Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is considered to be one of the greatest sopranos of her generation. In her thirty-year career, she sang alongside some of the best singers and conductors of the 20th century. She was German but naturalised as English.
Born in modern day Poland, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf studied singing at music school in Berlin. During the course of her studies, her first teacher classified Schwarzkopf as a mezzo-soprano. This could have had a lasting negative impact on her career, her mother made her change teachers immediately. Her first professional engagement was in 1937 when she was part of the choir in a recording of Mozart’s Magic Flute, conducted by Thomas Beecham. A year later she made her debut at the Deutsche Oper, in Berlin, as a flower girl in Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. Two years later she took on more prominent roles, including that of Zerbinette in Ariadne of Naxos by Strauss. Shortly after singing at the Vienna Opera House in 1943, the singer contracted tuberculosis, which kept her away from the stage for a year. In 1944 she returned to the stage but allied bombing led to the closure of theaters. In 1946 the famous conductor Herbert von Karajan described her as ‘probably the best singer in Europe’.
Her international career began in 1947 with a tour of European and American concert houses. She excelled in lead roles from Mozart (Elivra in Don Giovanni) and Richard Strauss, under the guidance of prestigious conductors such as Wilhelm Furtwangler, Otto Klemperer, Vittorio de Sabata and Herbert von Karajan. Her most iconic role, which she played 117 times and deeply identified with, was that of the marshal’s wife in Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose) composed by Richard Strauss. She was frequently invited to the Salzburg Music Festival; she made her mark here playing the role of Suzanne in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. She sang on the most important stages in the world, from la Scala in Milan, in 1949, to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in 1963. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf also sang oratorios by Bach and Handel and requiems by Brahms and Verdi to great acclaim.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf appeared in an opera for the last time in December 1971, singing in a production of Der Rosenkavalier, in Brussels. She continued to give recitals for several years afterwards, singing only lieder. She also gave lessons in New York, Salzburg (she also received an Austrian passport) and Stuttgart. She died in Austria at the age of 90.
Six Landmark Dates in the Life of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
1938: Debut at the Berlin Opera singing Lieder by Strauss, Schubert and Schumann
1947: She moved to Covent Garden and adopted British nationality
1971: Last appearance in The Knight with the Rose in Brussels
1979: Death of her husband Walter Legge, English producer who discovered the Callas; she wrote a biography of him.
1992: Ennobled by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
1996: Alan Jefferson publishes a biography of the singer accusing her of having belonged to the Nazi party in the 1940s