Elisabeth Söderström: Soprano admired in Britain for her interpretations of Richard Strauss
Tuesday 24 November 2009
The Swedish soprano Elisabeth Söderström had a career, at home and internationally, that lasted over 40 years. Without forcing her lyrical voice she managed to sing a wide repertory that included many roles outside that category, partly because she married the words and music so naturally and partly because she was such a good actress. If Richard Strauss and Leos Janácek were her favourite composers, she sang the operas of Gluck and Mozart, of Debussy and Britten, with equal facility and insight, while two of her most sympathetic roles were Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio and Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.
Elisabeth Söderström was born in Stockholm in 1927, of a Swedish father and Russian mother, both excellent amateur singers. In 1947 she joined the Royal Swedish Academy of Music Opera School, making her debut the same year as Bastienne in Mozart's Bastien und Bastienne at the Royal Court Theatre at Drottningholm, just outside Stockholm. While still a student she sang Freia in Das Rheingold, during a cycle of Wagner's Ring. I was living in Stockholm at the time and that was the first – but not the last - time I heard Söderström.
In 1950, as well as marrying Sverker Olow, a naval officer, she became a member of the Royal Swedish Opera, where she remained throughout her career. During her first season she sang Regina in Hindemith's Mathis der Maler and Lady Harriet in Flotow's Martha, then during the next few years, Puccini's Butterfly and Liu, Mozart's Susanna and Pamina, Gluck's Eurydice, Micaela in Carmen and Charpentier's Louise. More interesting from the point of view of her later career, were Marie in Berg's Wozzeck and the Governess in Britten's Turn of the Screw, one of her favourite roles.
Söderström's international career began in 1955 when she sang Ighino in Pfitzner's Palestrina at Salzburg. Two years later she made her Glyndebourne debut as the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos. This was the beginning of the love affair between the singer and the British public, as well as the intensification of the love affair between the singer and the operas of Richard Strauss. She had already sung the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier in Stockholm; now she sang Oktavian in that opera at Glyndebourne in 1959, the year of her Metropolitan Opera debut in New York as Susanna. During four seasons at the Met she also sang Adina in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, Musetta in La Bohème and Sophie, her third role in Der Rosenkavalier.
She first sang at Covent Garden in 1960, during a visit by the Swedish company, appearing as Morgana in Handel's Alcina and as Daisy Doody in Karl-Birger Blomdahl's space-opera Aniara, which had had its premiere in Stockholm the year before and which remained popular, in Sweden and elsewhere, for several decades.
Söderström's first Janácek role was Emilia Marty in The Makropulos Case, which she sang in Swedish at Stockholm in the 1960s; she then sang it in French at a concert performance in Paris and a stage performance in Marseilles; in 1978 she sang the role in English for Welsh National Opera, while at the same time she was recording the opera in Czech. All these versions were very successful. She later sang Jenufa in Stockholm, in Edinburgh and in 1980 at San Francisco, as well as Katya Kabanova for WNO in 1982, but Emilia Marty remained her favourite.
Meanwhile, at Covent Garden she sang Countess Almaviva for her debut in 1967, followed by Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte in 1969 and, the following year, a superb Mélisande in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, conducted by Pierre Boulez, which was also recorded, At Glyndebourne the soprano was busy enlarging her Strauss repertory; after a splendid Tatyana in Eugene Onegin in 1968, she returned to Sussex in 1973 for one of her finest Strauss characterisations, the Countess in Capriccio. This, the perfect opera for Glyndebourne, provided the perfect role for Söderström at this stage in her career.
The following year she found another sympathetic Strauss role in Christine Storch (the fictional representation of Pauline, Strauss's wife) in Intermezzo. She sang Christine again for Netherlands Opera in 1981, in Santa Fe in 1984 and (semi-staged) at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1986. Back at Glyndebourne she sang Leonora in Fidelio to great praise in 1979. The previous year in Stockholm she had taken part in another world premiere, of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, as one of two young lovers, Clitonia (later changed to Miranda).
Söderström continued singing through the 1980s: she gave a shattering concert performance of Poulenc's monologue La Voix Humaine at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, followed by the Marschallin at Dallas in '82; she sang Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes at the Met in '83 and her last Marschallin there in '87; and took part in the premiere of Dominic Argento's The Aspern Papers as Juliana in Dallas in '88.
The British Ambassador in Stockholm presented her with an honorary CBE in June 1985 and at an informal concert afterwards she and her friend and colleague, mezzo Kerstin Meyer, sang Rossini's La Regata and the Cats' duet, "Miaou". She published a book, In my own Key, and after retiring was greatly in demand for master classes.
When the Parliamentary all party heritage group, (not a freebie – we paid for ourselves), led by Sir Patrick Cormack MP, went to Sweden in 2002, we were taken round that jewel of a theatre at Drottningholm by Elizabeth Soderstrom herself, writes Tam Dalyell. A charming and authoritative septuagenarian, she displayed a passionate interest in encouraging and developing young singers. What struck us was the determination she displayed not only to pass on a tradition of artistic excellence but to confront with candour those thinking of embarking on a singing career with the challenges of managing the inevitably difficult life which went with the role of an international singer. Her own family life, and marriage of 59 years, was an example to all who contemplated a singing career.
Elisabeth Söderström, operatic singer and recitalist: born Stockholm 7 May 1927; married 1950 Sverker Olow (three sons); died Stockholm 20 November 2009.
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