As a political journalist, I have interviewed presidents and prime ministers, kings and queens. I have interviewed many other people, from various walks of life. I have been starstruck . . . maybe three or four times. It definitely happened when I met and interviewed Christa Ludwig.
I am thinking about her today, because I’ve just read her obit. The great mezzo-soprano—a German—has died at ninety-three.
I interviewed her when she was eighty-five, in 2014. She had come to New York to conduct a master class, under the auspices of Carnegie Hall. Specifically, in the program presided over by another great mezzo, Marilyn Horne.
Ludwig was staying in the Warwick Hotel, as I recall, on West Fifty-fourth Street. I walked through the lobby and said to the clerk that I was there to see a guest. “Name?” said the clerk. “Ludwig,” I gulped. I pronounced the name in an English, not a German, way (to make it easier on the clerk). I could not believe this was happening. The clerk placed a call and then gave me a room number. “Go right up,” she said.
Up I went, in the elevator. I had a feeling of surreality. She was waiting for me at the door of her room—warmly smiling. She could not have been more hospitable (whether she was a hotel guest or not).
And she was a great—great—interviewee. She was candid, game, succinct, insightful, matter-of-fact, funny, informative. We talked about a range of subjects. Her career, of course. And her life, including the war (World War II). Singers, composers, Europe, America, the future . . .
We spoke in English, a language she rarely used. She said that her English was rough. It was unpolished, but it was plenty good, and, man, could she communicate—delightfully, and also powerfully. When you think about it, she had spent her life in communication.
“Tell me,” I began: “Do you do any singing, just for yourself?” “Oh, no, oh, no,” she said. “I’m not a rival to the singer I was fifty years ago! Oh, no. I don’t even sing to my dog. My dog is dead now, so I don’t sing anymore.”
That answer is typical of Ludwig’s answers: matter-of-fact, unsentimental—simply true.
“Do you still feel like a singer,” I said, “in the way you stand, the way you breathe? In your physical comportment?” “Ah, no,” said Ludwig. “Feel like a singer? No, I feel like a grandmother.” What’s more, “I’m not the type to be sad not to be singing anymore. I was very happy to stop.”
A word about the contemporary scene: “Today,” said Ludwig, “you have to be good-looking in opera, because everything is picked up by TV. The seeing takes away from the hearing. People see more than they listen. If somebody is not singing well but is good-looking—well, okay.”
How about a word on languages? “Italian is the easiest language to sing in. German is a bit more difficult. And the English language, I couldn’t sing in at all.” Ludwig’s first husband was Walter Berry, the Austrian bass-baritone. Her second was a Frenchman, Paul-Émile Deiber, an actor and director. “When I sang in French, my husband said, ‘Christa, what is that? It is not French. It’s another language.’ I had not the feeling for French. I had the feeling only for German.”
Maybe—but you would have wanted to hear Christa Ludwig sing in anything.
And now, a little gossip. Or, better put, a human-interest question: “Was Schwarzkopf nice to you?” “To me, she was very nice. But . . . But . . . But . . .”
Yeah, understood. (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf had a great many gifts, but, in the field of human compassion, she was not a threat to Mother Teresa’s reputation.)
What about Callas? “Fantastic. She was so nice. She was a very nice person. But I read once in a book that a real prima donna has to have in a year seven scandals and seven great successes. She lived like that.”
For song—for Lied, as she said—Ludwig had one beloved composer: Wolf. “If I was crying when I stopped singing, it was only because I could no longer sing Hugo Wolf. This is the high point of lieder-composing, for me.”
“What does Bach mean to you?” I asked. “Oh, everything,” she said. “He is for my desert island. All the partitas . . . everything.”
A “mega-question,” as John McLaughlin used to say: “Are you worried about the future of singing, the future of song?” “No, no,” said Ludwig. “If something is worth staying on, it will stay on. If it’s not, it won’t.”
Christa Ludwig was a singer, for sure, but also a musician—a singing musician. “If you’re only a singer,” she said, “this is boring. You have to know the music: not just to learn it but to feel it. Bernstein told me that, in his passport, where it asked for occupation, he put ‘musician.’ If you say ‘conductor,’ this is nothing.”
The beginning of Ludwig’s life was full of hardship—the war and its deprivations. At the end of our interview, I said, “After the war, the rest of your life must have seemed easy. The hard part was at the beginning; all the rest was easier.”
She gave a most interesting response to that: “I didn’t feel it so. No, when you have nothing, you have your will. All you can think about is overcoming. Overcoming obstacles. You just go forward. You don’t think, you just do it. You have no choice. Then, afterward, you have choices—and that is difficult.”
Let me end with a story—separate from the interview, but certainly related to Ludwig. One day, I was talking with Marilyn Horne, and we got on the subject of Ludwig, and I said, “What made Christa great?” I thought Horne might say something about culture, or teaching, or psychology. Maybe even something about the war. You know what she said? “Great voice!”
Ah, yes. Let’s not forget that one.
Christa Ludwig was one of the greatest things that ever happened to song and opera. And what a joy it was to talk with her. A banner day.