Várnay, Astrid (1918—)

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Várnay, Astrid (1918—)

Swedish-born American operatic soprano. Name variations: Astrid Varnay. Born Ibolyka Astrid Várnay on April 25, 1918, in Stockholm, Sweden; came to the United States, 1923, became a naturalized citizen, 1943; daughter of Alexander Várnay (a tenor and stage director) and Maria (Yavor) Várnay (an operatic soprano); studied voice with her mother, and later with Weigert; married Hermann O. Weigert (a conductor), in 1944.

Astrid Várnay was born in 1918, the daughter of Alexander Várnay and Maria Yavor Várnay . Her mother was a coloratura soprano in the European opera, and her father, a tenor, later became a stage director. They were both of Hungarian ancestry and were working for the Royal Opera in Stockholm, Sweden, when she was born. Five years later, the Várnays moved to South America, where they worked in the opera houses in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. Astrid accompanied them to work, and the colorful atmosphere of the opera filled her earliest memories.

Soon after the family moved to the United States in 1923, Alexander died. Astrid and Maria lived in Brooklyn, then in Jersey City, where Várnay began studying the piano at age 11. Planning to become a concert pianist, she continued these studies throughout high school, and sang at her high school graduation. Her classmates, impressed by her talent, predicted that she would become a member of the Metropolitan Opera by 1950. However, Várnay, who still assumed that she would become a pianist and not a singer, realized that she would also have to obtain practical job skills in order to make a living. She had studied commercial subjects in high school, and after graduation secured a job as a typist, and

then worked in a bookstore. Eventually she realized that her piano technique would never be good enough for her to succeed as a concert pianist, and in 1938 she stopped studying piano and began voice training with her mother. Várnay studied for a year and a half, learning not just her own parts, but entire operas. The two would spend summer evenings sitting together as she sang an opera and her mother tapped out the orchestral rhythms. Throughout her singing career, she continued this habit of studying the full opera, and considered it an essential practice for any opera singer.

In 1939, Maria Várnay sought out a more advanced teacher for her daughter. Hermann O. Weigert, assistant conductor for the Metropolitan Opera, offered to train Astrid, and by the end of a year she had learned 13 solo parts in Wagnerian operas. In 1941, she earned a contract to sing with the Metropolitan Opera for the 1941–42 season, and made her debut in Die Walküre, in which she sang the part of Sieglinde when Lotte Lehmann became ill. Appearing in a hastily made costume, with no rehearsal, she impressed both critics and audience alike. Várnay continued to sing with the Met for the rest of her career. She became an American citizen in 1943, and the following year married Weigert. In 1946, she repeated her feat of 1941, appearing in a performance of Tristan und Isolde on short notice with no rehearsal.

Known for her interpretations not only of Wagner but also of Richard Strauss, especially the roles of Herodias and Klytemnestra in Salome and Elektra, Várnay also added Italian roles from Aïda, La Gioconda, and Otello to her repertoire. By the end of the 1950–51 season, she had sung 13 of the 14 soprano parts in Richard Wagner's operas and had made acclaimed recordings of the Ring cycle. Várnay began singing mezzo-soprano roles after 1962. Having appeared at major opera houses in Bayreuth, Milan, London, and Buenos Aires, she retired to Munich in 1979.


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Kelly Winters , freelance writer