sstri“If you’ve overdosed on Der Rosenkavalier in the past week, let’s go back a few years to Richard Strauss’ first operatic hit: Salome.

Covent Garden was one of the stops in the decade that Wiener Staatsoper trekked to various opera houses while its home on the Ringstraße was being rebuilt after the vast majority of it was destroyed by Allied Forces bombs.  This 1947 performance has a legendary cast: Maria Cebotari, Julius Patzak, and Elisabeth Höngen, conducted by Clemens Krauss.

Some Parterrians will be able to recite Cebotari’s tragic biography, some have listened to a few of her recordings, but many will ask, “Who?”

In hr 18-year career, Cebotari, a native of Romania, established herself as one of the most versatile, sought-after sopranos of her time. Herbert von Karajan called her the greatest Cio-Cio-San he ever conducted.  Richard Strauss referred to her as “the best all-rounder on the European stage,” adding “she is never late and she never cancels.”  She also acted in several films.

After her debut at age 21 as Mimì in Dresden, she was immediately signed for the Salzburger Festspiele by Bruno Walter.  In 1935 her success in the lead role of Aminta in the world premiere of Strauss’ Die schweigsame Frau led Karl Böhm to persuade her to move to Berlin, where she reigned as prima donna of the Deutsche Staatsoper for a decade.

She was quickly invited to Europe’s main stages including La Scala, Covent Garden, back to Dresden, and, of course, Wien, where she moved in 1946 with her second husband, Austrian actor Gustav Diessl, and two sons.

To give you an idea of her versatility, let’s examine her Wiener Staatsoper performances in the 1947/1948 season:


Contessa (Le nozze di Figaro) – 9 performances
Antonia/Stella (Les contes d’Hoffmann) – 7
Pamina (Die Zauberflöte) – 7
Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly) – 5
Salome (Salome) – 5
Lucile (Dantons Tod) – 4
Marie (The Bartered Bride) – 3
Susanna (Le nozze di Figaro) – 2
Violetta (La traviata) – 2
Gilda (Rigoletto) – 1

Her repertoire also roles such as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne, the Gräfin in Capriccio, Donna Anna, Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Luisa, Miller, and Turandot.

In early 1948 Diessl suffered two strokes and a heart attack and died at age 48.  Cebotai soon began to complain of pains, notably during a run of Le nozze di Figaro at La Scala where her illness was dismissed.  Less than three months later she collapsed onstage during a Staatsoper performance of Der Bettelstudent on the stage of Volksoper Wien on 31 March 1949.  It was to be her final performance: she died of liver and pancreatic cancer on 9 June 1949 at age 39.  Her sons were adopted by British pianist Clifford Curzon.

Thousand of people attended her funeral procession in what has been described as one of the most imposing demonstrations of love and honor any deceased artist has ever received in the history of Wien.