A LAST FAREWELL
To Opera's Beloved DIVA
November 14, 1926 - March 7, 1998
The music world bid its final farewell to Leonie Rysanek, one of opera's most beloved divas, at a funeral held in Vienna, the city of her birth, on March 17, 1998. The ceremony included musical tributes by the Vienna Opera Chorus, by a string quartet who played music by Bach, and by her dear friend and colleague Hildegard Behrens who sang Bach's "Bist du bei mir".

Ms. Rysanek died on March 7. At the time of her passing, she was at the center of Vienna's musical life, having been appointed Curator of the Vienna Festival by the city a few months after her retirement in 1996. It is a position of great honor, second in rank only to the Secretary of Culture. The festival opens in May at the City Hall Plaza. It is unfortunate that fate cut short the opportunity of a new generation of singers to learn from a diva who still had so much to give - unique artistic insights, gained over a phenomenal half-century of magnificent singing in the world's great opera houses.

Her career had its roots in Vienna where she studied singing at the Vienna Academy first with Alfred Jerger and then with the baritone Rudolf Grossman. There in 1948 she sang a concert singing arias from Handel's Alceste and Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. It was in Innsbruck in 1949 that she made her operatic debut as Agathe in Der Freischutz, starting a brilliant career that enthralled a post-war generation of opera-lovers and made her a most beloved diva. In a 1957 press conference, the celebrated soprano Lotte Lehmann singled out Leonie Rysanek as being potentially the greatest talent among the younger generation of sopranos. It proved to be a very prescient remark, although Ms. Lehmann might not have guessed that it was a talent whose longevity would last through the threshold of the new millenium.

Leonie Rysanek was both a great actress and a great singer - "the singer with a thousand faces".* For decades she sang some of the most difficult roles of the German and Italian repertories with dramatic intensity and a large vocal tone - her rapturous Sieglinde which she first sang in Bayreuth in 1951 is still much talked about, and there can be no question that she was (among many other roles) memorable as Senta, Leonore, Elizabeth, Desdemona, Kundry, Donna Anna, Aida and Arabella. In her later years, she took on the darker- toned character roles of the repertories and triumphed in them as well. She was beloved in New York and Vienna where she spent most of her professional time and in every city where there was a great opera house. Altogether, she gave 3000 performances and sang 50 roles.

It is said that while Vienna was to Ms. Rysanek a very special place (over 500 performances at the Staatsoper from 1950 on) , the Metropolitan Opera in New York was her operatic home. It was here where on February 5, 1959 she first fascinated New York audiences as Lady Macbeth, a role that was to have been sung by Maria Callas. By all accounts it was a legendary performance, marking the beginning of an enduring love affair with MET audiences. After 300 performances, she gave her farewell performance at the MET on January 2, 1996 as the Duchess in Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades after which, amidst a tumultuous ovation which she shared with her husband Ernst-Ludwig Gausmann, she thanked the audience for the love and devotion they had shown her through the years. This scene repeated itself the following August at the Salzburg Festival House - after her farewell performance as Klytemnestra in Strauss' Elektra, she thanked an adoring audience for a beautiful life, as indeed it was.


* Tributes have been made to Ms. Rysanek during her life. Of the more recent ones, Dr. Peter Dusek's "Farewell to a Viennese Diva" stands out. It was written shortly after her farewell Performance at the MET, and it is in this tribute (available on the Internet) that the phrase "singer with a thousand faces" appears. See also: Richard Tucker 1997 Gala's glowing tribute to Leonie Rysanek. (The Gala was telecast on PBS, unfortunately and to the dismay of many viewers, but for a microsecond blip the presentation of a special award to Ms. Rysanek was edited out.) - FanFaire 1998


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