Christa Ludwig was one of the most admired mezzo-sopranos of her generation, with a wide repertoire of both lieder and opera. She brought a fine sense of musicianship as well as drama to her performances. Her roles ranged from Dorabella in Così fan Tutte to Brangane in Tristan und Isolde and Clytemnestra in Elektra, and she was the creator of the role of Claire in Gottfried von Einem’s Der Besuch der alten Dame. Her technique and upper register were solid enough to let her sing the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten, parts almost exclusively sung by sopranos — though she did retreat from plans to sing Isolde and Brunhilde. She was also a noted lieder performer, especially of Mahler.
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Ludwig was born on March 16 1928, in Berlin, Germany, to tenor Anton Ludwig, who later became a stage director, and mezzo-soprano Eugenie Besalla-Ludwig. Her first vocal studies were with her mother, who also taught her piano, flute, and cello. Her first performances were in 1954, at the age of 17, singing operatic arias she had learned from growing up in the theater. She made her operatic debut as Prince Orlofsky in Strauss’ Die Fledermaus in 1946, at the Frankfurt State Opera, where she was a member of the company until 1952. She then moved to Darmstadt to study acting with the director Gustav Sellner. After two years, she and her mother (who was still teaching her) moved to Hanover, where she began to sing leading roles such as Carmen, Ortrud, and Kundry. Her Salzburg debut was in 1954 as Cherubino, and followed by her 1955 debut in the same role at the Vienna State Opera, at the invitation of Karl Böhm, where she sang for more than 30 years. In 1957, she sang with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who encouraged her husband Walter Legge, the famous producer, to sign Ludwig with EMI records. Ludwig’s United States debut was in 1959 in Chicago, as Dorabella. In the 1970s, she went through a vocal crisis due to menopause, and she took some of the most demanding roles out of her repertoire and began to give more attention to songs. Again she challenged the typical views of repertoire, and sang material, such as Winterreise, that is most often associated with male voices, especially baritones. Working with Leonard Bernstein, she developed a special affection for Mahler (whose music Bernstein championed when Mahler was relatively obscure.)
She was married to bass Walter Berry from 1957 until 1971, and their son, Marc Berry, is a popular song composer. She has a wide recorded legacy; among the best of her material is a Das Lied von der Erde under Bernstein (Sony) and a Brangane in Tristan und Isolde, with Vickers as Tristan and Dernesch as Isolde, under Karajan (EMI).
by Anne Feeney / all music