebody should make a coffee-table book of Knappertsbusch annecdotes.

Forumite 8 on July 14, 2006: Yes it is the 1951…talk about your luxurious casting Modl & Shwartzkoff!!! It is a wonderful performance… I love Varnay’s voice and drama.

Forumite 9 on September 4, 2006: I’m just saying…. A sad farewell for my favorite Wagnerian soprano – Astrid Varnay.

Forumite 10 on September 4, 2006: M?l, Nilsson and Varnay – all gone now. The Great Wagnerian generation of the ’50s and ’60s has passed. Varnay was not quite on Nilsson’s level just in terms of voice, but Nilsson fan though I am, I must admit that Varnay was the more penetrating and compelling artist, with a capacity for dramatic expression that Nilsson lacked. Of course, when one is speaking of artists on that exalted level, such distinctions can seem like quibbling.

Forumite 11 on September 4, 2006: Astrid Varnay. Not only the 50’s and 60’s. She was very much in evidence in the 1940’s. She had a crush on Lauritz Melchior.

Forumite 12 on September 4, 2006: Varnay. I hope she’s carousing in Valhalla. I must say, she is my favourite of all the Wagnerians. Not quite as much or smoothly produced a voice as Flagstad or Nilsson, but passion and drama to burn! Noble Brunnhilde, womanly Isolde, bitter Elektra, terrifyingly evil Ortrud. And beautiful as well. Have any of you heard the Naxos Die Walkuere with Traubel titular, and with Melchior and Varnay as the twins? So she had a crush on Melchior. Well, I’ll have to relisten to Act I with new ears. My all-time favourite T&I is from Bayreuth 1955 or ’56 with Vinay. It throbs.

Forumite 11 on September 5, 2006: There is a superb live recording of Lohengrin made in 1943 with Melchior & Varnay. I don’t recall where I got it, but they are all great in it.

Forumite 12 on September 9, 2006: Astrid Varnay in Verdi:  If you don’t listen to anything else, listen to Lady Macbeth’s Sleepwalking Scene, although there’s much to enjoy in the Simon Boccanegra excerpts. Varnay was best known for her Wagner, but in the 1950s, she was one heck of a Verdi singer. Incredible voice, amazing singer. May she hoot it up with Birgit in the great beyond.

Forumite 13 on September 9, 2006: Marvelous Varnay selections . . . I particularly enjoyed the Macbeth scenes: a soprano for whom this music represents “lighter” stuff! And the “Una macchia” d-flat . . . what can I say? I’m not too fond of the Simone Boccanegra, though this has nothing to do with Varnay’s commitment or artistry. I simply prefer a more lyrical soprano in this role.

Forumite 12 on September 10, 2006: We share this preference for a more lyrical touch in Amelia. But what amazes me is that she can bring it off, even with that large voice.

Wieland Wagner: Her face ist unchangeable. It is the face of the tragic actress, known since the masks of the ancient greek tragedies.Her voice has metallic force, intellectual force, and demonic depth. her stage performance is the precise result of an absolute identification with the role… Why do I need a tree on the stage, when I have an Astrid Varnay? -Wieland Wagner

Gustav Gr?dgens: One of the Lord’s many oversights is that he neglected to give me a singing voice. I can’t imagine anything more wonderful than standing on the stage with you.”

Herbert von Karajan: A night has gone by, and the experience of your Elektra continues to resound inside me with unbroken force. It was the experience, almost unreachable, to feel oneself completely understood by another person.

Hans Hotter: Unlike many singers, Astrid Varnay is an indivualist, as artist, as woman, as human being. Her ambition seemed to be less concentrated on the success of a performance, but rather by what means that success is reached, and what it means for the public and herself. I only sang with very few partners, who were as capable of inspiring and fascinating me.

Horst Hofmann: You can’t imagine what it is like to stand on stage with her… the strength she projects… even just her feet! I always feel “Nothing can happen to me, I’m on stage with Astrid Varnay.”

Birgit Nilsson: [Astrid Varnay: (speaking to Birgit Nilsson) Birgit, why did you never sing Ortrud?] – That was your fault. After I sang my Elsa to your Ortrud, I didn’t have the nerve to try it myself.  Her high notes, which in the studio recordings tend to sound disconnected from the rest of the voice, ring out with primaeval force in the live recordings… Moedl was a mezzo-soprano with enough high register to see her through the Wagner dramatic roles for a while. Nilsson, on the other hand, had a voice much brighter in basic type, with its greatest strength in the high register. Like Flagstad’s, Varnay’s greatest strength was in her full and rich middle register, but with a solid register above it. The perfect vocal construction for Wagner’s demands on his sopranos. Her singing, as heard especially in the Bayreuth performances, has a quality which tried to put a name to for a long time. Finally the word has occured to me. it is a strange word to apply to a performer of her dramatic intensity, but the word is “relaxed.”… Varnay, like Resnik and Hotter could dominate a scene by doing absolutely nothing. Unforgettable the first act of “Lohengrin”; Ortrud is onstage for the entire act, her only solo lines are in ensemble. Varnay remained immovable the whole time, but your eye was continually drawn back to her, and the one movement she did make, a start when Lohengrin appeared in his swan-pulled boat, hit home with the effect of one of Jupiter’s thunder-bolts… She was a true actress. By which I mean she approached her roles as an actress does, answering the classic five “W” questions….”Who” “What” “Why” “When” and “Where.” Her recent autobiography offers ample evidence of this… She was so wonderful to a young kid from the opera studio, and never attempted to dominate our scenes together, which she so easily could have… Even more, she held back her Ortrud, so as not to overwhelm me. The balance of the whole performance was more important to her than making the biggest possible impression herself… On countless evenings, she showed us the heights that the art-form opera is capable of attaining when performed by a great and serious artist, who is capable of filling all the vocal, musical, and dramatic demands a role makes, and who realizes that in the long run these three demands actually form one indivisible whole. For that we can only thank her for the depth of our hearts.


Do you need more? Here are her photos on and off stage. If you notice the difference between Varnay 1 and Varnay 2, you know the reason of forumites’ not-so-great opinions despite her super-great talent.

1. ASTRID VARNAY in Dramatic Roles:

2. ASTRID VARNAY in her old days, the “Second” Career

3. ASTRID VARNAY offstage

Reading these and those about Astrid Varnay just increased my curiosity. I presumed that Varnay 3 would give me quite clues to solve my questions but not quite, except part of her facial muscles to explain her complex-or-multidimensional personality as a professional singer.

There is one more: Roundtable Discussion with three Legends: Varnay, Nilsson and Moedl

I am still in the middle of reading, which takes lots of concentration. But hey, I am not the first one, who is mentioning the relationship between the voice and the muscles. The relationship between the voice and the muscles, the relationship between the voice and music, the relationship between the muscles and music, the relationship between the singers and the conductor, the relationship between music and the conductor, and so on…

I used to think that I am the only big mouth because I failed to join the professional group but still have enough time to give them a shit. This has been what the audience believe professional, and I thought only American musicologists did this: Vor dem Konzert findet um 19:30 Uhr im Beethoven-Haus eine Konzerteinführung der Reihe “Ganz Ohr um Halb” mit Elena Bashkirova (Pianistin) und Dr. Tajana Rexroth (Musikwissenschaftlerin) statt. Zugang zur Einführung durch die Eintrittskarte zum Konzert.

This is possible, for it is not in Jerusalem but in Germany. Right? I happened to find this information while searching for Barenboim’s favorite dramatic soprano, who is now famous for her attractive acting rather than her voice… funny.

I am thinking…

If they were still professionally active, and were invited by the NYT to talk about Waltraud Meier, Daniel Barenboim, and the difference between their Wagner and THEIR Wagner, it would hit the world. Am I wrong?

Waltraud Meier as dramatic what? Fuck You.

I will finish my writing about Waltraud Meier first. I hope you to invite all the future Wagnerian singers to read my writing and give me their public answer.

Rene Pape first!

It would also be terrific to invite Ben Heppner, who never used to hook the audience as Meier’s male partner. I thought Mr. Heppner is just one of today’s not-quite-talented fat singers while reading these and those writings, until I actually saw his singing photo, where his torso was struggling against Meier’s vocal techniques. He could become today’s fabulous Heldentenor. Why not? I did find Mr. Heppner rather dull and underpowered in the lead; I know he has been singing a lot lately, including some Walkure Act One exc. at a concert, and maybe on another occasion he would have been more effective .I also found Rene Pape, my favorite male singer of this era, not quite as thrilling as in other roles. Perhaps I prefer a darker tone in this role, and only on a few notes above the middle did the voice shine the way it usually does; still, he sang beautifully and I should not complain, given the greatness of the man… This was my first live experience with Waltraud Meier, and it is a large gleaming voice, with a huge top.

To be continued…

Sincerely yours,


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