The Beloved Martha Mödl

By Bruce Duffie


This month, the beloved and respected singer Martha Mödl will celebrate her 75th birthday, and her friends around the world all join in sending her best wishes and the hopes for many more years of life and vitality.

Martha Mödl began her career as a mezzo-soprano, singing roles such as Carmen, Eboli, Octavia and Cherubino.  Around 1950, she shifted to the dramatic soprano roles, and was a leading singer in many of Europe’s opera houses and festivals.

As with all-too-few other noted artists, she later brought great distinction to smaller character parts in many operas, lending her experience and presence to numerous productions after many years as the leading personality.  Would that other older singers do the same…

Wagnerian roles played a major part of her career, and she sang for many summers at Bayreuth starting with the first post-war Parsifal in 1951.  Many of her parts have been recorded including the complete Ring and Fidelio under Furtwängler, as well as that 1951 Parsifal under Knappertsbusch.

About a year ago, I wrote to Martha Mödl inquiring about an interview to celebrate her 75th birthday.  Her response was cordial and gracious.  Via a letter through a translator, she answered a number of my questions about her roles and artistry concisely and to the point.  Here is that correspondence…

Bruce Duffie:    You are known as a Wagner singer.  How is singing Wagner different from singing music of other composers, if at all?

Martha Mödl:    A so-called “Wagner” voice is necessary for singing Wagner in the right way.  Because he was his own librettist, an essential fact must be considered – there can be no interpretation of Wagner without textual understanding.

BD:    Did you change your vocal production in the different houses around the world?

modlMM:    Each singer will adapt his vocal production accordingly.  To sing Wagner at Bayreuth is the most beautiful, but also the most difficult thing.

BD:    Would you discuss working with Wieland Wagner?

MM:    It is well known that Wieland Wagner had a tremendous impact on the world of opera.  He was the initiator of a “Renaissance.”  I believe that the he would have had also great success with operas by other composers, but his early death put a sudden end to that prospect.

BD:    How do you see the Ring – especially the final scene?    

MM:    The Ring is one work.  The end of Götterdämmerung is the end of the Ring.  It also has to be regarded as a recapitulation of the whole Ring.  The music which follows is also a recapitulation of the most important motives.  All contributions of a producer that do not correspond with the music are, in my opinion, superfluous.

BD:    Do you see the Ring characters as gods or humans?

MM:    All Wagner roles are humans.  The Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung was my favorite.

BD:    What kind of a woman is Isolde, and does she speak to us in the 1980’s?

MM:    Isolde is a woman with all the features of a woman of the 1980’s – love, vulnerability, hate…

BD:    Was the role of Kundry special for you, and did you particularly enjoy the third act?

MM:    With regard to the content of the opera, Kundry was one of the most difficult roles.  She is wild, seductive, and “purified.”  The third act, where there is no music for her, is the most difficult.  She has to accomplish the whole situation.  When Gurnemanz is coming, when Parsifal is coming, when she has to wash his feet, when she is dying – everything can only be gathered from the music.  For me, this act was the accomplishment of that role.

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings you made?

MM:    In my Wagner area, it was unfortunately not possible to make many good recordings.  The recordings with Furtwängler are the best so far, but for those to appear commercially, the producers needed the push of the pirated-labels.  The unauthorized pressings made it possible for the commercial companies to bring the material out in wonderful sound.  Whether opera recordings seem to be ideal, this seems to have a multilateral aspect.  The most essential of the recordings leave something to posterity.

BD:    Do you feel that opera works on television?

MM:    In the last few years, I’ve only seen three operas on television.  Two of them were rather poor, and one performance was excellent.  I assume that the future will decide that question.

BD:    How do you feel about opera in translation, and did you work harder at your diction when singing before an audience that would understand every word?

MM:    Musically seen, the original version is better.  Since a translation into German will often not be better understood by the audience, the original version should be preferred.  My German diction is always the same, regardless in which country I am actually singing.

BD:    Are audiences different from city to city, or from decade to decade?

MM:    The enthusiasm for music is international and ageless.

modlBD:    Tell me about Fidelio.  How is she different from Italian characters?

MM:    Beethoven’s Fidelio is an ageless opera.  The role of Leonore is a masterpiece that cannot be compared with Violetta or Mimì.  I don’t believe the audience will make such a comparison since Fidelio is so outstanding.

BD:    Is it difficult to go from singing to speaking in this opera?

MM:    It was never a problem for me to go from singing to speaking and back in this opera, but there can be problems with vocal registers.

BD:    What advice do you have for young singers today?

MM:    In my opinion, there are still good voices, although the time and the taste have changed and probably there no longer exist the so-called huge “Wagner-voices” of former times.  My advice for young singers is in the first place
and above allhave a real talent, a good formation, enthusiasm, hard work, and patience.

BD:    Tell me about the problems and joys of switching from Mezzo-Soprano to Dramatic Soprano.

MM:    I was never a pure Mezzo.  I was a high Mezzo, so I had no difficulties in changing to Dramatic Soprano since the dramatic roles are mainly based on a high mezzo register.  Anyhow, it is not possible to generalize this question.

BD:    Do modern composers demand things from voices they shouldn’t, and where is music going today?

MM:    It is a fact that modern composers are very demanding regarding voices.  But with a good technique (i.e. a good formation,) this should be possible.  Where the music is going today, I too would like to know…

BD:    Finally, would you say a few words about some of the conductors you worked with?

MM:    Knappertsbusch was the great Wagner-conductor.  With him I performed Parsifal, the Ring, and Fidelio.  Furtwängler was the great maestro.  It was most fortunate that he conducted the most important roles of my career.  Who else ever had such a chance as I did?

And with that, Mme. Mödl sent her warmest greetings not only to me, but to the radio audience who heard some of the recordings (and some of this interview) on WNIB, and to the readers of Wagner News

My sincere thanks to Dr. Tomamichel-Schionenkeiger of Zurich for setting up this meeting, and for providing the translation of my questions and the artist’s remarks.

Coming to Wagner News in the next few months will be interviews with Julian Patrick – the Alberich in the Seattle Ring – and the late Edwin McArthur on what would have been his 80th birthday this fall.

*  *  *  *  *

Bruce Duffie is an Announcer/Producer with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.  His interviews with leading musical artists appear regularly on the air, as well as in several local and national magazines and journals.  In addition to several articles (including a major piece on Wagner in Chicago before 1954 and a review, this is his 30th interview to appear in these pages.

Martha Mödl, 89, a Soprano Who Gave Her Life to Her Art

Published in The New York Times, December 23, 2001

Martha Mödl, one of Germany's leading Wagnerian singers, died last Sunday in a hospital in Stuttgart. She was 89.

Miss Mödl was known as much for her dramatic intensity as for her powerful, thrilling voice, which sometimes betrayed difficulties in the upper register. She began her career in mezzo-soprano roles and returned to them later in her career. This did not keep her from being a major Brünnhilde and a celebrated Isolde in her prime. ''This is a singer with temperament, an abundance of animal spirits and brains to boot,'' Harold C. Schonberg wrote in The New York Times in February 1957, during her debut season with the Metropolitan Opera.

Miss Mödl, who was born in Nuremberg on March 12, 1912, had a relatively late start as a professional singer. She worked as a secretary until she was 28, and did not make her stage debut until 1942, when she sang Hänsel in Humperdinck's ''Hänsel und Gretel'' at the opera house in Remscheid. A short time later, her career had a temporary setback when she was conscripted to work in a munitions factory.

After the war, in 1945, Miss Mödl performed at the opera house in Düsseldorf, where she took on such mezzo roles as Dorabella (''Così Fan Tutte''), Octavian (''Der Rosenkavalier'') and Carmen. The role of Marie in Berg's ''Wozzeck,'' which she first sang in 1947, opened the way to 20th-century opera, in which she was later to specialize, and was also her first excursion into soprano territory. Soprano roles proved to have a hold:   in 1950, she took on Kundry (''Parsifal'') and Verdi's Lady Macbeth in Berlin. Isolde, Venus (''Tannhäuser'') and all three ''Ring'' Brünnhildes soon followed.

Miss Mödl's international fame was secured through her association with Wieland Wagner, who invited her to sing Kundry at the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951. Epitomizing Mr. Wagner's vision of the ideal soprano for his new Bayreuth, she continued to appear there until 1967, in a range of roles. She noted that she was perhaps the only soprano to have appeared in all three female leads in ''Die Walküre'' at Bayreuth, having sung Brünnhilde, Sieglinde and, finally, Fricka.

Miss Mödl took part in other significant postwar reopenings. In 1955 she sang Leonore in the ''Fidelio'' that opened the restored Vienna State Opera, which she later called ''one of the most memorable moments of my life.'' In 1963, at the opening of the rebuilt National Theater in Munich, she appeared in ''Die Frau Ohne Schatten'' in the role of the Nurse.

Her Metropolitan Opera career was somewhat more circumscribed. She made her American debut at the house in the 1956-57 season in ''Siegfried'' and ''Götterdämmerung,'' added Isolde and Kundry in 1958, and returned in the ''Ring'' and ''Parsifal'' in the 1959-60 season. Her appearances, if few, were celebrated.

Miss Mödl never retired. When she was compelled to leave her signature Wagner roles, she simply explored new repertory, appearing in contemporary works by Stravinsky (who conducted her in ''Oedipus Rex''), Hans Werner Henze (''Elegy for Young Lovers''), Aribert Reimann (''Melusine,'' ''Gespenstersonate'') and Wolfgang Fortner (''Elizabeth Tudor,'' ''Die Bluthochzeit'').

She continued to appear onstage until the end of her life. Miss Mödl was one of the last exponents of the diva who gave her life to her art. Not that she necessarily embraced the role. ''I never had the talent to be a diva,'' she said in an interview, ''but I just like to sing and act so much.''

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was via letter early in 1986.  This transcript was published in Wagner News in March, 1987, and portions (along with recordings) were read on WNIB in 1986.  The transcript was posted on this website in 2012, and the photos, end credit and obituary were added at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.