OPERA / The queen of many a night: The death of Lucia Popp has deprived the opera stage of one of its brightest stars. Michael White pays tribute

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'TO MY mind,' Sir Georg Solti said on Tuesday, 'there will never be a Sophie (in Der Rosenkavalier) or a Susanna (in The Marriage of Figaro) to equal hers.'

He was talking about Lucia Popp, the Czech soprano who had died the day before, two days after her 54th birthday, and who was without doubt one of the world's best-loved singers: a star of both the opera stage and the recital

hall. She had extraordinary charm, and a voice of polished-silver brightness that Solti sums up as 'enchanted'. It would be wrong to talk of someone who dies at 54 growing old; what one can say is that her 30-year career was a perfectly ordered example of a singer who could grow middle-aged graciously, knowing how to adapt her roles to the changes her voice underwent with time.

She began in the early 1960s as a high coloratura voice, specialising in the dizzy, dog-pitch top notes of Mozart's Queen of the Night and organising the rest of her life around them - which meant she ventured no further than the sort of light, soubrettish characters (Despina, Zerlina and their kind) that wouldn't harm her aerial accomplishments. It was on those terms that she built her reputation, first at the Vienna State Opera and then throughout the world, including Covent Garden where she became a regular and welcome visitor.

But in the 1970s she felt her hold on those top notes was slipping and she put the Queen of the Night to bed, turning instead to the lighter lyric roles that really made her name: especially, as Solti says, Sophie and Susanna, where her combination of intelligence, precision and disarming naturalness as a vocal actress was incomparable. In the Eighties, when her voice was noticeably growing heavier, she shifted the focus of her work again - towards the greater emotional depths of Mozart's Countess, Strauss's Marschallin and Arabella (a change of gear from Arabella's stage sister, Zdenka, which had previously been the Popp part), and even Wagner's Eva and Elsa. There is a famous story of a Lohengrin in Munich where she sang Elsa to the Lohengrin of her (real) husband, the tenor Peter Seiffert, and had an explosive row with him during the Wedding Scene.

But as any of her colleagues would testify, Lucia Popp was fun to have around. She had a wicked sense of humour, on and off the stage, which made her an obvious choice for the frothy champagne comedy of Viennese operetta - in roles such as Rosalinda in Die Fledermaus and Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow (Hanna's lilting aria 'Vilja' was her favourite encore).

She used to describe herself as a 'theatre cat' as opposed to an academic singer. But in recent years recital and concert work came to account for at least half her output, with unforgettable appearances at the Edinburgh Festival, the Wigmore Hall and other venues.

She was last heard in London almost exactly a year ago in performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony conducted by Klaus Tennstedt; and on disc she features in the complete Schubert Edition organised by Graham Johnson for the British company Hyperion.

Throughout her not particularly long life, Popp made some exceptional recordings under conductors like Solti, Klemperer and Haitink, and most of them are still available, although EMI have withdrawn her Daphne (probably the best account of the title role ever committed to disc) and her Rosalinda in the curious Fledermaus where Placido Domingo both conducts and sings, laying the part of Alfred over his own pre-recorded orchestral accompaniment.

More conventionally, EMI still has her as Christine in their Sawallisch recording of Intermezzo. And her Sophie is immortalised in a 1970s Leonard Bernstein Rosenkavalier on Sony, which would be an all-round recommendable recording but for the perverse casting of Gwyneth Jones as Octavian (hard to believe, but then it was the 1970s).

As for Mozart, her Queen of the Night is preserved on EMI under Klemperer (with a classically grand cast that has Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Christa Ludwig slumming it as two of the Three Ladies), her later Pamina on EMI under Haitink, and that unsurpassable Susanna on Decca under Solti, playing to the Countess of Kiri Te Kanawa.

Still to come is a Clemenza di Tito in which she sings Vitellia under Nikolaus Harnoncourt - recorded earlier this year and scheduled for release on Teldec during 1994. A voice, now, from the grave, it will be the last entry in

one of the more treasurable discographies of modern times.

(Photograph omitted)