Leonie Rysanek, dead at 71

Wagnerian soprano beloved on two continents

Soprano Leonie Rysanek, whose career spanned nearly 40 years and 2,100 performances, died in her native Vienna on March 7, following a battle with bone cancer. She was 71.

Best known for singing heroines in operas by Wagner, Richard Strauss and, on occasion, Verdi, Rysanek was a stalwart of the world’s leading opera companies, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Vienna State Opera and the San Francisco Opera.

As great an actress as she was a singer, Rysanek brought uncommon intensity to her portrayals, which endeared her to opera lovers on two continents.

Born in Vienna on Nov. 14, 1926, she rose to fame at age 24 when she sang Sieglinde in Wagner’s “Die Walkure” at the Bayreuth Festival’s first postwar “Ring” cycle.

She joined the Vienna State Opera in 1954 and made her American debut in 1956, as Senta in Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” at the S.F. Opera.

Her association with the Met began in 1959, when, in a pinch, she replaced Maria Callas in Verdi’s “Macbeth.” Defying the odds, she won over a hostile crowd.

In 1960, during one of her many Met performances as Senta, she inspired such enthusiasm that some members of the audience applauded her throughout the intermission following Act II.

She remained on staff at the Met until 1973 and returned in subsequent seasons until early 1996, when she made her 298th and final appearance at the house, as the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades,” one of her late signature roles. The crowd gave her a 20-minute standing ovation, chanting her name through a dozen curtain calls.

In November, when she made a guest appearance at the Richard Tucker Foundation’s annual gala at Avery Fisher Hall in New York, she drew the biggest ovation of the night without singing a note.

During her career, she worked with many opera legends, including conductors Wilhelm Furtwangler, Herbert von Karajan, Erich Kleiber, Karl Bohm and James Levine, as well as the singers Jussi Bjorling and Birgit Nilsson.

Rysanek was acting president of the Vienna Festival at the time of her death. She also was an honorary member of the Vienna State Opera and the recipient of numerous Austrian and foreign honors and awards. Among the dearest was the Lotte Lehmann Ring, bestowed on her by the Vienna State Opera in 1979.

She is survived by her second husband, Ernst-Ludwig Gausmann, a former journalist; stepson Marcus, brother Kurt, and sister Lotte, also a singer.

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