Cher Public

Happy Birthday Leonie Rysanek

Rysanek_KaiserinThe Austrian dramatic soprano was born November 14, 1926.

  • Missjohnsonfromlondon

    How wonderful to read all these appreciations. Rysanek thrilled me in NY and
    SF many times. Her Senta, Chrysothemis, Marschallin, Klytaemnestra, Sieglinde and
    Kundry were events that thrilled my every sense and mental faculty. Her Kostelnicka, in SF in, I think, ’86, was a peak experience that, for me, was life changing. The nights when I heard her as Tosca and Salome, she did not seem comfortable with
    her instrument, so I cannot judge them, but, even so, she sang them with a courage
    that remains inspiring. Happy Birthday, indeed, to one who gave us deathless gifts!

  • Jay

    It’s important to remember the contributions that singers such as Rysanek made, partly so we don’t passively accept inferior singing and acting that typify so many of today’s opera performances.

    The last time I heard her live was at that miraculous Met broadcast Jenufa and I’m glad the last was one of the best. Her Kaiserin: untouchable, her Elisabeth walking off the stage in Act III, especially during the 1982 Tannhauser revival, is one of the most affecting moments I’ve ever experienced in the theatre.

    And there were so many other stirring portrayals, e.g., Leonore, Sieglinde, Kundry, Chrysothemis, Salome, etc. The 1980s Ortrud was vocally problematic but dramatically intense. Her Tosca (1975/Deutsche Oper) was over the top, but a three years later she was back at the Met, knocking everyone’s socks off with perhaps her best Kaiserins.

  • luvtennis

    Happy Birtday, Leonie!

    You sure knew how to raise a roof, baby.

  • I watch in awe, amazement and a hint of anger; yes, anger. TV cameras were available for these performances and yet only these excerpts exist in most cases.

    The Germans were at the vanguard of TV back then, their telecasts are some of the best in terms of clarity, fidelity and image; yet so very few actually have survived, come to light or exist that it is frustration.

    Can you imagine had cameras been allowed to take one of Weilan Wagner’s Ring cycles, or for that mater, all his productions right at the Temple?


    • But LA, of course you’re aware that the entire 1960s Walkure was shot in Tokyo with Silja, Adam and Dernesch? In B&W but who cares?

      • Yes, but Dernesh is not great substitute for the goddess and to have the entire ring, from the temple? I am grateful for the Tokyo.

        God bless those Japs, they more than paid their debt to society with those wonderful telecasts. Thanks to the Japanese TV we can see

        * Sutherlan’s Violetta
        * Scotto’s Lucia and Margerite
        * Pavarotti’s Duke, the whole thing
        * The Walkyre
        * Antonieta Stella as Gilda and Minnie

        God knows what else.

        • quoth the maven

          Nilsson’s Isolde, as well

  • operaspike

    I was fortunate to have heard dearly beloved Leonie in all of her roles in San Francisco between 1973 and 1993, including ALL “Die Frau” performances in 1976 and 1980. Her role debut as Ortrud, her extraordinary Salome with Astrid Varnay and Hans Hopf, Kostelnicka, and finally Herodias in ’93. Tosca, Sieglinde, The Marschallin, Elizabeth, Chrysothemis, and The Countess — all totally committed performances of such intensity, both vocally and dramatically. So what about a few off notes here and there; she always gave more than 100% to her colleagues on stage and to her audience in the house! Sorry to say, that cannot be said all that often today. She was a force of nature best experienced live in the theatre. I was also fortunate of have met her in person off stage at a Wagner Society event and she was so quiet and unassuming but totally gracious and appreciative of the love and warmth in that intimate setting. It was a great honor to meet her and for me there will never ever be anyone else who can or will fill her shoes. Wishing her the most loving Happy Birthday with eternal gratitude for a life well spent in service of her art.

  • steveac10

    I had the honor of meeting this amazing woman off stage at a reception during the Pique Dame run. We chatted for what seemed like all evening about the opera, her colleagues and even her husband’s habit of scouring Manhattan for pirates of her performances. Funny, warm, gracious and oh so tiny. I had trouble reconciling the powerhouse who had earlier in the week taken complete command of the barn that is the Met with this petite, elegant and soft spoken middle aged woman. It’s an evening I’ll treasure forever.

  • Henry Holland

    I only heard her once live, as the Kabanicha in Los Angeles, and she was spellbinding. When she came out for her curtain call the crowd booed her with affection because she had been so damn mean to Ká?a.

    I wish I could have heard her Empress live when Frau was done by her, King, Berry and Ludwig/Nilsson.

  • Camille

    We love you, Gnaedige Frau Leonie, and wherever you are now you will always be the *only* Kaiserin who may rule over our lowly earthly hearts and souls.
    Thank you for descending, like the Kaiserin, into this world of muck and grime and horror,
    And like the phoenix that you were and are, allowing us a glimpse of something otherwordly, of mystical and timelessly trancendental beauty.

  • La marquise de Merteuil

    LR was an artist who was controversial. As much as there were those who loved her, there were also those who were very vocal about what they perceived as her “defects”.

    I’m pretty sure it was a Parterre contributor who may have heard this firsthand from LR that she thought that her detractors would even criticise her in death. So for me it is very nice to read all these glowing and treasured accounts of her singing. She seemed to be a real mensch!

    Happy BD!

    • IdiaLegray

      I remember a prima of a new production of BALLO in 1961. Not a good night for Leonie and up in the Family Circle of the old Met, there was a nasty competition between the bravoers and the booers. However, this was an exception. I first heard her live as Abagaille in NABUCCO. The critics weren’t totally kind, but she was thrilling — certainly better tha anyone I have heard since in the role. I was lucky enough to hear her Lady Macbeth, Aida, Senta, Ariadne, Sieglinde, Fidelio in the old house and many roles in the new(er)Met. She was certainly the most thrilling singer I ever heard — always totally committed to her roles. I still cherish her recordings of Senta, Ariadne, Sieglinde, Fidelio, even Desdemona. Old timers may recall the threats she received when she dared to sing Desdemona -- Tebaldi’s role -- on a Saturday broadcast. Rudolph Bing had to ban the standing room that day to avoid demonstrations.

      • Nerva Nelli

        “I remember a prima of a new production of BALLO in 1961. ”

        Just for the sake of history:

        January 25, 1962
        New production

        Giuseppe Verdi--Antonio Somma

        Amelia………………Leonie Rysanek
        Riccardo…………….Carlo Bergonzi
        Renato………………Robert Merrill
        Ulrica………………Jean Madeira
        Oscar……………….Anneliese Rothenberger
        Samuel………………Bonaldo Giaiotti
        Tom…………………Luben Vichey
        Silvano……………..Calvin Marsh
        Judge……………….Andrea Velis
        Servant……………..Robert Nagy

        Conductor……………Nello Santi [Debut]

      • mandryka

        Renata’s fans famously sent Leonie garlic bouquets.

        • I feel like I was born a generation too late to be part of an obsessive clack, unfair.

          • Camille

            Clique or Claque — which do you intend?

            I’ve got an idea for you: weave a bouquet of garlic for La Draculette! It’s never too late ON -- you will find your claque or clique! Abbi pazienza!

          • LOL claque, and you’re right Camille, its not too late! *runs off to stuff a teddy bear full of garlic for Ghouligina*

          • Has there every been anything writte on claques and there general nuttiness? This may be a post tenure book project I pursure, along with K. Battle’s biography, also a site of nuttiness.

          • O.N., there is a classic account of the 19th-century Parisian claque in Berlioz’s Evenings with the Orchestra.

  • grimoaldo

    I was fortunate enough to see and hear Rysanek once, oh so many years ago, as a mere baby of course, in the 70’s at the Hamburg State Opera as Chrysothemis with Danica Mastilovic as Elektra, Astrid Varnay as Klytemnestra, conducted by Karl Bohm. It was truly unforgettable and the ovations and curtain calls went on for ages after they turned the house lights on, the audience refused to leave.
    The buzz among the hard core opera fans in London, of which I was one at that time and for many years afterwards, was that Rysanek refused to appear at Covent Garden after one or two unhappy experiences there when she was panned by the critics and received only lukewarmly by the public. I would be curious to know if anyone can confirm whether this is true or not and what roles she appeared in at the ROH.

    • Camille

      Grimoaldo please--if you will allow me to volunteer two bits of information I have: Leonie sang Chrysothemis in the early fifties (as remembered from Sutherland’s autobio in which Herself played her unfavorite role of the Overseer). Leonie also sang, along with Annalies Kupfer the premiere of Die Liebe der Danae, in London.

      Last night from London I happened to catch a transmission of “Les Pecheurs des Perles”, with Osborne, Cabell, Finley, and Pappano conducting. It was the best rendition of this opera I’ve yet heard! Did any of you Londoners see/hear it? How I envy you for this one. For once it was conducted with some type of elan and verve, as every performance Ikve heard doesn’t have much rhythmic sense nor paint much of an exotic locale. Somehow Mo. Pappano brought it all alive.

    • richard

      grimoaldo, I don’t have any information on Rysanek’s performance history in London other than hearing that Solti didn’t really care for Rysanek.

      But I do remember a comment she made that ties in with your post. It was an interview she gave in the early 70s where the interviewer asked her for an example of a performance she would really look forward to. I don’t recall her answer but after she replied, the interviewer then asked her the flip side of the same question. What kind of engagement would she NOT look forward to with enthusiasm. I remeber her reply to this was “singing in London on a rainy Monday night”.

      I thought, hmmm…, she must have had an unpleasant experience there. Keep in mind this interview was several years after she had been through a rough period with Met audiences, in addition to the garlic bouquets (I had never heard that one before but it could be true), she did come in for a lot of booing at the MEt in the early 60s, particularly when she sang Italian roles. So even in spite of this, she preferred to sing in New York rather than London.

      Most of the Met booing came from standing room and Bing made the decision not to sell standing room for Rysanek performances. He didn’t hold firm on this, among others, Maria Jeritza made a trip to Bing’s office after some fans asked to to see if she could get the ban lifted and Bing evidently went along with her request.

      It’s sort of OT but since I mentioned her and since she was another soprano that was a huge, huge favorite in Vienna, Jeritza was a very glamorous presence at opera performance in NY and also NJ when I started going frequently. She attended the Met often and was very recognizeable, she had butter yellow hair in tight curls (this was the era of huge teased bouffants), various mink coats in different shades, and ALWAYS a pair of diamond studded sunglasses. Yes even indoors at night. She was unmistakeable!

      • grimoaldo

        Thanks to you both for your replies. very interesting. Wonderful story about Jeritza!

      • Batty Masetto

        The gossip was -- highly unconfirmed! -- that she started having vocal troubles in the 60s as her marriage was going on the rocks. Then she dumped her unhelpful (ex-vocal coach) husband, married a very nice man, and the voice revived just in time for the new production of FroSch.

      • Batty Masetto

        Oh, that reminds me of another memory -- I was at a dress of her Rosenkavalier in San Francisco. She was delightful, of course. Then when everything was through, and the curtain had been pulled up and the work lights were on, she waited for notes with everybody else, still in her beautiful haute toilette, and held out her hand to the little Moorish kid, who was looking a little lost amid all the confusion. So he went over and held her hand and waited too. Such a simple, kind gesture.

        • Camille

          THAT, Batty, is a DIVA!

          [I’ve been on a real toot looking up Rossini recipes and I’ve found they are practically Endless!]

          Love Leonie, Love her…in Zeit und Ewigkeit!

          • Batty Masetto

            Well, as for endless, so apparently was his waistline by the time he retired!

  • Krunoslav

    Leonie did make sme les than well receved ROH apperaances in the early 60s- perhaps the Marschallin ( when Londoners had Crespin fever) and certainly as Elsa circa 1964, not a great period for her t have been doing Elsa!

    • Gualtier M

      I have told this story before, however… I once attended an “Elektra” on my birthday with Gwyneth Jones, Voigt and Rysanek as Klytaemnestra. Anyway, at the stage door I told Rysanek “Mme. Rysanek you were my birthday present tonight” and she said in a wonderful warm Viennese accent “Oh!! Happy Birthday and many, many more!” There were two British fans who told she was wonderful and asked her when she would be appearing in London. She said curtly “They won’t have me” She had been very warm before that. They also asked her if she was singing Kostelnicka and she said the part was too exhausting for her then. This was in 1994.

      • The Vicar of John Wakefield

        London had no need of her services when it enjoyed the talents of Harper, Curphey and Barstow.

        • Regina delle fate

          Margaret Curphey didn’t sing at Covent Garden -- except as an emergency substitute -- and Barstow was hardly competing with Rysanek for roles there, they weren’t contemporaries and by the time Barstow sang Lady M and Santuzza there, Mme Rysanek was no longer singing them. Yes, Heather Harper sang the Kaiserin at Covent Garden in two revivals, both, perhaps significantly, under Solti, but otherwise their repertory barely coincided. Unless the Vicar is suggesting that Harper prevented Mme Rysanek from singing Ellen Orford or the soprano leads in Michael Tippett’s King Priam and The Ice Break.

      • Regina delle fate

        The story of Rysanek’s continued non-appearance at Covent Garden from the 1950s on really needs telling. The dates point the finger at Solti who at some point seems to have been persuaded by people at Decca that her voice did not record well, so she would never become an international superstar. It’s absolutely staggering. It is also true that British critics of the day were less than adulatory about her performances -- especially those who reviewed her commercial recordings of Macbeth, Otello and Dutchman and the general critical consensus seems to have been that her voice declined after the old Böhm Frau ohne Schatten. As she sang rarely in both Salzburg and Bayreuth in the 1960s, UK critics would only have a chance to see her in Vienna, New York, San Francisco -- so they simply missed her vocal prime. But she wasn’t the only Vienna-Met star who really didn’t appear on Covent Garden’s radar. Christa Ludwig only appeared there twice -- first for a single performance Amneris as a substitute for Grace and then in a run of Carmens, around the time of her Don Carlo debacle in Salzburg after which she dropped most of her dramatic mezzo (and soprano) roles. There was a plan for Rysanek to sing Salome for Dr Böhm’s debut with the Royal Opera in 1976, but he decided he was too old to conduct that opera in the theatre and it was changed to Figaro. So Mme Rysanek was dropped.

        • richard

          Regina, your Solti comment makes sense, I had heard he was basically behind her rare appearances in London. And Decca also seemed involved as I understand she was replaced by Price on the Aida and Verdi Requiem that were recorded for Decca by RCA under that weird arrangement that was in place in the early 60s.

          I didn’t know that Ludwig appeared at CG so infrequently. She sang at the Met a fair amount although in “clumps” of seasons with a big gap in the early 60s and then a ten year gap between 1974-1984 with no performances except a few Kundrys. Evidently she liked Amneris. I saw her in a lot of roles in NY but the only Italian one was as Amneris where she really went wild in the judgement scene. It was a bit over the top but I went back for a second performance.

          • Nerva Nelli

            Well, I know what you meant by “Italian roles” but Ludwig did sing 5 Met performances of Cherubino, includng her 12/10/59 debut.

          • richard

            NN, I meant it was the only Italian role I actually saw Ludwig in. The Cherubinos were a bit before my time.

    • richard

      And honestly, I doubt that the Marschallin was ever really an ideal role for her in whatever period and whatever city. Sure she looked gorgeous, particularly in the Act 3 drag and she could cap the trio off with an enormous high B but there were hours of her singing in her husky middle register trying to find the right pitch.

      I adored Leonie but the MArschallin was the least successful part I saw her in. (But then I never heard her in aida, Ballo, Forza, etc..) Give her Senta, Empress, Elisabeth, Salome, Chrisothemus, Ortrud, Leonore.

      • Batty Masetto

        Oh, I don’t know about that, Richard -- I thought her Marschallin in SF was just lovely (this would have been mid-70s), the voice was easily better than Jones on the video, and the acting just delectable. When Marie Theres’ almost gives away her past in Act I at that highly suggestive “Einmal--” she caught herself almost in mid-note, switched focus and nonchalantly bit into the langue de chat she was holding as though butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth!

        • iltenoredigrazia

          Rosenkavalier at the Met around 1967 or 68 was when I totally fell for Rysanek.

        • richard

          There were lots of lovely touches in Rysanek’s Marschallin and she looked beautiful on stage. She also played the role as a very warm and loving woman. But I had trouble getting past all the conversational music set in the middle of her voice where her voice didn’t “speak” very easily.

          So I felt this just wasn’t an ideal part for her.

          Funny about the Jones comment. I had seen Jones in a couple of things but what made me really appreciate her was the Rosenkavalier film! But this is just one more case where we all tally up our score cards and find we’ve arrived at different results.

          ITDG, I first saw Rysanek as Senta and so I guess I came to look at her as a natural in more extroverted, larger than life parts.

          • Batty Masetto

            Especially later on, I guess she did get a little far into that larger-than-life thing. Now remember, I’m a huge admirer, but here’s a story: An old friend of mine, a very gifted singing actor himself, sang opposite her in a role she did often (I know, I’m being intentionally ambiguous here). I said, “she must have been thrilling to work with,” and oddly, he said “well, if you like that kind of thing.” I didn’t really press him, but I gathered that by that point she often just did her own thing and wasn’t paying much attention to who she was doing it opposite, or responding much to what they were offering her. It’s easy enough to get to that space, it’s self-defense. Do Senta or Sieglinde or any other intensely emotional role opposite a nerd enough times and you begin getting in the habit of just taking what you need and forging ahead. I think I see a bit of it in that clip with Jerusalem (who for my money leans a little toward the nerdy end anyway).

            Of course that has nothing to do with her much reported one-to-one kindness as a colleague. And you can always contrast it with the wonderful stories like how she and London cheerfully plotted together to knock the socks off the audience in that early Met Dutchman.

          • Jay

            You have a point about Rysanek’s Marschillin, Richard. The final trio was wonderful, but the rest of it didn’t show her to her best vocal advantage. I also saw Jones in the role, in Muenchen the same year the production was taped; she was a take-no-prisoners Marschallin.

            I also didn’t much care for Kiri’s, Ludwig’s, or Soderstrom’s interpretations. In my experience, only Helen Donath had the right mix of grace, resignation, deja vu, etc. and the vocal chops for the role.

            There was only other Germanic role in which Rysanek, love her as I did and still do, didn’t excel: Ariadne. OK, but not really her type of character. Rysanek was at her best in roles she could hurl herself into, so neither the Marschallin or Ariadne worked. I don’t believe she ever sang Minnie; she could have had a blast with this role.

          • peter

            Jay, when and where did you hear Donath sing the Marschallin? It must have been fairly late in her career. The Marschallin I really wished I could have seen was Crespin. I can’t imagine a more deluxe interpreter. I only heard Rysanek’s on a broadcast from SF in the late 70’s and have to agree with others that this was not her role.

          • Jay

            Helen Donath sang Marschallin in Washington in 1995, Richard. Late, but definitely not too late, in her career.

          • peter

            Jay, I’m Peter, not Richard although I am flattered that I would be confused with him.

            I love Donath on the Rosenkavalier recording with Crespin but I’m not familiar with her later work in the heavier repertory.

          • Jay

            Apologies, Peter. I’m multitasking like crazy at work today, eating lunch, etc. I also would like to have seen Crespin’s Marschillin. If you can get ahold of the Czech film of “Turn of the Screw”, Donath sings the Governess on the soundtrack (there’s also a CD). Re: Rysanek, how I’d love to hear a recording of that Met “Dutchman” with London. The one where the applause lasted through intermission.

          • Camille

            Based only upon a recording I have of large bleeding chunks of both the Rosenkavalier and Ariadne, I would certainly agree with richard’s assessment of Leonie’s vocal estate in, particularly, the Rosenkavalier. I’m very certain she would have more than compensated for the Mississippi Mudslide in the voice with the bella figura she would have presented on stage, however, being the Buehnentier she was, it would probably have been enough--that, and the high B at the end of the trio. I say this with great regret as I am sure the part must have meant something special to her; as a native Viennese, who would/should be better, right? I also remember reading a direct quote from Leonie about Ariadne in which she said that she really didn’t quite know what to do with the part except to stand there and “be beautiful”.

            It would seem that Our Lady of Vienna was best suited to the dynamic and dramatic, however, I would still love her just as much if she had sprechgesung the Wiener GelbePages,
            in middle voice. There would still have been something of interest even in the midst of the mud.

            Surely there will never be another one like her again.

  • Can anyone tell me please- who is the current custodian of the Lotte Lehmann Memorial Ring? I know Leonie was the first and she passed it onto Hildegard- who has it now? Does anyone know?

  • Ps: I don’t think it’s Mara Zampierri :)

    • Regina delle fate

      I’m putting my money on Riccarda Merberth :)

      • Nerva Nelli

        Maybe Audrey Stottler?

  • Where’s the Vicar when you need him? :)
    Regina -- :)
    Nerva -- if Stottler gets it its bound to come on ice…she could barely smile when she met me- perhaps there’s something in that for all of us hehe.

    • Camille

      That’s silly, it could ONLY be MarshieMarkII,
      who else?

  • Baby Jane sings opera:


  • Sorry- this is the correct link to Baby Jane

    • Harry

      Ruxton: Watch out , a 1000 nightmares might just come true if you tempt fate. By MarshieMarkII declaring that Merbeth is the new love of his life. Then cataloging each of her tragic performances to the nth degree as absolutely unforgettable. What will you do then?

  • Well, dear Harry, if La Merbeth rocks Marshie’s boat I can only be delighted for him. I love watching Il Divo and don’t mind the music either- so there ya go…to each his own :)