April 25, 1918 – September 4, 2006
American soprano who mixed passion and vulnerability to moving effect, above all in Wagnerian roles
THE AMERICAN soprano Astrid Varnay was a singer whose career had as sensational a start as any in the history of opera. She was born in Stockholm, the child of Hungarian parents both of whom were singers, and the family emigrated to the United States when she was 2 years old. Her remarkable voice became apparent early and her mother was her first teacher, after which she studied with the tenor Paul Althouse and the coach and conductor Hermann Weigert, whom she later married.
In December 1941 she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, as Sieglinde in Die Walküre in the place of Lotte Lehmann, who was unwell, and at such short notice that there was no time to substitute her name for Lehmann’s in the printed programme. The New York Times thought her performance “satisfying and convincing”. Six days later at the next performance of Wagner’s opera Helen Traubel announced herself unable to sing Brünnhilde; the management had meanwhile found another Sieglinde, so Varnay took Traubel’s place with the same self-confidence as she had Lehmann’s. She was then 23 years old and had never appeared on any stage. It was an extraordinary feat, perhaps comparable only with that of Ponselle who had made her debut in La forza del destino in the same house opposite Caruso in 1918, aged 21 and equally inexperienced.
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