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From Domingo to Schwarzkopf: The fraught inner life of a singer

Stepping into the mind of a famous opera singer is almost certainly dangerous territory. What would you find there? Visions of an ideal performance? Shadows of less-perfect ones? Voodoo dolls representing artistic rivals? Crucified critics?

Let’s not even guess how Placido Domingo envisioned Washington Post critic Anne Midgette following her accusation that his conducting sabotaged the Washington National Opera’s production of Tosca. For the first time in his life, Domingo wrote a letter to the editor in protest. Ultimately, he called attention to his lack of in-person rehearsal time with the singers and reminded the world anew that his conducting career has run a rather poor second to his singing.

How could his temper get the best of him? I offer a clue: During a 1996 interview, Domingo told me, in all sincerity, “I never get good reviews in New York.” That simply wasn’t true. The courage it takes to face a huge theater of discriminating opera fans doesn’t necessarily translate into a thick skin. Possibly the two qualities are mutually exclusive: An artist isn’t an artist when closed off from the world. No doubt that’s one theory why Domingo would have his judgment so skewed – and be so wounded – by Midgette’s review.

A more extreme case, unfolding in 1996, has recently come to light. The legendary Mozart/Strauss soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was the subject of an unflattering biography by the now-deceased Alan Jefferson. The book, titled Elisabeth Schwarzkopf,  claimed to have all kinds of new evidence revealing her Nazi past, suggesting she had protection and help from high-ranking Nazi officials at the dawn of her career in 1940s Germany. Then retired, in her 80s and living outside of Zurich, Schwarzkopf went through the page by page with journalist/critic Alan Sanders with the intention to sue, finding inaccuracies great and small while also re-contextualizing the facts. Her memory was almost too clear to be believed. But even in her 80s, I observed Schwarzkopf slipping easily between German, English and French depending on what was needed. During her prime, she had memorized all the Hugo Wolf songs right down the pedal markings in the piano parts

Much of her refutation was taped, and those tapes have been published with presumably minimal editing in a 133-page paper-bound volume titled The Schwarzkopf Tapes: An artist replies to a hostile biography.”So specialized is its appeal that it’s only available by mail from England through the Classical Recordings Quarterly for 9.95 pounds sterling (  But rarely has there been such a protracted, unguarded and detailed tour through the mind of such a refined, intelligent artist, the singer whose recordings of Der Rosenkavalier and the Strauss Four Last Songs are lasting reference points against which all are measured. She also gives glimpses of her great artistic partnerships, especially with her husband Walter Legge. He discovered her in Vienna after World War II, produced her recordings, guided her career – while also pushing her to sing long after she wanted to stop.

Opera artists from Domingo to Schwarzkopf seem to ride so high in the water yet remain remarkably vulnerable. We think of them at curtain time bathing in the adulation of a successful performance. And nobody plowed the waves with more dignity and regal serenity than Schwarzkopf, with her meticulous, studied sense of self presentation. Were it not for the gap between her two front teeth, she might’ve been mistaken for Pat Nixon. What lay behind all of that? Decades and decades of fear.

Though portrayed as a paragon of blonde ambition, Schwarzkopf thought of herself as always being pushed out of whatever tiny comfort zone she might’ve had. “I didn’t ask for the Marschallin [in Der Rosenkavalier], I didn’t ask for the Countess [in The Marriage of Figaro], they gave it to me…I did not dare ask. I was frightened to ask for anything. I was frightened most of my life in the theater, in front of the conductor, the colleagues, everybody. …With De Sabata, with Karajan, with Furtwangler…Fischer-Dieskau….singing beside me and perhaps not liking it.”

Surprising? In my own hour-long encounter with Schwarzkopf a year before, she never talked about how good she had been – in the book, she describes her Metropolitan Opera appearances as “awful” – but readily discussed how good others thought she was. When the Jefferson book quotes her husband Legge as saying, “You know, you’re a bloody marvel,” her stern correction is “You’re a bloody miracle” – rather more complimentary! She spoke most glowingly about how Vittorio de Sabata felt about the Melisande that she sang for him (though the radio recording was led by Herbert von Karajan). She signed her letters – even ones to me – “Kammersangerin” – an official title conferred by the German and Austrian governments. Many singers vastly inferior to her were awarded as such, but Schwarzkopf wore it like a medal. Repeatedly, she says she didn’t sing to be famous. She sang to be good at it.

So many times, one looks at Jefferson’s fairly logical interpretation of the facts only to find that a significant piece of information from Schwarzkopf puts them a completely different light, so much that you realize you had to have been there to understand. She hated being characterized as ambitious. What may have looked like guidance from Nazi officials during the war when she quickly promoted to starring roles were beleaguered administrators desperate to fill a slot. That meant facing ill-suited roles like Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. Ready casting options weren’t always plentiful in wartime Berlin. Travel wasn’t easy. Privately owned automobiles were confiscated for the war effort. Even bicycles weren’t viable, she related, due to broken glass from bombings. When she became a star in Berlin in 1942 with a series of song recitals, success was tempered by her being under contract to sing tiny opera roles. But Jefferson couldn’t have known that because Schwarzkopf sang them under a pseudonym.

No doubt Nazi-ism set the tone for her fearful life. The most startling piece of new information in The Schwarzkopf Tapes was that her father didn’t cooperate with the Nazis before they came to power.  And when they did, he lost his job. So fearful were these times that Schwarzkopf remembers her father saying “Please put the flag out…please do the greeting. You bring us in the devil’s kitchen if you do not comply. Please, you know that we are observed and suspected.” When biographer Jefferson describes the family’s move to Berlin, putting young Elisabeth in a position to enjoy the culture and excitement of that great city, Schwarzkopf interjects, “With what money? Could you tell me that, please?”

We can’t imagine. Maybe that’s why Schwarzkopf had a horror of writing any formal comprehensive memoir. Once when I asked Hans Hotter about the war years, he muttered something about how nobody could ever understand. The great Wotan asked, almost plaintively, “Can we talk about something else?”



  1. Rafael de Acha says

    Very interesting posting. In my youth I studied and coached with Jenny Tourel, with Italo Tajo. I took masterclasses with George London and Eleanor Steber. All of them were superb artists. All of them had demons within. Tourel was unable to teach, so self-involved was she. Tajo got into vocal trouble mid-career and was by-passed for Siepi, Bruscantini, Corena, Tozzi and other — some better, some lesser — artists. He resented this to his dying day. London was, already in his late 40’s/early 50’s, an embittered man, full of harsh words about many of his colleagues, despondent over the vocal crisis that terminated his career when he should have been in his prime. We all know about Steber and her drinking. She gave some master classes at the New England Conservatory of Music in the 70’s that were an embarrassment to her and the school’s administration and faculty. And Schwarzkopf, by the way, was, in addition to all the good and bad your posting cites, a mean-spirited teacher — just have a look at one of her master classes on You Tube. None of the revelations about Schwarzkopf are all that revealing, nor his Domingo’s fit over Anne Midgette’s review all that unusual. Opera singers are high-strung, neurotic, insecure and, when threatened, can whip around and bite you. Much of it has to do with their vocal training, which, unlike that of most instrumentalists eschews the ethic of team playing as essential.

    • I’m surprised to hear about Italo Tajo, who had one of the longest careers of anybody, even though it wasn’t all that starry. I studied in the studio of Marjorie Lawrence, the Met Brunnhilde who had polio at the height of her career and was only able to achieve a limited comeback. She seemed remarkably well adjusted. Then again, she was Australian, and probably happy to have had an international career if only for a few years.

      • Rafael de Acha says

        Yes, Patrick, maybe the Aussies have a more stable psyche!

        In his day, Tajo did the star turns, at La Scala opposite Callas in Macbeth, 1949 cover of Life Magazine…the works. He did have a long career that started when he was 19 singing Fafner in ‘L’oro del Reno’ in Turin in 1934. Miraculously — after “retiring in Cincinnati in 1966, James Levine met him here and invited him back to the Met, where he had a whole second career in the basso buffo roles. Tajo was ‘sui-generis’ — a singing actor of the first order and a splendid human being. In his second “Fach” he is up there with Baccaloni, in his first Fach a terrific Figaro, Leporello, Basilio, Dulcamara and Don Quichotte with the looks and persona of a matinee idol. Check out his old Cetra recordings where he sings Figaro opposite Taddei’s Don. He was a great Mozartian and thoroughly at home as the Doctor in Wozzeck (in its Scala premiere) and in the Verdi-Rossini canon.

        Keep them great postings coming!

  2. David,

    Wonderful post.

    Some of the problem with Schwarzkopf, if what you say is true (and I have no reason to doubt you), is that most people expect artists to take a stand, not be like the rest of us mere mortals who fear for our lives, jobs, etc. Here you have an absolutely stunning beauty, with tremendous artistic gifts and intelligence, but she sang– forgive me here — for Hitler. You put this controversary about ES in a much better context than I’ve ever seen it presented.

    We all forget there are very, very few real heroes and it is, perhaps, unfair of us to think that artists should be any different than the rest of us when it comes our safety and that of our family. To be honest, it didnt’ help Schwarzkopf that she had a mixed reputation later in life in other areas — one of the comments referred to her notoriously nasty approach to some of her students. I understand that this is true.

    I’m so glad you wrote this. I will always adore her artistry, and now I perhaps am willing to put her “collaboration” in its proper context.

    • You encapsulated this beautifully. Thanks! Have you ever seen that film that came out about Schwarzkopf in the 1990s? She narrates it, and it includes clips from a few of the films she made during the war. One of them has her singing Carmen – maybe the nly non-German operas that was allowed in Nazi Germany, perhaps because it involves the death of a gypsy…..

  3. Alan Rossett says

    Thank God a precise article about Schwarzkopf and the witch-hunting that Jefferson’s book set off . IVery young, I was at the emotionally charged Carnegie Recital Hall later CD released. Elderly, she said on the radio she could see people in the audience moved after one phrase, and in tears after two…and she realized there were a lot of German refugees in the audience, people whom as she put it had had everything stolen from them including the most precious human heritage – their language…that all evening she tried to make a bridge through the words between those who had to flee and those who really couldn’t …And that her many cross-country American tours were to get to this audience.
    In “The Schwarzkopf Tapes” Sanders describes her taking friends’ advice and not suing, given her age, very bad eyesight and health and still active teaching. André Tubeuf, her French friend and writer has said, given the devastating effect this book had on her, he offered to tape anything she wished to say on the matter but only when she had the time. After several years he had stacks of tapes in French which he cleaned up, arranged and it came out as her memoirs “Les Autres Soirs”. His epilogue explains how the book was put together. She was not happy about it, not liking that it was put into the first person, particularly as she vaguely still thought of writing her own autobiography in German, but in fact every sentence was hers. I thought of doing a translation of the work into English and Tubeuf and the publishers were in approval. I also contacted the Schwarzkopf foundation and had a very nice letter in its approval but asking me to include in the text the complications behind her own reticence. I’ve never had time to go further with it, though I translated one chapter as sample. If you’d like to see it I’d be delighted to send it to you.
    What’s terrible about Jeffeson’s book is that it’s become The Reference Work one finds in the most official sources whereas (and I’m sure you know) on the simplest level it’s a nightmare of incompetent and malicious mistakes in which vague colleagues mention vague affairs with “protectors”. “The Schwarzkopf Tapes” proves that she was a member of a student musician’s group but in no way a leader in it, even less so a fanatical one as Jefferson implied. Jefferson goes on about her starring in the “Schwarzkopf Nazi propaganda films” while. the simplest checking on IMBd shows she appeared briefly in fours film’s musical scenes where, when her characters were listed if at all “singer in opera sequence” or ” singer at party”, brief cameos done for money. Schwarzkopf had no cover-up objections to bits of these films being shown in her TV “Self-Portrait”.
    You are wrong though in calling the information about her father anti-Nazi sanctions as new (it was obviously left out on purpose in Jefferson’s book.) In fact both in interviews and in a letter to the Herald Tribune she mentioned it over 30 years ago. A recent French film showed a document classifying her father a political dissident and another refusing her entrance application to a university as she was classified daughter of a political dissident.
    At all events, her application secured her a promotion from her beginner’s status but the idea of a meteoric rise is quite false: for months following her membership she continued to sing mostly small roles – and her father, middle-aged was sent to the Russian front. She had a photographic memory for music, an obvious asset in a company with a huge repertory where she could be counted on stepping into anything at a moment’s notice. Listen to the 1938 pirated “Alzira” learned in a cab on the way to performance, her first Italian part and her first big part – what’s amazing is not that she got ahead but that her ascent was so slow, though she herself has said in retrospect it was a good thing for a young singer not go too quickly.
    Schwarzkopf as a teacher? Different with each student as the 20 or so filmed clips show. Jefferson sums it up with one clip in which she maddeningly goes on and on about a singer’s tense, misplaced jaw. Now anyone knowing anything about singing knows that such a jaw can kill a voice in record time and a competent voice teacher will concentrate on straightening this out. But on another tape, another girl, same aria (Pamina) a singer with a lovely emission she concentrated on phrasing, adding “I’d love to see you this in part”. There was a young Australian baritone who did Schubert: voice, German, musicianship, she had absolutely nothing to say. Her teaching was solely concentrated on instilling what can be called the Stanislavsky approach to his singing for as she said if the audience doesn’t know where you are, what the weather’s like, what trees you see on your walk, who you’re going to and why, you can have the most beautiful voice in the world and noone will listen to you. As far as her “victimized” students go, at her death Thomas Hampson wrote an article saying that she changed his life, recalling how she had discovered him unknown and how he could pop in early morning and she’d spend hour after hour coaching him whether it be Mahler, French art songs, Italian arias. And how she never would take a penny from her students and often paid their hotel and transport expenses. Matthias Goerne was another one of her students and though in a brief work-study period Renée Fleming felt there was a basic misunderstanding between them, in retrospect for about half her high note, she uses the emission she learned from Schwarzkopf, who gave her as well the basics for acting in opera through rather around the music.
    She left half of her estate to cancer research in children, the other half to the French Village d’Enfants which sets up real homes for orphans.

    • Thanks very much for all of this. Yes, I’d love to read anything you have. Would you like a snail-mail address?

    • s.mitchell says

      “Schwarzkopf as a teacher? ”

      Dutch soprano Judith Mok tells this story at 6.28 to 8.58 here…

    • Lovely recollections. Most colleagues (though not all–Schwarzkopf was notoriously dismissive of those whome she could not respect) from her post war years in London speak glowingly of her. There are some interesting & touching insights in Geraint Evans’ autobiography, for example. Also in the recently release Kathleen Ferrier diaries. I sat through a number of London master classes pre-Jefferson & she was just marvellous. It would be hard to find anyone who spoke more intelligently–or reverentially–about music. And her stamina! A new biography is urgently required, especially as there are so few of her colleagues left. There is one very important archive of sources which present a revealing & loving portrait of a very decent human being and of a very good friend. That is to be found in the Geoffrey Parsons collection in the Australian National Library in Canberra. Parsons wrote extensively–reflections & letters to many friends. He speaks often of Schwarzkopf as a close friend & admiringly as a colleague, as well as of her difficult relationship with Legge.

      • Yes…Legge made her sing much longer than she wanted to. As soon as he died she cancelled everything. And didn’t he smoke incessantly?

        • Her latter recitals could be pretty gruesome. She fell into vocal difficulties around 1975 (she turned 60 that year!) & went to Eric Verthier (Geoffrey Parsons’ partner) for lessons in London, enabling her–or perhaps it was Legge–to squeeze a further 4 years out of a very full career. Legge complained that she didn’t sound like Schwarzkopf any more! There is certainly a harshness to her tone thereafter. The book by Steane & Sanders in which she comments on many of her recordings (most of which she hadn’t heard since they were put down) is most revealing. Punishingly self critical, the bulk are dismissed as not good enough (predictably!). She comments that vocally her peak lasted until about 1965 and she is scathing about anything she did after around 1970 (“artistically it is right, but vocally it was really all over”..or words to that effect). People I’ve met who knew her comment on how vivacious & outgoing she could be but also how unhappy was the marriage…and for how long she just wanted to retire! A piece of revealing trivia: she served Legge his meals in the dining room of their home in Cap Ferrat; Elizabeth ate in the kitchen!

  4. Thanks very much for this valuable look at this great singer. Of course she cancelled everything after Legge died. I heard her on her 1975 US tour and she sounded quite good but the schedule was punishing. I wonder if that contributed to her problems.


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