Soprano Astrid Varnay's career began in fairy-tale fashion. She made her operatic debut (at the Met) as a last-minute replacement for a huge star, Lotte Lehmann. Varnay was 23, and the role was Sieglinde in Die Walküre, opposite one of the greatest of all tenors, Lauritz Melchior. Though the attendant fanfare was drowned by events--Pearl Harbor was attacked the next day--she went on to a long and admired career.
If you're looking for bitchy gossip, this memoir will disappoint you. Varnay has an old-fashioned courtliness to her, and she has unfailingly glowing things to say about her colleagues--most of them. Rudolf Bing and Herbert von Karajan are pointed exceptions. Conflicts with the "austere Viennese martinet" Bing led to Varnay's absence from the Met for nearly 20 years. As the focus of her career shifted to Germany, she left New York and settled in Munich. (Though often thought to be Scandinavian--she was born in Sweden, to Hungarian parents--Varnay grew up in the United States.)
As much an actress as a singer, Varnay was praised for her powerful characterizations. She felt a kinship with Wieland Wagner, in many of whose productions she appeared at Bayreuth during the 1950s and '60s, and whose pursuit of dramatic truth mirrored her own. Varnay describes her method of probing a character, offering insights into each of her major roles. Her career had three phases: principal dramatic-soprano parts (Wagner's Brünnhilde and Isolde, Beethoven's Leonore, Strauss's Elektra); character roles, frequently with a villainous tinge (Klytamnestra, Herodias); and finally--stretching into her late 70s--cameo appearances as maids or grandmothers.
Varnay's chatty narrative includes plenty of anecdotes about colleagues like Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson. She amusingly tells of near-disasters onstage: the Tristan who falls asleep while she's singing the Liebestod, the blackout in the middle of a performance, the listing tree that the singers have to hold up by taking turns leaning against it. Although Varnay is enough of a diva to report carefully on all her accolades, she comes across as an unpretentious working woman with a delight in the wonderful artists she has collaborated with. The only complaint with the book: not enough pictures. --David Olivenbaum
For Astrid Varnay, opera was the family business. The daughter of coloratura soprano Maria Javor and dramatic tenor Alexander Varnay, she literally grew up backstage at the opera. Vocally and musically trained by her mother and mentor (and later husband) Hermann Weigert, she was just twenty-three years old when she made her unofficial debut at the Metropolitan Opera as a last-minute replacement for the suddenly ill Lotte Lehmann. Varnay's critically acclaimed performance as Sieglinde in Die Walkuere catapulted her into the limelight.
Varnay reflects on her remarkable life in opera, discussing her signature roles and performances, vocal preparation and technique, interpretive acting style, and her seamless transition from leading soprano to character roles, including her switch from Elektra to Klytemnaestra in Strauss's Elektra.
Her engaging and witty memoir is filled with frank, often critical, observations about many of the most significant vocal artists, conductors, and directors of the twentieth century. She describes her lifelong friendship with operatic idol Kirsten Flagstad, the years at the Met and conflicts with Rudolf Bing, her appearances at the Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals, and her artistic rift with Herbert von Karajan.
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