Listen to Yourself : A Conversation with Christa Ludwig

Listen to Yourself : A Conversation with Christa Ludwig

On a July morning, in the beautiful Klimt-inspired Jugdenstil breakfast room of the Hotel Wiesler in Graz, Austria, I sat with Kammersängerin Christa Ludwig, one of the most notable vocal artists of the last half of the 20th century. Ludwig’s long and celebrated career encompassed both mezzo-soprano and dramatic soprano roles, as well as concert and Lieder performances, all of which are richly documented in her extensive discography.

The night before our interview, the 85-year-old singer gave a three-hour masterclass—without a break!—for the students of the American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS). With a melodious and colorful speaking voice and an infectious smile, she exuded a joyous youthfulness that amazed and enchanted all in attendance. Some of the memorable pearls of wisdom she imparted included the following:

“You have to paint the picture, not sing it.”
“You have to explain the words with your voice.”
“It’s always legato, legato, legato . . . but with enthusiasm.”
On Carmen: “If you sing more legato, it will be more erotic.”
On messa di voce: “My mother told me ‘Forty times a day, every note. Then you learn it.’”
“Breathing, then thinking, then singing. Not only singing.”

As we sat down, I took out my iPad, upon which she exclaimed, “Das hab’ ich auch! Das ist schön, ja . . . I made myself a birthday present! It’s fantastic!”

I knew it would be a lively conversation, and it was.


In the past, I have heard you speak about your “three conductors.”

Ja, of course! Böhm. Karajan. Bernstein.

Can you elaborate on why those three are your favorites?

So, [Karl] Böhm picked me up in Darmstadt. He wrote a letter: “Dr. Böhm is in the Frankfurter Hof Hotel. You come on this day, and at 2:30 you are there.” And so, I was there!

The agency said, “You know, they are looking for a new, young Elisabeth Höngen.” Elisabeth Höngen was the great mezzo-soprano in the Staatsoper Wien, but now she was “over the hill!” [Laughs.] And so they were looking for a young one. After me, they looked for a young one—this was Agnes Baltsa. After Baltsa, it is [Elīna] Garanča. You know, it is always 10 years, sometimes 12 years, but 10 years I would say.

And Böhm said, “All right, child, so you want to come to Vienna?” I said, “No, I don’t want to come to Vienna. I am too young.” I was 26 at the time. He said, “How old are you?” I told him when I was born, and he said, “Oh, this is the same day as my son, Karlheinz!” Karlheinz Böhm was an actor. He acted also in Hollywood and always played the bad German. [Laughs.] Before then I sang big parts—Azucena, Ulrica, Amneris—and he said to me, “You know, in Vienna you will sing with me Cherubino.” Until that time I sang only the old mother of Figaro [Marcellina].

This was Böhm. He picked me up and he taught me the value of the notes, the little points, and the Pausen, that this is correct.

Later on came [Herbert von] Karajan. He taught me the beauty of the phrase, to listen to the orchestra—and we had the wonderful Vienna Philharmonic—to listen to the violins. He said, for example, in [Mahler’s] Das Lied von der Erde, the mezzo-soprano has to take over a phrase from the cello without orchestra afterwards, to start without Aufgang. And he said to me, “You have to make the same sound as the cello.” This kind of music he gave me.

And then came [Leonard] Bernstein, and he gave me this “inner side” of music—not only the façade, but the inside. I had also this age where I understood a little bit. I was 43 years old or something, and so I understood a little bit, ja? I thought after 40 years I started to understand music. Until that time I only sang the music, and to understand music is a different thing. I had my first Schubert recital after 40 years.

That was your first Schubert recital?

After I was 40 years old, yes, only because Schubert was too difficult for me—because it is such easy music.

But not in other ways . . .
Ja, that’s it!

Motherly Advice and Other Singers

Last night, you described your mother’s instructions on singing messa di voce. She was your first teacher.

She was my only teacher! I was then with Zinka Milanov for Lady Macbeth because I said, “Yes, I will sing it in Vienna.” Then I got the score, and then I said, “My God, this is really a soprano. I cannot sing it.” I had my mother, but she was not in New York, and so I went to Zinka Milanov because she lived around the corner on Central Park West.

She was such a great Verdi soprano.

Oh, fantastic!

And so you sought her out. Your mother had a voice similar to yours—a mezzo that was capable of singing dramatic soprano. How did she guide you in singing this repertoire?

Not to do it!

Not at all?

No, because she ruined her voice to sing in a small theater like Aachen, where if today she sang Azucena [in Il trovatore] and then tomorrow Elektra. This ruined her voice completely, and she couldn’t sing any more very well at 42 years old. And so she said, “Don’t do it!”

When I had the big parts like Fidelio, Christel Goltz told me, “Once a week.” And I said, always, I have to have three days in between. One day I sing, the next day I’m [choking sound], the second day I recover, and the third day I warm up my voice for the next day. At the Metropolitan I did once a week.

In addition to Zinka Milanov, were there other singers who influenced you?

Ja, [Maria] Callas, of course! I mean, Milanov I admired for the beauty of the voice and what she was doing with the voice. And Callas I admired not for the voice but because the expression was fantastic! And so I think Callas was more important for me than Milanov because I think only to make beautiful tones is boring. [Laughs.]

And I think the expression. Also the words—especially for the Lieder singing! I chose mostly my songs with the words. And now today I have the words, not the music, in my brain!

Singing Lieder

How is singing Lieder, for you, different than singing opera?

Oh, this is another drawer! You have to have another voice. It is totally different. In opera, you hide yourself with the costumes and make-up. That’s not me, that’s Carmen or Ortrud or whatever—but with a Lied you are yourself. You have to give your soul, your heart, your imagination, and your intelligence. Everything you have to give to the audience, like this [she indicates how we are sitting]. You have nothing in between. Only the piano and the singer. This is something else.

How did you learn that?

With my mother! I learned everything with my mother because my mother taught me not only how to sing and to breathe, she taught me the sense of life and everything else.

Let’s talk about your recording of Die Winterreise. How did it come about?

It was like this: there was a director in the Musikverein, Albert Moser, and he asked me to sing the Winterreise! Ja! So, I was always asked to sing something. They asked me—I didn’t ask—for everything. I never asked for a part. Today it’s vice versa. They always came to me and said, “I see you in this role.” And so I sang things like soprano roles that I shouldn’t. And the Winterreise was the same thing.

And then I went first to Hans Hotter, and I asked him if I could sing Winterreise. He thought a little bit, and then he said, “Oh, if a woman could do it, then you can do it.” And so I did it! And now sopranos are singing it. Lotte Lehmann sang it, and now Christine Schäfer—they are all singing Winterreise.


In your masterclasses and on your recordings, one of the dominant themes is legato.

Oh, ja…

Why is this so hard for some young singers to grasp?

I don’t know. [Laughs.]

Is there a way of describing it in words?

They only have to listen to other concerts, to violin concerts, to cello concerts.

Do you think legato is different in German repertoire than in Italian?

Oh, no, oh, no. Legato is legato. No, no, no, the only difference is that we don’t like always the Italian “ahhhhh” [she demonstrates with a downward portamento].

Callas made this wonderful—the consonant and the vowels were so together. And this has to be together. This is legato! Not “Was ist das?” [but] “Was istdas?” It has to flow further.

With the student singing the Composer [from Ariadne auf Naxos] aria in the masterclass, you were working on the phrase “Um einen strahlenden Thron.” You were getting her to do not so much “ . . . strahlennndennn Thron.” You would almost say to leave out those “n”s?

Of course! Solti said, “In the middle range, you should speak very well, and in the higher you smear.”

Solti told you that?

Solti. We have to. We have to smear so that the line is beautiful.


Is there a composer you hold above all others?

Oh, ja, Bach! I never sang a lot of Bach. I sang some, of course, with Karajan, but this is . . . [she shakes her head and smiles with a look of reverence].

And then comes the other one, Wagner. I like Wagner—not all Wagner operas—but the last ones I like very much. And Richard Strauss, of course. I love Beethoven. Mozart not so much.

As I am getting older, I like more Mozart. When I was young I didn’t like Mozart at all because I learned it from the backstage, you know? Also, Mozart was very difficult to learn with all the recitativo, and to sing it is difficult because it is so easy. Like Schubert, ja? [Laughs.] And so it was easier to sing Richard Strauss or Wagner. But, when I didn’t sing Cherubino anymore—and my former husband [Walter Berry] sang Figaro—and I was in the performance, and I heard for the very first time the overture from The Marriage of Figaro, and I thought, “My God, this is beautiful.” See, I was always in the dressing room to do make-up . . . .

So it was something you appreciated more from the audience?

Of course!

Favorite Performance and Recording

Is there a particular opera performance that stands out as being the most exciting or the most memorable?

Ja, this was from the opening week of the Metropolitan in 1966, and we did Die Frau ohne Schatten with the same casting like in Vienna. The whole cast [Leonie Rysanek, James King, Walter Berry], we all were there with Böhm, in the opening of the new Met. This was the great success because nobody knew it! [Laughs.] And it was wonderful scenery like a fairytale, and it was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. And this was really great, an hour of stars,
ja . . . .

Are there any recordings that you feel captured everything you hoped to communicate about a role?

I think it is Fidelio. Now they made also a DVD from Berlin. It was taken in 1962 or 63, and it is with James King, and it was very good. It is black and white with three cameras, you know, but it is very good.

You are very happy with how that came out?

Oh, ja, ja, ja. There is a list of the 100 best singers of the century, and I got tenth, but only because of Fidelio!

The Singer’s Life

How can you describe the amount of discipline it requires to be a singer?

Always, from the morning to the evening to the night. Always, always, always.

And to free yourself from distractions.

Ja, of course! If you make this your profession, then you have to do it!

In the masterclasses you give, do you sense young singers are being cultivated and mentored in the same way that you were?

It depends. Sometimes they don’t know the profession. They think it is so fantastic to be on the stage and to have success and to have flowers and to live in the hotels, but this is not the profession. I have one example from a young singer who was engaged in Dresden when she was very young—21 years old—and she didn’t know the profession. She had dinner in the evening with people, and the next day she had to sing Rosina or something, and I said, “What are you doing? Do you go for dinner the day before?” She said, “Ja, ja, why not?” No, it’s not the profession.

Parting Words

Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?

My mother told me always, if you sing something about rain, then the sound has to be rainy, and if it is the sun, then there must be sunshine in your voice. You must color the voice. It is a painting what you are doing—painting with different colors so that it is not always the same color.

And my father, he gave also lessons of speaking, and I grew up with Der kleine Hey—this is a book for how to say an “oh” and an “ah.” And when the sun is shining—“die Sonne”—then the “o” is open. “Die Sonne scheint.” [She demonstrates with an open “o.”] When “Die Sonne nicht scheint”—no sun—then it is “die Sonne.” [She demonstrates with a closed “o.”] Things like this, nobody learns it anymore.

Well, that we will pass on, and many singers will read it.

Because this is necessary to color the voice with the meaning of the word!

Young singers are often concerned with making the sound.

But they have to think over what it is, and then you have to have long ears to make the most beautiful sound.

The two together, always.

Of course. You have always to listen to yourself: “Is it good or not good? How can I color the voice that the tone is nice?”

Christa Ludwig will share her wisdom and wit in a masterclass at New York’s Zankel Hall on January 15, 2014. The class is part of Carnegie Hall’s annual The Song Continues celebration, which was founded by Marilyn Horne.

Dean Southern

Dean Southern, DMA, is on the voice faculties of the Cleveland Institute of Music and the American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS) in Graz, Austria.