Sontag, Henriett (real name, Gertrude Walpurgis Sonntag)

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Sontag, Henriett (real name, Gertrude Walpurgis Sonntag)

Sontag, Henriette (real name, Gertrude Walpurgis Sonntag), celebrated German soprano; b. Koblenz, Jan. 3, 1806; d. Mexico City, June 17, 1854. Her father was the actor Franz Sonntag and her mother the actress and singer Franziska (née Martloff) Sonntag (1798–1865). She studied with her mother, and began appearing in stage plays and operas at age 5. In 1815 she was admitted to the Prague Cons., where she received instruction in singing from Anna Czegka, theory from Josef Triebensee, and piano from Pixis. In 1821 she made her formal operatic debut as the princess in Boieldieu’s Jean de Paris in Prague; in 1822 she went to Vienna, where she appeared in German and Italian opera. She was chosen by Weber to create the title role in his Euryanthe (Oct. 25, 1823), and then was chosen by Beethoven to sing in the first performances of his 9thSym. and Missa solemnis (May 7 and 13, 1824, respectively). She sang in Dresden in 1825, and that same year made her Berlin debut at the Königstädter Theater as Isabella in L’Italiana in Algeri (Aug. 3). On May 15, 1826, she made a stunning debut at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris as Rosina in II Barbiere di Siviglia; following engagements in Germany, she returned to Paris in 1828 to win further accolades as Donna Anna and Semiramide. During a visit to Weimar, she won the approbation of Goethe, who penned the poem Neue Siren for the “fluttering nightingale” of the operatic stage. On April 19, 1828, she chose the role of Rosina for her British debut at the King’s Theatre in London; during her British sojourn, she married Count Carlo Rossi, a Sardinian diplomat, secretly (so as not to jeopardize his career); after the King of Prussia ennobled her as Henriette von Lauenstein, she was able to publicly join her husband in The Hague, her low birth no longer a matter of concern; however, she quit the stage in 1830, and then appeared only in private and concert settings in the cities where her husband was stationed. After her husband lost his diplomatic post at the abdication of the King of Sardinia in 1849, she resumed her stage career with appearances at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. She toured England that same year, and then created the role of Miranda in Halévy’s La tempesta at Her Majesty’s Theatre on June 8, 1850; after further appearances in London and Paris in 1851, she toured with great success in Germany, then appeared in the U.S. in 1852. In 1854 she toured Mexico as a member of an Italian opera company; on June 11 of that year she made her last appearance as Lucrezia Borgia; the next day she was stricken with cholera and died 5 days later. Her beautiful voice, which ranged from a to e3, her striking physical appearance, and her natural acting abilities led to her reputation as the equal or superior to all other divas of the age. She was a matchless interpreter of roles in operas by Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini.


T. Gautier, L’Ambassadrice, Biographie de la comtesse Rossi (Paris, 1850); J. Gundling, H. S. (2 vols., Leipzig, 1861); H. Stümcke, H. S. (Berlin, 1913); E. Pirchan, H. S.: Die Sängerin des Biedermeier (Vienna, 1946); F. Russell, Queen of Song: The Life of H. S., Countess de Rossi (N.Y., 1964).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire