Elisabeth Hongen, the German mezzo-soprano, was a handsome woman with a beautiful, firmly projected voice; but, above all, she was a magnificent singing actress. Karl Bohm, the conductor with whom she worked in Dresden and Vienna, called her "the greatest tragedienne in the world".
When Bohm left Dresden for Vienna in 1942, he engaged Hongen for the Vienna State Opera, where she remained a member of the company for nearly 30 years. She sang in many of the major opera houses of Europe and America, including La Scala, Covent Garden, the Paris Opera, the Colon, Buenos Aires, and the Metropolitan, usually in operas by Mozart, Wagner or Richard Strauiss, but in Austria and Germany she also took on roles such as Carmen, Lady Macbeth, Princess Eboli in Don Carlos and Amneris in Aida.
Hongen was born in Gevelsberg, Westphalia, in 1906. At university in Berlin she studied German Language and Literature, as well as the violin, musicology and singing at the Berlin Hochschule fur Musik. Her voice professor was Hermann Weissenborn. She made her operatic debut in 1933 at Wuppertal, then in 1935 she moved to Dusseldorf and in 1940 to the Dresden State Opera. There she came under the influence of Karl Bohm, the Music Director. Under his baton she sang Klytemnestra in Elektra and Herodias in Salome, roles in which she later became world-famous; she took part in Monteverdi's Orfeo in the performing version made by Carl Orff; and sang in the premiere of Die Zauberinzel (1942), an opera by Heinrich Sutermeister based on The Tempest.
Hongen first appeared in Vienna as Ortrud in Lohengrin in 1942 and the following year became a member of the company. She sang Lady Macbeth during the "Verdi Week" of 1943 (Paul Schoeffler and Hans Hotter alternated as Macbeth), and a few weeks later could be heard as Carmen, or Marcellina in Le nozze di Figaro, or in one of her Wagner roles.
She first visited La Scala in 1943, singing Klytemnestra, and returned in 1949/50 for Fricka in Das Rheingold and Die Walkure, and Waltraute in Gotterdammerung. In 1947 she came to Covent Garden with the VSO company, and sang Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte, Marcellina and Herodias. She did not return to Covent Garden until 1960, when she gave an unforgettable performance of Klytemnestra.
At the Salzburg Festival, Hongen appeared as Gluck's Orpheus and Mozart's Marcellina (1948), Clairon in Strauss's Capriccio (1949), the tragic heroine of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia (1950) and as Bebett the maid in the world premiere of Heimo Erbse's Julietta (1959), an opera based on Kleist's story "Die Marquise von O . . ." She took part in the first post-war Bayreuth Festival in 1951, singing Fricka and Waltraute. The following year she made her Metropolitan debut in New York as Herodias, and also sang Klytemnestra and Waltraute. Visiting the Paris Opera with the VSO in 1953, she sang not only Klytemnestra, but the Third Lady in Die Zauberflote as well.
Meanwhile, in Vienna Hongen was adding to her repertory: she sang Baba the Turk in The Rake's Progress (she was a very fine comedian), the Countess in Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades and, in 1955, the Nurse in Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten, as part of the celebrations for the opening of the rebuilt State Opera. Conducted by Karl Bohm and magnificently cast, this performance was one of the great operatic expeiences of my life; Hongen's malevolent Nurse contributed no small share to the general effect, as the recording made shortly afterwards bears witness.
Her other new roles in Vienna included Mme de Croissy, the Old Prioress in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites; Genevieve in Pelleas et Melisande (which she also sang at La Scala); Marthe in Faust, another excellent comic performance; and Julie in Gottfried von Einem's Santons Tod. She continued to sing Klytemnestra and Herodias, in Frankfurt, Geneva, Monte Carlo, Strasbourg and Berlin.
Towards the end of the Sixties she played character parts with her customary dramatic skill: Grandmother Bura in Jenufa, Mary in Der fliegende Hollander, Ludmila in The Bartered Bride and the Fortune-teller in Arabella. She retired from the stage in 1971, having taught at the Vienna Academy of Music since 1957.
She recorded all her great roles: Lady Macbeth (live from Vienna), Marcellina, Fricka, Herodias, Klytemnestra and, best of all, the Nurse.
Elisabeth Hongen, opera singer: born Gevelsberg, Westphalia 7 December 1906; died Vienna 7 August 1997.
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