Sontag, Henriette (c. 1803–1854)

views updated

Sontag, Henriette (c. 1803–1854)

German soprano who was one of the era's stellar performers on the European and American opera and concert stages. Name variations: Henrietta Sontag; Jetterl Sontag; Countess Lauenstein; Countess de Rossi or di Rossi. Pronunciation: SUN-Tahg. Born in Coblenz (Koblenz) in the German Rhineland on January 3, probably in 1803; died of cholera on June 17, 1854, in Mexico City; daughter of Franz Sontag (a stage actor and comedian) and Franziska von Markloff Sontag (a singer and actress); attended Royal Conservatorium of Prague, 1815–1820; married Count Carlo di Rossi, in spring 1828; children: Alexander, Camillo, Marie, Luigi, Alexandrine.

Made debut as child actress (1807); made debut as child singer (1809); settled in Prague (1815); made debut as an opera star in Prague (1820); appeared in Vienna, Berlin, Paris, and London (1823–30); elevated to the Prussian nobility as Countess Lauenstein (1828); formally presented as Countess di Rossi, journeyed via Poland to Russia (1830); her husband named Sardinian minister to the German Confederation (1834); joined him on diplomatic assignment to Russia (1838–43); cared for her sister, Nina (1843–46); lost family fortune during European revolutions (1848); renewed career as a singer (1849); toured U.S. (1852–54); made trip to Mexico (1854).

Major roles and appearances:

Agathe, Der Freischütz (1823); Pamina, The Magic Flute (1823); Rosina, The Barber of Seville (1823); (title role) Euryanthe (1823); Ninth Symphony of Beethoven (1824); Isabella, L'Italiana in Algeri (1825); Rosina, The Barber of Seville (1827); (title role) Semiramide (1828); Desdemonda, Othello (1828); Donna Anna, Don Giovanni (1829); (title role) Linda di Chamounix (1849); Rosina, The Barber of Seville (1849); Susanna, The Marriage of Figaro (1849); Miranda, The Tempest (1850); Zerlina, Don Giovanni (1853); Princess Isabella, Roberto il Diavolo (1853).

The handful of women who became great opera singers of Europe during the first half of the 19th century had a unique opportunity. While the shifts in the political and economic world offered numerous chances for advancement for men, there were few comparable openings for women to obtain fame, fortune, and a degree of power. Within the musical world, however, great divas like Giuditta Pasta and Giulia Grisi were personalities to reckon with.

The opera stars who lived through these years saw their careers influenced and sometimes transformed by the political and economic shifts of the time. They sometimes found themselves in the midst of revolutions and endangered by marching armies. Their talents let them share in the wealth of an economically advancing society, and the revolution in transportation—with railroads and steamships taking the place of stage coaches and sailing vessels—gave them unprecedented latitude to travel. Most of this handful of remarkable women who conquered the opera world of the time were Italians. One, however, was a petite, blue-eyed German with an extraordinary soprano voice.

She was born Henriette Gertrude Walpurgis Sontag on January 3, probably in the year 1803. As Rupert Christiansen has noted, she is one of those singers who was born "in the proverbial theatrical trunk." Her parents were stage performers of varying backgrounds. Her mother Franziska Sontag was the daughter of a German government official; she ran off with Franz Sontag, a traveling actor, and the two formed a typical stage couple to which their daughter was soon added. Indeed, her mother delivered Henriette shortly after appearing on a stage in Coblenz.

Henriette's stage career began almost as soon as she could walk. She made her debut as an actress at the age of four, and she sang on stage for the first time at the age of six. Even at this early age, the child struck informed listeners with the beauty of her singing voice.

Meanwhile, the Sontag family suffered a number of misfortunes. Franz proved to be an unfaithful husband, and he was crippled as a result of a fall during a performance in 1810. In a further blow to the family's finances, Franziska's career was interrupted when she unexpectedly became pregnant with Henriette's sister, Nina Sontag .

Franziska returned to the stage to increasing acclaim and her talented young daughter took on more and more roles as a singer and actress. Franz's role in the family became more and more marginal. He abandoned his wife and daughters and died in Mainz in 1814. When Franziska accepted a contract for a series of appearances at the Ständetheater in Prague, Henriette and her sister spent some time with their mother's upper-class family in the Rhineland, then joined their mother. Henriette, now 11, was probably old enough to understand that her mother was involved in a series of romantic liaisons with local actors there. Her own strict code of morals perhaps found its origins in her discomfort with the situation.

The future opera star began her formal musical education in Prague. Up to that point, Sontag had acquired no formal training, although her talent was evident. Figures in the Prague music world, including the conductor at the Ständetheater where both mother and daughter performed, urged that she begin a serious program of study.

The authorities of the Royal Conservatorium of Prague bent the rules to allow the talented youngster to begin her studies even though, at 11, she was technically too young to enter the institution. In the next five years, notes her biographer Frank Russell, her voice "developed its inherent flexibility until it became the brilliant instrument which was without peer in the field of coloratura." Her mother, by now a renowned figure on the stages of Central Europe, served as her drama coach. Frau Sontag also drew on her own bourgeois class background to train her elder daughter for a proper role in society.

Henriette's operatic career began with dramatic suddenness in 1820 in a series of events that seem taken from a shallow novel. A distinguished tenor, Friedrich Gerstäcker, was scheduled to give a number of performances in Prague. The local soprano was taken ill, and Henriette was the only possible substitute. Once again Conservatorium authorities had to suspend their rules for her benefit: she had not yet finished her course of study, and she was technically barred from performing as a professional. The most vehement objections came from Franziska, who thought it was premature to place her daughter on an operatic stage where professional standards applied. Henriette's self-confidence—she had to be ready in only three days—and desire to take up the opportunity overcame her mother's reservations.

The young singer, still only 16, performed superbly. Her debut under such colorful circumstances intrigued the music world of Prague. The tenor she was expected to support ended up being overshadowed by Henriette's triumph, and he left the city infuriated. She followed this initial success by taking on more and more roles in Prague, all the while continuing her studies at the Conservatorium.

Sontag's career soon moved on to the wider stage of the Austrian Empire's largest city and the center of European music, Vienna. Her mother was the force behind the family's relocation: Henriette was becoming too friendly with the son of an aristocratic family in Prague, a relationship that threatened to disrupt her career without offering any hope of personal happiness. A move to Vienna opened new professional horizons while shutting the door on this romantic dilemma.

As a German singer, the young soprano faced some barriers. Italian music and Italian singers dominated. Nonetheless, her reputation as a musical prodigy preceded her, creating the chance for auditions before the giants of the musical scene. She passed with flying colors, performed brilliantly in German works by Weber and Mozart, all the while preparing to sing in Italian. It meant learning a new language and a new repertoire. Her triumph in The Barber of Seville made a snobbish Viennese audience forget her German features: blonde hair and blue eyes. Writes Russell: "Vienna, in one night, found a new idol." Her success was underlined when Carl Maria von Weber chose her for the first performance of his new opera, Euryanthe. Ludwig von Beethoven personally requested that she perform in the debut of his Ninth Symphony in May 1824. She joined three other vocal soloists in this signal event.

She was, in truth, a living marvel.

—Benjamin Lumley

Guarded by her mother and her own sense of morals, Sontag avoided the numerous opportunities an attractive young opera star had for an illicit liaison with a Viennese noble. She likewise remained free of a romantic link with one of the middle-aged gentlemen who governed the musical scene. Russell believes that at this time she may have begun to make the acquaintance of the young Italian diplomat Count Carlo di Rossi. Then a promising junior member of the Sardinian Legation in Vienna, Rossi was destined to have both a prominent diplomatic career and a central role in Sontag's life.

In 1825, the Sontag family moved to Berlin. Rossi had been reassigned to Berlin, and Henriette perhaps wished to follow him. In any case, she needed successes in other musical capitals besides Vienna, and there was a lively musical world in the Prussian capital, patronized by King Frederick William III.

As she had in Prague and Vienna, Sontag swiftly won over Berlin's music professionals and its audiences. She responded with a frenzy of activity. Her natural singing technique allowed her to perform more frequently than one of today's sopranos would consider, giving approximately 150 performances a year. Notes Russell, Berlin had gone "Sontag-mad." The men of the royal family, including the king, were some of her greatest admirers; army officers bribed her servants so that they could drink champagne from one of her slippers; and crowds serenaded her from the street below her apartment. Karl von Holtei, her impresario, fell madly in love with her, and it took all her tact to turn him away gracefully while maintaining their business ties.

Sontag's affections turned in a different direction: toward the aristocratic diplomat, Carlo di Rossi. A marriage between an opera singer and an aristocrat was unheard of in this era; singers became the mistresses, not the spouses, of such men. Nonetheless, the spectacular German singer saw no such limits. Her mother came from the upper ranks of bourgeois society, and her own manners were equally suited to the drawing room and to the stage. The precise development of their early relationship remains unclear, but it appears they were in love by mid-1827. In the spring of 1828, they were secretly married in Paris. An open marital tie would have meant the end of Carlo's diplomatic career.

Meanwhile, Sontag's own career moved from one success to another. She appeared in

Paris in 1827, and her professional acclaim was accompanied by her welcome into the highest social circles. She found that only the royal court, centered on King Charles X, was unwilling to treat her as more than a stage performer. A return tour to Germany brought her frenzied greetings in one city after another. In the university town of Göttingen, an exuberant crowd destroyed the coach in which she had been traveling. The group's leader declared, before the police arrested him, that Sontag had sanctified the vehicle, and no lesser being should ever be allowed to ride in it.

By the last years of the 1820s, Sontag was one of the most famous women in Europe. She was in the process of amassing a substantial fortune, partly in payment for her stage appearances, partly in the form of jewels and other gifts from wealthy admirers. In short order she was off to London, the last great music center in Western Europe she had not yet conquered.

Up to this point in her career, Sontag had not encountered direct, bitter competition with other operatic sopranos. The small group of prima donnas who were her peers included such figures as the Spaniard Maria Malibran and the Italian Giuditta Pasta, both of them now in London. In short order, Sontag found herself drawn to joint performances, either for charity or in private gatherings in aristocrat homes, with each of them. Instead of the customary friction marking the relationships among Europe's female opera stars, Sontag and Malibran, Sontag and Pasta, developed friendly ties based upon mutual admiration.

By mid-summer 1828, the vibrant German soprano found her personal life growing more complicated. She was now pregnant, and her husband's efforts to get the king of Sardinia to recognize their marriage publicly got nowhere. He was even more pained by the opposition of his own family, and he responded by breaking ties with them. Pain of a different sort came in November: in circumstances that remain unclear, Henriette suffered a fall in Paris and this in turn led to a miscarriage. Her health remained precarious for some time.

The German prima donna's equivocal position in European society soon took a turn for the better. Her old admirer Frederick William III, the king of Prussia, elevated her to the ranks of Prussia's minor nobility, naming her Countess Lauenstein. She could now be received as socially acceptable at the Prussian court. Writes Russell, "It was Frederick William's wedding gift to the Count and Countess di Rossi." A more grudging concession came from the monarch of Sardinia, Carlo's employer. He would permit an official announcement of the marriage between Rossi and Sontag, but there was a condition. She had to bring her singing career to an end. That was something she was not yet prepared to do.

In 1830, even though she continued to pursue her singing, the Sardinian monarch relented. She and her husband were formally received at the Sardinian Legation in Paris as Count and Countess di Rossi. She briefly played the dual role of operatic diva and diplomatic hostess before embarking on her most adventurous travel so far: a tour of Russia. Her husband remained in Western Europe, busy with the diplomatic crises created as a series of revolutions spread across the Continent.

Sontag put aside Carlo's well-founded reservations and made the dangerous journey, in part through a war zone controlled by Polish rebels against Russian rule. The lucrative contract she had signed combined with her pride as a reliable performer to compel her to go.

In both Moscow and St. Petersburg, as usual, she performed to appreciative audiences. Following a farewell appearance in Hamburg, it appeared she was at the end of her career, determined to devote herself to being the spouse of a successful Italian diplomat. Her new status was sealed by a formal reception at the court of her greatest admirer among the ranks of European royalty, Frederick William III of Prussia.

In 1831, her husband received a notable promotion, being named Sardinian minister to the kingdom of Holland. The count and countess now settled in The Hague where they had their first child, a son named Alexander. Before the year was out, a second son, Camillo, had arrived. In 1834, she had her first daughter, Marie di Rossi . Although she had formally retired from the stage, Henriette maintained her musical routine, practicing regularly with an accompanist. Nonetheless, her life was governed by her husband's career. The count's fortunes rose and fell with the changes in the political situation in the Sardinian capital of Turin. For a time, it appeared he would be penalized by his enemies with a posting to Brazil. Luckily for the young couple, a change in the political balance in Turin brought a more desirable posting to Frankfurt as minister to the German Confederation.

The great soprano continued to perform on rare occasions. She gave a charity concert in 1836 to raise money for victims of a flood in Hungary, and she sang for her husband's diplomatic colleagues in 1838. The latter performance constituted a literal farewell; Carlo, Henriette, and their family were now off to St. Petersburg where he was to serve as Sardinian representative, with the rank of full ambassador, at the court of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. It was a plum diplomatic assignment.

Henriette put aside her reservations—she had disliked Russia in 1830 and she was concerned about the health and comfort of her children there—and made the move. She quickly made a fast friend in the person of Tsar Nicholas' wife Charlotte of Prussia , who had been born a Prussian princess. She also performed regularly at the request of the tsar as the star of a private opera company the Russian monarch formed in her honor. Nonetheless, one of her concerns became reality when her young son Camillo died in Russia.

At her insistence, her husband obtained a transfer from his post in St. Petersburg. In the spring of 1843, they returned to serve in Central Europe. Back in Prussia, life resumed some of its older forms: she was welcomed at court, and in June 1844, she gave birth to her last child, a daughter named Alexandrine di Rossi . She spent much of her time aiding her sister Nina, who had abandoned a career as a singer to enter a nunnery, then left because the physical strain of a cloistered life proved too much. The two sisters had been close companions throughout their lives, and Henriette was deeply devoted to her younger sibling.

In 1848, as in 1830, Henriette's life fell under the shadow of momentous political events. Revolution swept the Continent, starting in France in February, then moving eastward and southward to disrupt the existing order throughout Germany, Italy, and much of Eastern Europe. The former opera star turned diplomat's wife found her family's finances a chief victim of the upheaval. Her investments in industrial enterprises became worthless, and the banks in which she had deposited her fortune collapsed. Meanwhile her husband's career suffered a serious setback. The unrest had caused a crisis in Sardinia leading to slashing cutbacks in the diplomatic corps.

Fortunately, she still found herself the object of attractive proposals for renewing her singing career. To restore her family's financial prospects, she accepted an offer to appear in London. Given their social status, the Count and Countess di Rossi had to obtain permission from King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia for Henriette to sing professionally. When this was not forthcoming, the count ended his career as a diplomat. For the remainder of his wife's life, he would accompany Henriette on her tours with no function other than to smooth the way for her.

There were no precedents for the return of an opera singer to professional performances after such a long absence, and Sontag drew massive crowds in London from her first appearances. Some may have come out of curiosity, to see if she could live up to her legendary reputation. She was performing in the shadow of the illustrious young Swedish soprano Jenny Lind , who had dominated the musical world of London in the last years of the 1840s. Sontag began her first performance by crossing the stage and greeting with a curtsy her husband and her four children. At the age of 45, she was still a vibrantly attractive woman, and the crowd soon cheered her continuing vocal brilliance. Writes Russell, "It was, they agreed, an incomparable voice." She had no need to fear competition, not even competition "with her own illustrious past." The director of the theater in which she appeared, impresario Benjamin Lumley, declared that she appeared to be merely 25 and possessed a voice of unchanged beauty. Her other role, as the wife of an Italian noble, also continued. She and her husband were received by the highest levels of English society, including a private audience with Queen Victoria .

Sontag soon moved on to triumphs in Paris. Normally harsh critics like Théophile Gautier hailed her. The composer Adophe Adam wrote: "This artist unites the qualities of youth and freshness to all the talents of the experienced and finished artist. It is impossible to imagine that art or talent could reach so high." For him, she was "one of those prodigies which nature alone can create." She was soon back to equal acclaim in Germany.

The ease of travel in the age of the steamship and the railroad not only made European tours easy. It also opened the way for success across the Atlantic. Sontag soon followed in the footsteps of Jenny Lind and agreed to appear in the United States before retiring for good. Leaving her children in Germany, she arrived in New York in September 1852, assured by the musical entrepreneurs who were arranging her tour that she would be treated with greater dignity than P.T. Barnum had shown the Swedish star. At first, she was not expected to perform grand opera; instead, she was scheduled for a round of concert appearances.

She found herself greeted by cultivated and knowledgeable music lovers in New York society, but raucous crowds of admirers surrounded her hotel in scenes much like those Lind had endured. Critics found her concert performances superb. She seemed more elegant in appearance than Lind. Her voice, one critic noted, may have lost some of its beauty in the lower tones due to age, but "in the upper and middle register her organ is perfect." John Dizikes has suggested that her success in America depended less on her vocal talents and dramatic abilities than upon the American fascination with titles and aristocrats.

At this time, the noted Italian soprano Maria Alboni was also singing in the United States. Sontag soon proved the more popular, and Alboni returned to Europe. The natural rivalry between the two stirred the young American writer Louisa May Alcott in 1854 to write her first published short story, "The Rival Prima Donnas," about this dramatic situation.

Sontag moved on to concerts in Philadelphia and Boston. In the latter city, one member of the audience was the president-elect, Franklin Pierce. In 1853, under the wing of opera producer Max Maretzek, she was able to sing in grand opera in New York. Her tours extended during 1854 through the South with particular success in New Orleans. In April, she moved on to perform in Mexico.

Her biographer attributes her decision to make this final tour before returning to Europe to financial reasons. She continued to feel her family's danger of falling into poverty. Traveling in a country noted for its revolutions, civil wars, and poor health standards might have frightened a less confident woman. But she had not been afraid of revolution in Poland in 1830. As Russell put it, "there was steel in her character" and a deep belief in "her extraordinary luck."

Tragedy arrived quickly. Before beginning her series of concerts in Mexico City, she needed to grow acclimated to the thin air of the high plateau on which the city stood. Thus, she accepted the invitation of a wealthy Mexican who had served with her husband as a young diplomat in Vienna to stay at the family hacienda. There she was exposed to cholera, and, shortly after her arrival in Mexico City, it became evident she had contracted the disease. She died in the Mexican capital on June 17, 1854.

Henriette Sontag is relatively unknown compared to her contemporaries. As her biographer has noted, she had no Barnum to publicize her nor did she plummet from the stage in an early death like Malibran. Her career was marked by brevity, interrupted by nearly two decades of marriage and virtual retirement. Her mild and agreeable temperament made her personality less memorable than more mercurial sopranos although observers were struck by her physical beauty. Nonetheless, she presented a voice that was, according to Christiansen, "sweet, pure, and accurate, backed by what was probably the soundest technique of her era." While not a remarkable actress, she could sing, in the words of Hector Berlioz, "like the lark at heaven's gate."


Christiansen, Rupert. Prima Donna: A History. London: Bodley Head, 1984.

Dizikes, John. Opera in America: A Cultural History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

Rosenthal, Harold, and John Warrack. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera. 2nd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Russell, Frank. Queen of Song: The Life of Henrietta Sontag. NY: Exposition, 1964.

Sadie, Stanley. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. 17. London: Macmillan, 1980.

suggested reading:

Lindenberger, Herbert. Opera: The Extravagant Art. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Mordden, Ethan. Opera Anecdotes. NY: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Parker, Roger, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California