Soprano  Leonie  Rysanek
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Leonie Rysanek was one of the most well-known and beloved stars of opera.  From her debut in 1949 through her farewell in 1996, she sang roles which suited her voice, and was careful to limit the number of appearances each season. 

More details about her repertoire and career can be found in two obituaries reproduced at the end of this interview.

She made a special appearance in June, 1986, at the Ravinia Festivalthe summer home of the Chicago Symphonyas Chrysothemis in Richard Strauss' Elektra.  This was a role with which she was closely identified, and at the urging of James Levine, the Music Director of the Ravinia Festival, she agreed to appear despite having been quite ill earlier in the year. 

When we met backstage at the pavilion however, she looked fit and healthy.  She was bright and cheery, and displayed abundant and joyous enthusiasm!  It was as though she was still a teenager just getting started.  While setting up for the conversation, she was bustling around the room, making sure things were right and seeing to it that we were not disturbed.  Her husband was with her, and in passing she teasingly remarked about singers being difficult, so that's where we began the conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  [With a wink and a smile so that she knew I did not believe it]  Why are singers difficult?

Leonie Rysanek:  [Smiling back]  I don't think singers are difficult; people make us look difficult.  I don't think we are.  The profession's so hard!  You have no time and no space.  At least when I think of myself, I don't think I am difficult.  I'm perhaps thought of as being difficult because I want to be always the best.  Maybe it sounds sometimes difficult to a conductor or a stage director.

BD:  Is it a hard life, being a singer?

LR:  It is.  It's wonderful, but it's a life where you have to be very disciplined
at least I was all my life.  That's maybe the reason people ask me, "How come you're still around and still singing?"  It's been for more than 37 years now.

rysanekBD:  It's a very long career!

LR:  Yes.

BD:  Very long and distinguished.

LR:  [Very pleased to hear this]  Yes, but I never enjoyed parties and all that stuff.  Music and my private life was just enough for me.

BD:  How do you decide which roles you will sing and which roles you will let go?

LR:  You mean in the beginning or now?

BD:  Both.

LR:  Well, in the beginning I sang everything, except the very dramatic parts I didn't do.  When I was older, I decided to give up certain parts.  I thought, "You don't sing it as you could do it."  I was much too proud to allow myself to do things which many years ago I did very well, but not as good anymore.  So I said, "That's it."  But I always took on a new part or a new opera because I wanted to know what I could do; how much can I learn; how much does the voice do; what about the brain and the body, everything!  It is all one thing with singing.  As an example, three years ago I learned Kostelnička in Jenůfa, which is a very difficult part.  First I learned it in English!  I had never sung in English before that.  Then I had to learn it for Vienna in German, and now I learned it in Czech!  Although I'm by Czech descent
my father is Czechwe never, ever spoke Czech at home.  It is very, very difficult, but I learned it, and I'm very proud.  I sing it now in San Francisco for the very first time in Czech.

BD:  Does opera work well in translation?

LR:  Some operas do.  When I first learned Jenůfa in Czech I thought, "I will never learn it.  It's so difficult."  But now I have found out it makes a big difference.  As for Wagner in German or Italian, I once heard Tristan in Italian and it sounded very nice, but it sounded strange, too.  It must be like that for Italians when they hear Verdi or Puccini in German or in English; very funny for them, too.

BD:  But do you find there's a closer coordination with the audience when you are singing words that they understand?

LR:  No, I don't think so.  I don't think they understand anyway, in any language!  [Both chuckle]  Very few singers you can really understand.  If you try to pronounce, too much, [pronounces consonant sounds in a rapid-fire manner]  p...t...t...t...t, all that stuff
especially in GermanI don't think so.  I never was a very clear pronouncer; I know that.  So it doesn't matter if I am singing English or Chinese, as long as I sing well.

BD:  You don't want to just sing in solfeggio, though, do you?

LR:  No, no!  Not that.  I try to make it a little bit clear, but sometimes it's impossible, especially with Strauss.  The phrases are so long; by the end of the phrase you ask yourself, "What did she say in the beginning?"  You don't remember. 

BD:  What is the secret of singing Wagner?

LR:  I didn't sing so much Wagner.  This is always such a big mistake; everybody thinks I'm a famous Wagner singer.  I sang only the so-called jugenliche.  I sang Senta, I sang Elisabeth
I still sing Elisabeth and SieglindeElsa, and now I sing Kundry, but that is hochdramatisch.  She is the heavy one.  I sang it very late, and I sang Ortrud very late; I gave up Elsa for Ortrud.  I love to sing Wagner, but I never sing the heavy ones with the exception of Kundry.  I never sing the Brünnhildes and I never sing Isolde.  So I'm not a really Wagner soprano.  If you talk about a Wagner soprano you first think Brünnhilde, Isolde, and that stuff.  Sieglinde is a part I love, and I won't give her up!

BD:  Tell me about Sieglinde.  What kind of a woman is she?

LR:  A wonderful woman!  I think she's a fantastic character, and she is always in the opera.  Not just because I am singing it, but I would not sing Brünnhilde in Valkyrie.  [Interestingly, Rysanek consistently uses "Valkyrie" rather than "Die Walküre."]  I think Sieglinde's the much more rewarding part!  She's human, she's believable, she's warm, she's passionate, she suffers.  Brünnhilde is, as we say in German, weder Fisch noch Fleisch, "neither fish nor meat."  She's in between.  She doesn't know what love really means.  The first thing Brünnhilde feels is pity.  Later she's the great figure.  The only Brünnhilde I would have loved to sing
would be in GötterdämmerungI never did, and it's now too late.  That's the great part.  I think Sieglinde is the part in Valkyrie, next to Wotan, which is a wonderful part.

BD:  Brünnhilde then grows and develops throughout The Ring?

LR:  Oh, yes!  Oh yes she does.  That's the beauty of the part of Brünnhilde.  The beginning is so very high, very low, vocally, and very cool in a way... until she meets Siegmund for the first time.  That's pity; it's not love, it's pity.  That is the first thing she learns about human beings.  Then, in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung...  [pauses]

BD:  She falls in love and is betrayed.

LR:  Really; absolutely.

BD:  So she runs the whole gamut of emotions, then, in just a day or two.

LR:  Yes.  You know, Wagner wanted to call Valkyrie "Wotan," which I think would be rather the right thing to do because he's the big thing.  Although he comes in in the second act, it's the big character.  Later in Siegfried it's not so much.

BD:  [Coming to Wotan's defense]  Though he does have a big scene in each of the three acts!  In Götterdämmerung he does not appear; he's only talked about.

LR:  [Demonstrating her playful side]  That's the best part.  [Much laughter all around]

BD:  That's my part!  I can sing Wotan in Götterdämmerung.

LR:  [With a big smile, she nods and continues laughing]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Tell me about Senta.

rysanekLR:  This was, as we call it, my Schicksals, my destiny part.  When I was a young singer
and I was also once a young singer, a beginner!when German theaters asked me to come for an engagement and said, "What do you want to sing?" I always asked for Senta and Sieglinde because I thought these parts were written for me, for my voice, for my temperament, for my whole being.  I sang them for many, many years, and it was with a very heavy heart that I gave them up because I couldn't do them as I did them.  That's the secret.  You have to know when to give up a part, when to say goodbye, even if you love it like nothing else.  You have to be honest with yourself and say, "Don't do it anymore; don't destroy your own legend."

BD:  Is there any similarity in these women, Sieglinde and Senta?

LR:  Not really.  I think Senta is more like a somnambulist.  She is not real, but Sieglinde is very real and a very suffering person.  I don't think Senta suffers.  She suffers in the very end because the Dutchman accuses her of things she didn't do, but Sieglinde has to be really a heroine, and she is!  She's a very strong woman.  She's the one who says in the first act, "You are not Friedmund.  She is the one who leads the first act.  That's a beautiful part.

BD:  Does The Flying Dutchman work best in one piece or three?

LR:  Strange enough, I never did it in one piece.

BD:  [Surprised]  Never???

LR:  I sang it so many times, but I never ever did it that way.  I will never forget my first Senta at the Met; they applauded from the end of the second act through the intermission to the third act!  It never, ever happened again, in my life.  I'll never forget that.  It was with my beloved George London [in photo at right].  We had done it the year before in Bayreuth with the new production.  At the Met, London said to me, "We do it again, although this is a very old set; it's older than Wagner!"  [Both laugh]  So we did our movements that we did in Bayreuth, and it worked fantastically.  This was one of my high points; I had many of them, but this was really unbelievable.

BD:  Is there a connection between the vocal writing of Wagner and the vocal writing of Strauss?

LR:  No; I think Strauss, for a soprano, is ideal if you have the top.  You have to have top, the tessitura.  It's very difficult, but if you have it, it's ideal.  The difficulty with Wagner is not the high notes, it's the long middle range; you need a long, big, fat middle voice.  Or, you don't bother with the middle and you only sing the high notes, but then you are not in balance, I think.  This was a reason, too, I didn't sing the heavy things because my middle voice, when I was young, was not the best.  I always had a very easy top, and I could do everything with my top.  So when critics wrote about me, they always say, "Why does she not have the same glory in the middle like she has in the top?"  Maybe it was good, but I'm still around.  [Both chuckle]  As a young singer with a young voice, if you are too heavy in the middle, it always costs you a little bit with the high notes.

BD:  Is this the advice you have for a young singer?

LR:  I think so.  Yes, I think so.  Well, for me it worked.  Then suddenly, when I turned 40, I had everything
low register, fat, big middle and my top.  So I never bothered, really, with the middle.  I said, "All right, as long as I have a brilliant top and nobody can sing high notes like Rysanek, it's fine with me.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  When you're on stage, do you portray the character, or do you become the character?

rysanekLR:  Well, if you ask me, it's always difficult to talk about oneself, but I think I never portray anything.  I had a very long interview last week for television in Austria.  There's a very famous program called "Zeitzeugen," "Time-witnesses."  That's how old I am.  [With a slightly derisive tone]  Some honor!  So they asked me, "You are famous for your outgoing personality onstage; how do you do it?  What do you do?"  My answer was, "I don't know!" Honestly, I swear to God, I do not know.  Of course I know the part, I know the stories, I read books, everything; but when I go on stage, I change.  Of course I'm not a murderess, but the character is in me.  I really am not the type who thinks about things on stage.  If I hear the music, I'm absolutely involved.  I'm the character; I think I am the character, and sometimes after a performance
even a concertyou have to wake me up!  It's like another world.  This is not on purpose; it does it.  That's the only explanation I can give you.

BD:  Even in a concert version such as the one here at Ravinia?

LRElektra, yeah.  Elektra's such a fantastic work, such a masterpiece.  People ask me, "What do you think in 100 years will survive, with Wagner or Strauss?"  There must always be Elektra, in my mind.  Then, I have to think... maybe Ariadne, which is a masterpiece... I don't think there will be a Rosenkavalier in 100 years.

BD:  [Surprised]  Really???

LR:  I don't think so.  Maybe Salome.  I'm not sure.

BD:  How about Die Frau ohne Schatten?

LR:  I don't think so.  It's a fantastic work... I shouldn't say that; I love this part.  This was one of my roles.  I made the part and I loved it, and I gave it up because I said, "That's it!  Enough."  I don't think so.

BD:  You don't think the opera will last?

LR:  I don't think so.  Not in 100 years... well, nobody can tell.  [Chuckles]  We'll never know!

BD:  Where is opera going today?

LR:  I think fantastically.  The sad thing is the audience does not accept new operas, which is sad.  There are talented people.  We just heard two weeks ago on the radio a Polish opera by Szymanowski, and I loved it!  I thought it was beautiful!  But then you give this, and the house is empty.  That makes me so sad.

BD:  How can we get more people to come to different operas?

LR:  They come to the good, old operas.  A thousand times they come to Tosca or Bohème or Valkyrie or Elektra.  Well, even Elektra is a problem in the smaller houses, maybe.  But the new operas, it's not easy for them, and I think it's not very just.  I love to hear new pieces, new opera, new music.

BD:  Do the modern composers know how to write for the voice?

rysanekLR:  That's another question.  Szymanowski I liked very much, but was not so modern.  The very extreme parts, the very extreme music is, of course, difficult.  I couldn't do it; I couldn't.  Really!  Not because of my age, but I never could have done it.  That's a good question.  Maybe sometimes they go too far.  The time has changed, the music has changed.  Everything!  But not the vocal cords!  That's the difference.  You can change the hearing... you hear different, you see different, you listen different, but the vocal cords are same like they were 200 years ago.  They haven't changed.

BD:  Or even 2,000 years ago!

LR:  Yes!  That's the problem.  You have to maybe discover new things with your throat; I don't know!

BD:  [Facetiously]  Put an electrode in there?

LR:  Yes.  [Laughter]  There are some specialists, but then they cannot sing a Pamina or Mozart or Verdi.  They are, then, only fixed on these certain pieces, which is not right!  A good singer has to have a broad range of repertoire.

BD:  Do you enjoy making recordings?

LR:  No; never did.

BD:  You don't like them at all?

LR:  No.  I never listen to my recordings
pirate or studio madebecause I think, "Oh, this was good; I can still do it," or, "Yuech, I hated that."  It's on a recording, so why bother?  The only thing I do is I tape a little bit my performances to listen technically to what do I do too much, too little, too loud, too flat, too sharp.  This is only technical, not because [feigns an overly sappy attitude] I want to know how beautiful I was.  [Laughter all around]  No, only to control myself.

BD:  What do you expect of an audience that comes to see your performance?

LR:  That they like me.  That's the most important thing for me.  It's not important what critics write about me.  For me, it only counts to be loved, that they like to hear me sing, to be on stage.  As long as they like me, I go on, and the moment I feel they don't want to hear me anymore, I will really stop.  I promised that, and I will stop if I feel the voice is gone.  I should mention the Met Gala.  Two years ago [February 26, 1984] I had my famous gala at the Met.  I have had many high points, but this was a dream.  The love and the admiration and the respect the audience gave me was unbelievable.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Do you adjust your vocal production for the different houses?

LR:  No!  Never!  I sing in a small house exactly the same like I do at the Met.  That's the big mistake young singers do.  They see a big house and they think they have to yell, to push the voice!  That is never good!  You always have to [speaks deliberately, separating each word]  sing ... like ... you ... sing ... in ... any house.  If you try to over sing, whoa!  It will kill the voice; it doesn't sound right
and they lose the quality!  If you feel the voice, it always loses quality.  And not only will it lose quality, but you hurt yourselfespecially when you are young.  You are in danger when you are young!  When you are older and you do wrong things, after 40 it doesn't hurt you very much.  I think I never did that.

BD:  The proof is that you are still singing so wonderfully!

LR:  [Chuckles at the compliment]  Thank you very much.  Let's hope for this performance!  I didn't sing so much in Chicago, so that's why I was looking forward to it.  You have a wonderful opera house here and Ardis is great.  [See my Interview with Ardis Krainik.]  She's a wonderful director.

BD:  [With eager anticipation]  Are you coming back to Lyric Opera?

rysanekLR:  I don't know;  I liked Carol [Fox, one of the founders of Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1954] very much.  I don't sing so much anymore...  And after my sickness
I was so sickI had hepatitis B, you know.  It was not painful, but you can't walk; it tires you and I was exhausted.  It's only four months now, and they say it takes a year to recover.  I did this concert only for Jimmy [Levine]; I love him, and he likes me.  I said to him, "Without you I wouldn't have done this," and Chrysothemis is one of my favoritesin spite of my Elektra.  I did the movie, you know, with Böhm [photo of cover at right].

BD:  You wouldn't do Elektra again.

LR:  No!  No, never!  They asked and I said, "No!  I only did this for Karl."  He wanted me; he was my music partner.  So I said no, I couldn't do that; it would kill me, emotionally.  This was the reason I never did Isolde.  The music is so...  I'd rather sit in the audience.

BD:  Are you good audience?

LR:  Yes, I think I'm a good audience.  I suffer if they don't sing well.  I feel it if they have problems, then I suffer.  But now, with age...  I hate to be old, but the beauty of it is I can listen to young voices
good voicesand enjoy it.  I don't fear them anymore.  There's nothing to fear for me anymore.  I love it!  And I always say to my husband, "I hope she or he is smart enough not to say yes to everybody, to do everything."  That's a big problem, you know.

BD:  How are the young voices today?  Are they better or worse or different or the same?

LR:  There are great voices, especially in America.  I was on a jury last year at the Met and in the finals there were beautiful voices, but they sang a hell of a lot of [speaks in a forced, constricted tone, illustrating her point] heavy stuff; big things for being just 22, 23 years old.  So I said to my husband, "My God!"  Of course Karajan says, [claps hands commandingly] "Come and sing with me this and this."  He snaps his fingers and says, "Next," and everybody does it... except Jimmy [Levine].  Jimmy's the last conductor I know who loves voices, who cherishes voices.  Of course we all make mistakes
maybe he does, too — but he knows how to choose his singers and how to help a singer.

BD:  And nurture the singer for the long haul?

LR:  Yes!  Oh, yes!  He's working now with Timothy Jenkins.  He likes him very much, but he knows it's too early, this is too early, this is too early, and keeps him back.

BD:  Isn't he scheduled to sing some Parsifals next year?

LR:  Well, Parsifal is not too difficult.  It's a little bit short, it's not high, it's not low...  [Musing]  I want to sing a part like Parsifal.  [Laughter]  There's no part in my repertoire like Parsifal; they all have so much going on.  When I was a very young singer [chuckles slightly] I had some small parts
— Wellgunde and Gutrune and Freia.  They were the smallest part I ever sang.

BD:  Is it grateful to sing those small parts when you're young?

LR:  [Takes a deep breath, then speaks quietly and apologetically]  I don't remember.  I really don't remember.  I didn't sing them very often.  I always sing big parts.  I think you even can do good things in a small part.  Now I think so; I don't think I felt this way when I was very young.  But when I sang Freia and Gutrune, I also sang Sieglinde, so I said, "Okay, I'll sing these, too."  I thought I was the greatest on Earth.  [Laughter all around]  But you have to believe in yourself in the beginning; otherwise, don't even try to start.  Modesty comes very quick, believe me, very quick with your first success.  You know there are others that are good, too, but in the beginning it's good to have this self-assurance.  You have to have that.  It's hard, especially today!  With the television, you have to be young and slender and gorgeous, and sing everything from Blonchen to Isolde!  It's ridiculous!  It's very difficult for the young singers now.

BD:  Does opera work well on television?

LR:  I don't like it.  I never liked it; I never will.  I'm sure I never will.  It's not a world, but it's thousand of worlds between television and real opera.  Don't you think so?  But then we have to say, of course, people in little places never have the chance to see an opera or hear an opera.  So I think it's good for them, as a recording is.  But a recording is not a performance, even if the greatest singer and greatest conductor do it.

Rysanek's Husband:  But there is the difference if you bring the television from the live performance, or if you do a film of an opera.

LR:  Yes.  I prefer the live, I must say.  If I have the choice, I would say I like a live performance better than a movie. 

Rysanek's Husband:  The Elektra was a movie.

LR:  Believe me, this was really difficult.  But I still prefer a live production.  At least it gives me the feeling they are singing, and not "marking" after their tape, which makes the expression and everything change.  That's why I sang when I did my scenes, although I did a tape before.  I sang five weeks.  I was DEAD!!!  Every evening I said, [makes a sound as if being strangled] "Uhhh... my voice...I'll lose my v..."  I didn't, but I had to sing!  Otherwise I couldn't express myself!  I could not!

BD:  Do you like the new ideas in stage direction?

LR:  [With great revulsion]  No!  Especially in Europe, and especially in Germany.  We are the worst.  I must say I am happy I'm at the end of my career because I only would fight with them.  Fine!  I am absolutely for doing new things, but it still has to be in the plot, in what the composer or the librettist wanted.  [Vehemently]  Not bring your own weird or crazy or sick ideas in it and change it completely.  You hardly recognize a Rigoletto in Germany today.  You think it's a mafioso thing, or whatever!  Well, you shouldn't ask me.  [Laughter]  There is always the exception, though.  I thought The Ring was great.  Did you see it in Bayreuth?

BD:  I saw it on the television.

LR:  That's a different story, believe me, very different!  [Speaks deliberately, separating each word with a silence]  Chereau ... still ... was ... in ... the ... opera!  It was Wagner; it was The Ring!  But today, you wouldn't believe what they do to Verdi in Germany.  It's unbelievable!

BD:  I've heard about the Aïda.

LR:  It's nothing!  You should hear about the new Rigoletto!  [Speaks with ironic, bitter enthusiasm about this production's plot "innovations"]  Rigoletto makes love to his own daughter because he loves his daughter.  He goes to bed with his daughter.  That's the reason he hates the Duke!  And when she dies
forgive me, but this was on television before we leftthere's a huge penis, and she crawls out of this penis.  It's Rigoletto's penis.  He gives birth, again, to Gilda.  Did you ever hear of such a thing?

BD:  [Trying to deflect some of the vehemence]  Not lately, no.

LR:  [With disgust]  Now you heard it.  That's unbelievable; it's outrageous!  It's the same director who did Aïda
— Hans Neuenfels.  But the press!!!  The press says he's a genius and we are the idiots; and we have to be grateful for the work of a man like him.

BD:  What about Ponnelle?  Where does he fit into all this?

LR:  He's a very good man.  A very good man, but not always.  [Decisively yet diplomatically]  But he's a good man.  [With good humor]  I'm always honest.  I always say what I want.  [Laughs] 

BD:   [With genuine affection]  Thank you for being a singer!

LR:  [Chuckles bashfully, clearly pleased at the compliment]  Thank you very much.

Leonie Rysanek, Operatic Soprano, Dies at 71
Published in The New York Times, March 9, 1998

Leonie Rysanek, the Austrian dramatic soprano whose illustrious international career spanned nearly 40 years, died on Saturday at a hospital in Vienna, the city of her birth, where she lived all her life. She was 71.

She had been battling bone cancer, according to Peter S. Diggins, an artists' representative in New York and a longtime friend.

It was during Ms. Rysanek's final performances at the Metropolitan Opera in late 1995 and early 1996 in a new production of Tchaikovsky's ''Pique Dame'' that she received confirmation of her cancer diagnosis. But she told few people about it.

The scope of Ms. Rysanek's career was remarkable: she sang with the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler during his final years in the early 1950's, and with the tenor Jussi Bjoerling in his prime. Yet she was still singing ardently in the early 1990's. She possessed a gleaming, refulgent soprano voice with an especially powerful top and a rich middle range, ideal for roles like Wagner's Sieglinde and Senta, Strauss's Chrysothemis, and Beethoven's Leonora.

Her full-voiced high notes could slice through the thickness of any Strauss orchestra. In her early days, her low voice was often criticized as patchy. But as she matured, her sound darkened and deepened, and she successfully took on lower-set roles like Wagner's Kundry in ''Parsifal.''

Ms. Rysanek's work was equally prized for its dramatic and musical intensity. Speaking of Ms. Rysanek at the time of her Met farewell, the conductor James Levine, a frequent colleague, said such longevity was striking for a singer of her fervor.

''She had a fire burning in her at all times,'' Mr. Levine said. ''It's remarkable for someone to combine such intensity with a voice of such resiliency and range,'' he added. ''Somehow there is a very womanly, soft-textured quality in Leonie's singing, even in its most forceful moments.''

Her approach to singing was not classically beautiful. Reporting on her 25th-anniversary Met gala in 1984, when she sang Kundry in Act II of ''Parsifal'' and Sieglinde in Act I of ''Walkure'' in a concert with Mr. Levine conducting, The New York Times critic John Rockwell wrote that Ms. Rysanek ''has never been a singer who stresses an even vocal line and abstract bel-canto virtues. She is an Expressionistic actress, given to splintering significant words under the stress of emotion and to wrenching her body and chopping her arms in a way that inevitably distorts her singing. But the result, a few mannerisms aside, is not the disruption of the music but the enhancement of the drama.''

Ms. Rysanek credited her longevity to careful pacing; even at the height of her career, she never sang more than 45 or so performances a year. But, in an interview with The Times on the occasion of her Met farewell, she also cited her ability to say no to the most taxing roles. And, in a way, she explained, the presence of her colleague Birgit Nilsson as the reigning dramatic soprano of her day, fortified her own resolve.

''Yes, I was asked to sing Brunnhilde,'' she said. ''But there was always Birgit, wonderful Birgit, next to me. She was my Brunnhilde, my Elektra. She was so wonderful in these parts. . . . Even Birgit asked, 'Why don't you sing Turandot?' I said, 'Because of you.' Maybe's it's Birgit who saved my voice.''

Ms. Rysanek was born in Vienna on Nov. 14, 1926, one of six children of a Czech father, a stonecutter, later a chauffeur, and an Austrian mother. As a adolescent during the war years, Ms. Rysanek had to work in a munitions factory. She aspired to be an actress. But her oldest brother, who had a pleasant baritone voice, encouraged her to take her singing seriously. She entered the Vienna Academy at 16, where she studied with Alfred Jerger, and later, Rudolf Grossmann, a baritone who became her first husband. The couple later divorced.

Her professional debut was at Innsbruck in 1949 as Agathe in Weber's ''Der Freischutz.'' But international acclaim came in 1951, when she sang Sieglinde in the first postwar production at Bayreuth, Germany, of Wagner's ''Ring.'' Her American debut was in 1956 with the San Francisco Opera as Senta.


Obituary: Leonie Rysanek
By Elizabeth Forbes
The Independent, Monday, 9 March 1998

WHEN THE Bayreuth Festival re-opened in 1951 after the Second World War, the role of Sieglinde in Die Walkure was sung by a 24-year- old Viennese soprano, Leonie Rysanek. Everyone in the audience, myself included, was totally captivated - perhaps stunned is a better world - by the singer, whose glorious voice was matched by an attractive appearance and great dramatic ability.

At that time Rysanek had been singing professionally for only two years: her career lasted for another astonishing four and a half decades, and though her voice and repertory naturally changed, the quality of her singing and acting never lapsed from the high standard of those early years. In Vienna, Munich, Berlin, San Francisco and New York, she sang a huge variety of roles, mainly German, but Italian as well: unfortunately she did not often appear in London, but Covent Garden heard her as Chrysothemis in Elektra, as Sieglinde, Tosca and the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier.

Leonie Rysanek was born in Vienna of a musical family and her earliest ambition was to be a singing actress. She studied at the Vienna Conservatory with the baritone Alfred Jerger, and Rudolf Grossmann, whom she married in 1950. Meanwhile she made her concert debut in 1948 and her operatic debut in 1949 at Innsbruck as Agathe in Der Freischutz.

In 1950 she moved to Saarbrucken, and two years later, after her triumphant appearance at Bayreuth, to the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. Here the long love affair between the soprano and the operas of Richard Strauss began. Her repertory included Arabella, Ariadne, the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten, the title role of Die Agyptische Helena, Salome, Chrysothemis and later Elektra, as well as Danae in Die Liebe der Danae, which she sang with the Munich company at Covent Garden in 1953. The following year she returned to sing Chrysothemis with the resident company, and also sang that role at La Scala.

In 1954 Rysanek joined the Vienna State Opera, singing many of her Strauss roles there, as well as Wagner and Verdi. She made her US debut in 1956 at San Francisco as Senta in Der fliegende Hollander, followed over the next four years by Sieglinde, Aida, Turandot, Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, Leonora in La forza del destino, Elisabeth in Tannhauser and Lady Macbeth, the role in which she made an unscheduled debut at the Metropolitan in 1959, when Maria Callas cancelled her appearance in Verdi's opera.

New York instantly took the soprano in its heart, and she returned there year after year. Her roles included Fidelio, the Marshallin, Salome, Elizabeth de Valois in Don Carlos, Abigaille in Nabucco, Tosca and many others.

Rysanek returned to Bayreuth after many years' absence in 1982 to sing Kundry in the centenary performers of Parsifal. During the 1980s and 1990s she took on a whole new repertory of mezzo roles, including the Kostelnicka in Jenufa, Herodias in Salome, Ortrud in Lohengrin and Kabanicha in Katya Kabanova.

However, the most successful of these later roles were Klytemnestra in Elektra and the Countess in The Queen of Spades. These may have been primarily dramatic triumphs, but the vocal achievements, particularly as Klytemnestra, were also amazing.

Rysanek gave her farewell performance at the Met on 2 January 1996 as the Countess. On 25 August she took her farewell from the operatic stage at Salzburg as Klytemnestra, singing the role, as she had always sung every role, as beautifully and as meaningfully as she could.

Leonie Rysanek made many fine recordings. The Strauss discs manage to catch the incredible way in which her voice could soar up into the stratosphere, as Helen, Chrysothemis, Ariadne and, most notably of all, as the Empress. Her Senta, Sieglinde and Elsa are well represented, while in the Italian repertory, she excels as Aida, Desdemona in Otello and as Lady Macbeth, probably her best Italian role.

Leonie Rysanek, operatic soprano: born Vienna 14 November 1926; married 1950 Rudolf Grossmann (marriage dissolved), 1968 Ernst Gausmann; died Vienna 7 March 1998.

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in a dressing room backstage in the Pavillion of the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL, (the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) on June 25, 1986.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB later that year, and again in 1991 and 1996.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2011.

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.