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Rethberg, Elisabeth (1894–1976)

Rethberg, Elisabeth (1894–1976)

German soprano. Name variations: Lisabeth Sättler or Sattler. Born Elisabeth Sättler on September 22, 1894, in Schwarzenberg, Saxony, Germany; died on June 6, 1976, in Yorktown Heights, New York; studied piano and voice with Otto Watrin at the Dresden Conservatory; became an American citizen in 1939; married George Cehanovsky (a baritone), in 1957.

Made her debut in Johann Strauss' Der Zigeuner-baron (1911); appeared as Agatha in Der Freischütz at the Dresden Hofoper (1915); made her debut at Salzburg and Metropolitan Opera (1922), CoventGarden (1925); created the title role in Strauss' Ægyptische Helena (The Egyptian Helen); made an honorary member of the State Theaters of Saxony (1930); performed at the Met (1922–42) in 30 roles.

Elisabeth Rethberg was born in 1894 into a musical family in Schwarzenberg, Saxony, Germany, and was playing the piano by age four. At seven, she sang the entire Winterreise cycle of Schubert. Her training with Otto Watrin emphasized breath control above all else. Having mastered this technique, she undertook no further study. In 1915, Rethberg became a member of the Royal Opera in Dresden. She came to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City in 1922, in the title role of Aïda. For 20 years, from 1922 until 1942, Rethberg starred at the Met, performing Aïda 51 times. In 1926 and 1927, she also sang with the Ravinia Park Opera in Chicago. As well, Rethberg often appeared on radio throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

Toscanini is said to have compared Elisabeth Rethberg's voice to a Stradivarius, calling her one of the world's great sopranos. In 1929, the New York Society of Singers claimed that Rethberg had the world's "most perfect voice." Recordings from 1924 to 1935 document a large compass, even scale, absolute consistency of tone, and effortless production. Opera buffs once spoke of the "Destinn tone" (referring to Emmy Destinn ); during Rethberg's career they spoke of the "Rethberg quality." Rethberg, who learned over 100 roles, was an intelligent, tasteful singer who worked to produce what composers had intended. But her decline was somewhat abrupt, and by 1942 her tone had become forced. Performances recorded during the final years of her career certify that her once great voice was no more.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia

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