Martha Mödl

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Martha Mödl, opera singer: born Nuremberg, Germany 22 March 1912; died Stuttgart, Germany 17 December 2001.

Martha Mödl, opera singer: born Nuremberg, Germany 22 March 1912; died Stuttgart, Germany 17 December 2001.

Throughout the 1950s Martha Mödl was among the most admired of German dramatic sopranos, who could be heard at Bayreuth, in Berlin, Paris, Milan, London, Vienna and New York, as Wagner's Kundry, Isolde and Brünnhilde.

Her handsome appearance, the warmth of her voice, her dramatic ability, above all the great intensity of her performances, combined to make her a singing actress of unique stature. This part of her career, however, was only a fraction of the whole. Earlier she had spent nearly a decade as a mezzo-soprano, singing French and Italian as well as German roles; later she reverted to the mezzo category, and continued to appear for another 39 years, mainly in character parts.

Martha Mödl was born and brought up in Nuremberg. When she was 12 her father deserted mother and daughter, leaving them in relative poverty. Mödl worked as secretary and book-keeper. In 1940, at the age of 28, she began to study singing part-time at the Nuremberg Conservatory, and made her début in 1942 at Remschied as Hansel. Engaged at Düsseldorf from 1945 to 1949, she sang Dorabella in Così fan tutte, Azucena in Il trovatore, Princess Eboli in Don Carlos, the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos, Venus in Tannhäuser, Marina in Boris Godunov, Marie in Wozzeck, and Carmen.

It was as Carmen, sung in respectable English, that Mödl made her highly praised Covent Garden début in 1949. The following season she sang Klytemnestra in Elektra at Florence, as well as Kundry and Lady Macbeth, roles that lie within the range of both soprano and mezzo, at the State Opera, Berlin. Mödl's international career as a dramatic soprano was launched.

In March 1951 she sang Kundry at La Scala, Milan, scoring a great success. Her performance of Kundry in Wieland Wagner's production of Parsifal, with which the first Bayreuth Festival since the Second World War opened that summer, was an even greater triumph, inaugurating an enormously fruitful artistic partnership between singer and director.

Mödl also sang the Third Norn and Gutrune in Götterdämmerung at Bayreuth that year. The performance, conducted by the legendary Hans Knappertsbusch, was recorded at the time, but was not released until 1999, when it brought the atmosphere of those years at Bayreuth to startling life. During 1952 Mödl returned to La Scala as Oktavian in Der Rosenkavalier and as Leonore in Fidelio, which she also sang at the Edinburgh Festival with the Hamburg State Opera. Earlier in the year she sang her first Isolde at Stuttgart, repeating the role at Bayreuth to a tremendously enthusiastic audience.

Isolde was probably Mödl's finest interpretation. The wild ferocity of her Narration and Curse in the first act, the beauty, tenderness and passion of the Love duet with Tristan in the second, the dignity and resignation of the Liebestod in the third, were totally unforgettable, and nearly 50 years later, I have not forgotten them. Although Brünnhilde did not suit Modl, either temperamentally or vocally, quite as well as Isolde or Kundry, her characterisation was much admired for its intelligence. She sang Brünnhilde in complete Ring cycles at Bayreuth from 1953 to 1958, sharing the role with Astrid Varnay; the two sopranos also alternated as Sieglinde in Die Walküre.

Mödl sang Brünnhilde at the Paris Opera in 1955 and at the Metropolitan in New York, where she made her début in 1957 in Siegfried, later singing Kundry and Isolde during the three seasons she was engaged there. Covent Garden heard her as Brünnhilde in 1959, but not in the other two roles, though she sang Isolde at the Royal Festival Hall during the visit of the Stuttgart Opera to London in September 1955. On 5 November that year she sang Leonore in Fidelio at the gala re-opening of the Vienna State Opera. Reputedly she was not in good voice that night, but at later performances she was in superb form, as I can personally vouch.

After reverting to mezzo-soprano, in 1963 Mödl sang the Nurse in Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten at the opening of the rebuilt National Theatre in Munich; the Nurse became one of her finest mezzo roles, together with Klytemnestra, which she sang at Covent Garden in 1965, repeating her devastated and devastating performance in Mexico City, Stuttgart, Munich, Berlin and many other cities. She returned to Bayreuth to sing Fricka and Waltraute in the Ring cycles of 1966 and 1967, and gave a hair-raising account of the title role of Schoeck's Penthesilea at Stuttgart, in complete contrast to her very moving portrait of Countess Geschwitz in Berg's Lulu in Vienna and Cologne.

Mödl took part in many opera premieres, creating Ettie-Mennie in Blacher's 200,000 Taler in 1969; and the Ballad Singer in Fortner's Elisabeth Tudor in 1972 at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin; Pythia in Reimann's Melusine in 1971 at Schwetzingen, repeating the role at the Edinburgh Festival; Frau Miller in Einem's Kabale und Liebe in 1976 at Vienna; Baal's Mother in Cerha's Baal in 1981 at Salzburg; and the Mummy in Reimann's Die Gespenstersonate, an adaptation of Strindberg's Ghost Sonata, in 1984 in Berlin. Her last creation was at Düsseldorf in 1995, when she sang Bazouga, the layer-out of corpses in Giselher Klebe's Gervaise Macquart, based on Emile Zola's L'Assommoir.

During the later years of her long career, Mödl sang countless character roles. Among the finest of these were the Mother in Fortner's Bluthochzeit, adapted from Lorca's tragedy Blood Wedding; Leokadja Begbick in Kurt Weill's Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny; Herodias in Salome; and Gertrude in Marschner's Hans Heiling. She exhibited a splendid sense of humour as Theodosia Federbett, the housekeeper in Strauss's Die schweigsame Frau, which the Bavarian State Opera brought to Covent Garden in 1972.

The most striking of all these character roles was the old Countess in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades. Sung with a tiny thread of voice but dramatically projected as strongly as ever, this was, together with her Isolde, her Kundry and her Leonore, a never-to-be-forgotten experience. She sang the Countess for the last time at Mannheim in May 1999, at the age of 87. Though most of the perfomance was in sprechstimme (between speech and song), she could still sing the little tune from Grétry's Richard, Coeur de Lion with which the Countess evokes the splendour and glory of former times.

Elizabeth Forbes