Christa Ludwig, who poured a lustrous voice into dramatically taut performances of opera roles — especially those of Mozart, Strauss and Wagner — and intimately rendered art songs as one of the premier mezzo-sopranos of the second half of the 20th century, died Saturday at her home in Klosterneuburg, Austria. She was 93.
Her death was confirmed by her son, Wolfgang Berry.
Ludwig commanded a broad range of the great mezzo-soprano parts, including Dorabella in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte,” Cherubino in his “Le Nozze di Figaro,” Octavian in Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier,” Bizet’s Carmen and numerous Wagner roles. Often, critics were reduced to calling her the greatest mezzo-soprano of her time.
But like many mezzos, Ludwig strove to lay claim to higher-voiced — and higher-profile — soprano roles. So she took on, most successfully in that category, characters including the Marschallin in “Der Rosenkavalier,” the Dyer’s Wife in “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” and Leonore in Beethoven’s “Fidelio.”
She was an equal master of the intimate song — especially the works of Brahms, Mahler and Schubert. Her artistry put her in the pantheon of postwar lieder singers that included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elly Ameling and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
Ludwig made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Cherubino (a trouser role, a type she said was not her favorite) in 1959, took on Octavian and Amneris in Verdi’s “Aida” at the house that year as well, and sang regularly at the Met until the end of her career.
She was associated for decades with the Vienna State Opera and the Salzburg Festival and worked especially closely with conductors Karl Böhm, Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan.
Ludwig rose from straitened origins in a shattered wartime Germany to the height of the singing world, aided by a sense of discipline instilled by her strong-willed mother — her only real teacher and a constant presence throughout her career.
She also displayed traits of the pampered diva, with a preference for elegant gowns and opulent hotel suites (partly inspired by the hardships of her youth), fanatical attention to any hint of illness and the state of her vocal cords, and reverential fans who followed her from house to house. On performance days, she would communicate with whistles or by writing on a pad.
But onstage, Ludwig brought a striking combination of acting ability, charisma and vocal beauty. Her voice had range and power, a security through all the registers and a broad array of colors.
“Her unmistakable, deep-purple timbre envelops the listener in a velvet cloak,” Roger Pines wrote in Opera News in 2018, reviewing her collected recordings. “She excelled equally in intimate, legato-oriented lieder and the largest-scale operatic repertoire, where her sound expanded with glorious brilliance.”(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)Critics often took note of her wit and comic deftness, and a personality that could fill a hall even when she sang softly.
“Her presence on the Met stage was a synthesis of the dramatic arts all by itself — her voice, her wonderfully natural diction and her shadings of facial expression and gesture all conspiring to express with great emotional breadth the singular message of this singular music,” New York Times critic Bernard Holland wrote of a “Winterreise” performance in 1983. Ludwig sang that searing Schubert song cycle some 72 times, even though it was composed for a male voice.
Ludwig was born March 16, 1928, in Berlin. Her parents lived in Aachen, in western Germany, but her mother, Eugenie Besalla-Ludwig, wanted the child to be born in her family home in the capital.
In Aachen, Christa Ludwig’s Viennese father, Anton Ludwig, a former tenor who had sung with Enrico Caruso at the old Met, was the opera house stage director and manager; her mother sang in the company and performed several roles under an up-and-coming conductor named Herbert von Karajan. Christa Ludwig saw those performances and many others.
“I practically lived in the theater,” she said in her 1993 memoir, later published in English under the title “In My Own Words.”
Her mother gave her singing lessons as a girl and remained her lifelong coach, going to her rehearsals and performances and living most of her life with Ludwig.
“I really owe everything to her,” she said. But Ludwig also described her mother as an inflexible and sometimes suffocating presence who dominated her life before she felt able to cut ties only at age 60.
During the war, a half-brother was killed on the Eastern front. Food was rationed, and Ludwig was sent to work on a farm. The family’s home and belongings in Giessen, where her father had become director of the municipal theater, were destroyed in an Allied bombing raid, leaving them homeless. With the arrival of U.S. troops, Ludwig recounted in her memoir, she and her parents were assigned an abandoned apartment with a piano that had been used as a toilet.
Ludwig’s mother gave voice lessons. “Studying singing was a wonderful way to forget the wretched way we lived, the ruins, the still-smoldering coal cellars, and the stink of ashes,” Ludwig wrote.The young singer soon found work singing popular tunes at the American officers club, wearing a dress she had made from a Nazi flag. She was paid in cigarettes and stole whatever food she could. Once her father, who had been a member of the Nazi party, was denazified, he was given back his job and organized variety shows around town in which his daughter was featured.
Ludwig received her first major contract in 1946, at the Frankfurt Opera, and made her stage debut as Prince Orlofsky in “Die Fledermaus.” Her mother, recently divorced from her father, moved in with her in the city in an unheated room, and they began daily lessons.
Along with her opera work, she sang many concerts of contemporary music amid a wave of creative freedom unleashed by the fall of the Reich.
“I was cheap,” she told The Guardian in 2004. “I learned things easily, and I had a good voice.” It was a shrewd move: Critics got to know her before she became famous.
Stints in the opera houses of Darmstadt and Hanover followed, until she was summoned to audition for Böhm, the director of the Vienna State Opera. He took her on in 1955, and she quickly became a mainstay.
Engagements at the world’s major opera houses followed.
Ludwig met bass-baritone Walter Berry at the Vienna opera in 1957 when they were cast in “Le Nozze di Figaro.” They married three months later and had a son, Wolfgang, who survives her, along with a grandson and a stepson, Philippe Deiber.
The couple frequently appeared together in operas and joint recitals. In interviews, Ludwig said they felt occasional rivalry and were at odds in preparing for performances (she needed quiet, he less so; he liked small hotel rooms, and she liked large suites).
The couple divorced in 1970, though they continued to perform together. (Walter Berry died in 2000.)
Soon after her divorce, Ludwig met actor and stage director Paul-Emile Deiber while he was preparing a production of Massenet’s “Werther” at the Met, and they married in 1972. He died in 2011Ludwig came of age at the dawn of the postwar golden era of recordings, and her LP legacy is vast, from a 1961 “Norma” with Maria Callas to a 1962 “St. Matthew Passion” conducted by Otto Klemperer to two complete and classic Wagner “Ring” cycles. She appears on five “Rosenkavalier” recordings, including a beloved rendition with Schwarzkopf, conducted by von Karajan.
In the realm of song, critics took note of her sensitivity, smooth lines, intimacy, control and mastery of the text.
“She is perhaps the reigning feminine expert at making us feel good about lonely teardrops and thwarted bliss,” Times critic Donal Henahan wrote in 1979.
Despite the care that she took with her voice, Ludwig suffered damage to her vocal cords in the early 1970s that forced her to cancel numerous performances and even parts of whole seasons. She recovered but cut back on opera appearances. She gave a series of farewell performances in the 1993-1994 season before retiring.
A few years after her vocal crisis, Ludwig made clear the pragmatic view she had about a singer’s voice.
“It’s like a raw egg,” she once said. “Once it’s kaputt, it’s kaputt.”