Artist Profile: Martha Mödl

Martha Mödl simply had it all: the thrilling power of her massive, dark timbred voice, the psychological, almost hypnotic acting expression, and the interpretative credibility with total identification with each role and its fate. In fact, she was so inventive and spontaneous that everything on stage was born in the moment, making it difficult for some conductors to anticipate what would happen next. She was given the honorary title Kammersängerin in Vienna, Berlin, Munich and Stuttgart. Her stage career lasted almost 60 years, of which she was a cornerstone of Bayreuth for almost two decades, becoming an icon of the “New Bayreuth”, even before Astrid Varnay and Birgit Nilsson. In 1951, at the first Bayreuth Festival after the Second World War, she sang Kundry in Parsifal, the 3rd Norn and Gutrune in Götterdämmerung and later continued with Brünnhilde (1953-56), Kundry (1951-57 and 1959-60), Gutrune (1951-52 and 1954), Isolde (1952-53 and 1962), Sieglinde (1954), Waltraute (1966-67) and Fricka (1967).

“Die unpathetische hochdramatische…Kundry! Brünnhilde! Isold! – Keine wie du!” – Wieland Wagner

Mödl was born on 22 March 1912 in Nuremberg, where she later worked in a mail-order company before becoming an accountant. It was not until the age of twenty that she was able to begin her singing studies at the Nuremberg Conservatory with Professor Kalix and later became a pupil of Otto Mueller in Milan. She made her debut in 1943 at the Stadttheater Remscheid as Hänsel in Hänsel und Gretel. From 1945 to 49 she was an alto at the Düsseldorf Opera, where she made her debut in 1945 as Carmen, followed by Cherubino, Dorabella, Maddalena in Rigoletto, Nicklaus in Les contes d’Hoffmann and Countess Helfenstein in Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler. However, during that time her voice was developing into high dramatic soprano. In 1949 she joined the Hamburg State Opera, where she began to sing Wagner. In 1953 she became a member of the Stuttgart State Opera.

She made her first appearance at the Vienna State Opera in 1948 as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and sang there for almost five decades. She appeared in 19 roles at the Vienna State Opera, including Marina in Boris Godunov, Eboli in Don Carlo, Jocasta in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, Countess Geschwitz in Berg’s Lulu, Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth and the Kostelnička in Janácek’s Jenufa, the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame and Leonore in Fidelio. At the 1964-65 Salzburg Festival she sang Klytämnestra in Strauss’ Elektra.

At Teatro alla Scala in Milan she sang Kundry in 1951, Leonore in 1952, Ortrud in 1953 and Brünnhilde in Die Walküre in 1955. In Italy she also sang in Florence, Naples, Bologna, Rome and Turin. Between 1956 and 1960 she was engaged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (firstly as Brünnhilde in Siegfried). In the following three seasons she appeared in twelve performances as Isolde, Kundry and Brünnhilde. In the 1960s Mödl returned to the mezzo roles and in 1963 she took part in the opening performance of the rebuilt Munich State Opera as Amme in Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten.

She appeared in many world premieres of operas such as Cerha’s Baal (Salzburg 1981), Blacher’s 200 000 Taler (Berlin 1969), Fortner’s Elisabeth Tudor (Berlin 1972), Reimann’s Melusine (Schwetzingen 1971) and Die Gespenstersonate (Berlin 1984), von Einem’s Kabale und Liebe (Vienna 1976), Hiller’s Der Rattenfänger and Klebe’s Gervaise Macquart (Düsseldorf 1995).

At the end of 2000 she sang in a new production of Reimann’s Die Gespenstersonate (the opera was dedicated to her) before making her last stage appearance in June 2001 as the Nurse in Boris Godunov at the Komische Oper Berlin. Martha Mödl died on 17 December 2001 at the age of 89 and was buried at the Ostfriedhof in eastern Munich.

Notable recordings

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