Few opera singers have experienced the longevity and critical acceptance of Astrid Varnay. From her debut in Richard Wagner's Die Walküre in 1941 to her retirement in 1995, Varnay completed 200 performances at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City and performed at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany for 17 years. While her vocal aptitude was apparent, she also gained a reputation, and set herself apart from her peers, because of her emotional acting style. Varnay initially gained notice performing Wagner in the United States, but during the 1950s and 1960s she branched out to many other roles on the international scene. "A singing actress of great intensity," wrote Elizabeth Forbes in the London Independent, "she excelled in roles that allowed her to portray characters in the grip of extreme emotional stress."
Varnay was born Astrid Ibolyka Maria Varnay in Stockholm, Sweden, on April 25, 1918. Her Hungarian parents, Alexander and Maria Javor Astrid, were both singers, and she grew up within the opera world. One story recalled how Varnay, as a child, slept in a drawer in the dressing room of Kristen Flagstad, the great opera singer, during a performance. After World War I, her family traveled to Argentina before settling in New York City. After Varnay's father's death, her mother gave voice lessons to support the family.
Originally, Varnay intended to become a classical pianist, and she studied at the New Jersey Musical College. At 19, however, she decided to become a singer, and studied under her coloratura soprano mother. A year later, Flagstad arranged for her to study with Hermann Weigert at the Metropolitan Opera House (Varnay and Weigert married in 1944).
Varnay made an inspiring if unscheduled debut on December 6, 1941, a month before her official debut as Elsa in Wagner's Lohengrin. The 23-year-old opera singer had arrived at the Metropolitan Opera House to practice for that upcoming role with her trainer, Maestro Erich Leinsdorf, when she was asked to report to makeup. Mme. Lotte Lehmann, slotted as Sieglinde in Die Walküre had contracted a cold and was unable to perform the afternoon matinee. The more experienced candidates were unavailable, leaving the role to Varnay, a young, unknown singer with no stage experience. She was, however, familiar with the role, and the performance went exceptionally well. "The Walküre performance," Varnay later noted in her autobiography, Fifty-Five Years in Five Acts, "concluded in a burst of glory for all parties. The generous audience showered us with applause, and all my colleagues welcomed me to the pack."
Because the show was a Saturday afternoon matinee, Varnay and her family had to wait until Sunday for the reviews. The Sunday paper, however, reported the stunning news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Once they remembered to look at the reviews, they learned that the critics had announced Varnay as an important new voice. Paul Thomason of Opera News later called her first singing date "one of the most remarkable debuts in the history of the Metropolitan Opera." Six days following her performance, Varnay replaced Helen Traubel as Brunnhilde in the same production.
After World War II, opera singers could once again travel between the United States and Europe. In 1948 Varnay received an offer to perform abroad at the Royal Opera House in London. In 1950 Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner (Wagner's grandsons) invited her to audition for the opening season of the Bayreuth Festival. She was unable to try out because of her schedule, but the brothers eventually decided—partially because of Flagstad's recommendation—to waive the audition. The following year, Varnay began what would become a 17-year run at the Bayreuth Festival. "I realized that what had once only been a dream somewhere in the back of my imagination, a dream of an integration of music and drama, was becoming vibrantly true."
The mid-1950s brought both personal and business changes to Varnay's career. On April 12, 1955, Hermann Weigert, her husband since 1944, died. She severed her relationship with the Metropolitan Opera House when she learned that the current management was less than enthusiastic about her repertoire. Because of that change, Varnay began branching out to new venues, traveling the globe from San Francisco to Buenos Aires to Mexico City. "Born and raised in the family business of making music," Varnay recalled, "I always regarded being on the road as the essence of life." She traveled to Scotland to perform the lead in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde in 1958. In 1968 Varnay played Kostelnicka in Leos Janacek's Jenufa, a role she revived when she returned to the Metropolitan Opera House in 1974. "I would be back at the Metropolitan, but, poignantly, I wouldn't really be coming home," Varnay later wrote. "There was no more home and family in that city for me to return to."
Because of the vocal strain of her demanding roles, Varnay eventually lost part of the upper range of her voice, moving her from a soprano to a mezzo soprano. This allowed her to sing a number of new roles, including that of Ortrud in Wagner's Lohengrin and Klytem-nestra in Strauss's Elektra. "In my career, one season had simply come to a gradual end," Varnay recalled, "and another was getting started."
Varnay chose to retire from the stage in 1995, 55 years after her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House. Over the span of those years, she performed an incredible 58 roles in 47 operas. After retirement she became a professor and taught in Dusseldorf at the Conservatory of Music. In 2000 Varnay published her memoir, Fifty-five Years in Five Acts: My Life in Opera, and in 2004, a documentary about her life, Never Before, was released.
Because of the demands of her profession, Varnay noted in Fifty-five Years in Five Acts, her private life was a quiet one. "To some people," she wrote, "my private life may seem as unglamorous as an empty hatbox, but to me, it provides the balance I need to rekindle my inner flame." Varnay died on September 4, 2006, in Munich, at the age of 88.
(Richard Wagner) Siegfried, Testament, 2006.
(Richard Wagner) Die Walkure, Testament, 2006.
For the Record …
Born Astrid Ibolyka Maria Varnay on April 25, 1918, in Stockholm, Sweden; daughter of Alexander and Maria Javor Astrid; married Hermann Weigert (d. 1955).
Debuted in Richard Wagner's Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera House on December 6, 1941; performed at the Royal Opera House in London, 1948; began a 17-year run at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, 1950; performed in Tristan and Isolde in Scotland, 1958; played Kostelnicka in Leos Janacek's Jenufa at the Metropolitan Opera House, 1974; last stage performance in Munich, 1995; published Fifty-Five Years in Five Acts: My Life in Opera, 2000.
Addresses: Record company—Testament Records, P.O. Box 361, Bromley, Kent, BR2 0QQ, United Kingdom, phone: +44 (0)20 8325 2904, website: http://www.testament.co.uk/index.html/.
Astrid Varnay, with Donald Arthur, Fifty-five Years in Five Acts: My Life in Opera, Northeastern University Press, 2000.
Independent (London, England), September 6, 2006.
Opera News, December 2000.
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Varnay, Astrid (Ibolyka Maria)
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