Artist Profile: Catarina Ligendza

The Swedish soprano Catarina Ligendza (born in Stockholm in 1937) was one of the most important Wagner singers of the second half of the 20th century. I had the great fortune to see her often at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in the 1970s and adored her as one of my favorite singers. With her tall stature and the radiant beauty of her soprano voice, which she slenderly carried to the highest registers, she was the most excellent of all the Isoldes I have seen on stage. It was no coincidence that Carlos Kleiber succumbed to her fascination and, after rehearsing Tristan with her in Bayreuth, insisted on casting her in the role. The renowned critic Joachim Kaiser also praised the picture-book Isolde with the highest superlatives: as an “Isolde miracle without equal”.

Ligendza’s Brünnhilde also remains sensational in my memory; in Götz Friedrich’s legendary time tunnel Ring she was probably the most wonderful Brünnhilde of the past 30 years. This was probably also because, after all the monumental heroines who had previously set the standard – Kirsten Flagstad, Martha Mödl, Astrid Varnay and Birgit Nilsson – she represented a new, more girlish type that took account of the young age of Wagner’s female characters. The Wagner world had seen such a type only once before in the form of the even younger Anja Silja, who in her early twenties, with all due respect to her remarkable performances, could not match the calibre of the golden 1950s and 60s in terms of the vocal mastery of the most demanding roles – her soprano simply did not have the ideal focus at that time.

In Catarina’s case, the ideal visual appearance corresponded with the greatest possible musical maturity. The dreaded end of Götterdämmerung, ‘Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort’, in which the voices of many of her successors flickered, was always a highlight for her. Conductor Horst Stein was Catarina Ligendza’s ideal partner on the podium: his flowing tempi and subtle nuances suited her perfectly.

One of Catarina’s qualities was her irrepressible acting ability. She acquired her physical agility from the famous bass Josef Greindl, who was her most important teacher throughout her musical career: “I learnt to jump up quickly, swing my spear in the air, climb quickly over the rocks and control my voice at the same time”, she said once. Directors such as Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and Götz Friedrich have worked with the agile singer-actress to create sophisticated, psychologically coherent role portraits.

Although I was unable to see Ligendza in my childhood in Bayreuth or at Karajan’s Osterfestspiele in Salzburg, I appreciate all the more that she regularly performed at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, where I was able to see and hear her countless times, for example as Senta, Elsa or Amelia in Un ballo in Maschera. Unfortunately, I have only seen her magnificent Chrysothemis in Elektra on DVD, and her Arabella not at all. Sadly, Ligendza’s discography is also limited, once again due to the fact that some recordings of productions in which she has been involved have lain dormant in archives for licensing reasons, such as a recording of Der fliegende Holländer from the 1982 Osterfestspiele in Salzburg under Karajan, but I haven’t given up hope of an official release of it one day.

When I was able to persuade Catarina to return to the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2010 for an artist talk I chaired, it was a moving moment for many fans. For most of them, her sudden departure from the stage in 1987 was a real shock. After all, the Swede was only 50 at the time. Why did she stop so early when she was at her artistic peak? She wanted to do something else with her life. And as we all know, you should stop when you’re at your best. After this wonderful matinee, I was able to visit Catarina and her husband Peter in their former home in the German region of Franconia, before they returned to Sweden for a longer period.

Find out more about Catarina Ligendza and other Wagner sopranos in Kirsten Liese’s book “Wagnerian Heroines. A Century of great Isoldes and Brünnhildes”, available in English and German at Edition Karo: https://www.edition-karo.de/biografien/wagnerheldinnen-de/

Catarina Ligendza (left) with Kirsten Liese

Notable recordings

 

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