Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the internationally renowned soprano who name was inseparably linked with Mozart, Schubert and Strauss in the second half of the 20th century, died Aug. 3, in the western Austrian town of Schruns. She was 90.
Under the guidance of her mentor, later husband, legendary EMI record producer Walter Legge, Schwarzkopf, who was born in the Prussian town of Jarotschin in 1915, became a dominant figure in the international opera and art-song scene in the years following WWII. Her technique was unassailable, with an ease at coloratura surprising for someone whose timbre tended toward the dark, and very few singers — perhaps only Maria Callas and Lisa Della Casa — rivaled her glamour.
Schwarzkopf’s noble bearing was another asset, especially in her signature role, the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier.” She was almost equally dominant in Mozart’s operas, setting standards for the Countess in “The Marriage of Figaro,” Donna Elvira in “Don Giovanni” and Fiordiligi in “Cosi fan Tutte.” Though the soprano’s detractors pointed to an arch quality in her interpretations, her recordings of all these works remain in print and continue to top recommendations lists.
She also triumphed in the operettas of Lehar and Johann Strauss Jr., but her success in lieder (German art song) proved more significant. Along with German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Schwarzkopf was instrumental in popularizing this rarified musical form, to which she lent not just beautiful tone but nuanced textual insights. She was particularly acclaimed in songs by Schubert, Richard Strauss and Hugo Wolf, both in performance and on many records.
As a rising young singer, Schwarzkopf joined the Nazi party, a decision that tarred her career, delaying her American debut until 1953 and keeping her from the Metropolitan Opera until 1963. (Her American opera debut occurred in 1955, in San Francisco.)
Schwarzkopf retired from opera in 1972, singing the Marschallin in Brussels. She continued giving recitals through 1975 in the U.S. Her final public concert occurred in Zurich in 1979. Legge, whom she’d married in 1953, died two days after that concert. The couple had no children.
— David Mermelstein