Astrid Varnay

Operatic soprano whose dramatic impact could be overwhelming, especially in Wagner roles
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The Independent Online

Astrid Ibolyka Maria Varnay, opera singer and teacher: born Stockholm 25 April 1918; married 1944 Herman Weigert (died 1955); died Munich 4 September 2006.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the American dramatic soprano Astrid Varnay was widely admired, at the Metropolitan and at Covent Garden, above all at Bayreuth, as a powerful Brünnhilde and a passionate Isolde. A singing actress of great intensity, she excelled in roles that allowed her to portray characters in the grip of extreme emotional stress.

Amongst her greatest triumphs were Salome and Elektra, but her repertory included operas by Verdi and other Italian composers as well as Wagner and Richard Strauss. When, as a result of singing too many, too heavy parts at too young an age, the top of her voice lost its original clarion ring, she assumed dramatic mezzo roles such as Herodias in Salome or Klytemnestra in Elektra with equal success. In a career lasting 44 years, she brought total commitment to each and every one of her performances.

Astrid Varnay was born in Stockholm in 1918; her father, Alexander Varnay, was a Hungarian tenor who became stage director of the Norwegian Opera in Oslo. Her mother, also a singer, the coloratura soprano Maria Yavor, took Astrid when still a very small child to the United States.

Originally intending to become a pianist, Varnay studied for eight years at the New Jersey Musical College. At the age of 19 she began vocal practice with her mother, then studied in New York with Herman Weigert, whom she later married. Weigert, who was on the music staff of the Metropolitan Opera, obtained an audition for his pupil and Varnay was offered a contract.

She made an unexpected and highly spectacular début on 6 December 1941, singing Sieglinde in Die Walküre at a few hours' notice and without rehearsal, in place of an indisposed Lotte Lehmann. Six days later she stood in for Helen Traubel as Brünnhilde in the same opera. In January 1942 she sang Elsa in Lohengrin and Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, then in February she created the part of Telea in Menotti's Island God.

It now seems obvious that a singer only 23 years old should not have undertaken such a programme, but during the Second World War there was a desperate shortage of singers in America, especially for the Wagner repertory.

For the next decade Varnay sang an amazing variety of roles, not only in New York but also in San Francisco, Chicago, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. She tackled Kundry in Parsifal as well as Eva in Die Meistersinger; Ortrud and Venus as well as Elsa and Elisabeth; Leonora in Fidelio and the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier; both Aida and Amneris; Tosca, Amelia in Simon Boccanegra, Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana and the title role of Ponchielli's La gioconda. She made her European début in 1948 at Covent Garden as the Siegfried Brünnhilde, followed by the Walküre Brünnhilde and then Isolde.

Having given London a display of her talents as a Wagner singer, Varnay returned in 1951 for Salome, Aida and Leonora in Il trovatore. The same year she sang Lady Macbeth in Verdi's Macbeth at the Maggio Musicale in Florence, then appeared at the first post-war Bayreuth Festival as Brünnhilde in the complete Ring cycle.

Varnay continued to sing at Bayreuth every year until 1967. As well as Brünnhilde and Sieglinde, in which roles she and Martha Modl used to alternate, she gave magnificent performances of Isolde, Ortrud, Senta in Der fliegende Holländer and Kundry. The conditions at Bayreuth, with its lengthy rehearsal period and freedom from outside distraction suited Varnay perfectly; her interpretations there were always deeper and more acute than in other theatres, while her voice benefited from the perfect acoustic of the Festspielhaus.

After 1956, when she left the Metropolitan, Varnay appeared more frequently in Europe, singing at the Paris Opéra and La Scala, Milan, in Munich, Hamburg, Vienna and Stuttgart, where in 1959 she created Jocasta in Carl Orff's Oedipus Rex. She also began to acquire mezzo character roles; the finest of these was undoubtedly the Kostelnicka in Janácek's Jenufa, which she first sang at Covent Garden in 1968 and repeated on her return to the Metropolitan in 1974. Never afraid of making the grand theatrical statement, Varnay offered a Kostelnicka that, like her Herodias or her Klytemnestra, was almost hysterical in its presentation, but which never for an instant struck a false dramatic note.

Other roles in the second half of her career included the Nurse in Die Frau ohne Schatten, Claire in Gottfried von Einem's Besuch der alten Dame, Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria rusticana, Aase in Werner Egk's Peer Gynt and Leocadia Begbick, which she sang at the first Metropolitan production of Kurt Weill's Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny in 1979. Her rarely used but highly developed sense of irony and the superb comic timing she disclosed as Begbick were also in evidence a few years later when she played Juno in Offenbach's Orphée aux enfers at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin.

After singing the old Countess in Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades at Marseilles and the Wardrobe Mistress in Berg's Lulu at the Bavarian State Opera, Munich, in 1985, Varnay retired from the stage. She had begun teaching, in Munich and Düsseldorf, where she was Professor at the Music Academy, several years earlier.

Many of her Wagner and Strauss performances are available on disc, offering a reminder of her dark, copper-coloured voice; but the faulty method of production and occasional unsteadiness, easily ignored in the excitement that was always aroused by her singing in the theatre, cannot be so readily overlooked on record. Consequently these discs give little idea of the overwhelming dramatic impact that Varnay's Brünnhilde, Isolde or Elektra could have on a live audience. She also recorded some of her mezzo character roles, including Mother Goose in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress.

Astrid Varnay published an autobiography, Hab mir's gelobt (with Donald Arthur, 1997), translated as Fifty-five Years in Five Acts (2000).

Elizabeth Forbes