"Ich sah das Kind" (sung in Italian) Parsifal
Maria Callas (1923-1977)
At first, we normally do not associate Maria Callas when cataloging the great Wagnerian artists of the world. The preeminent American soprano of her day, Callas was responsible for reviving the nearly-forgotten repertory of Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti: the two major Italian composers of the bel canto style. This artistic feat is tied-in to the works of Wagner. Early in her amazing career, the great soprano, born in New York City in 1923 to Greek American parents, was a very successful interpreter of some of the most challenging of Wagner's roles. She sang twelve performances of Tristan und Isolde between 1947 and 1950. Four performances of Parsifal in 1949, and six performances of Die Walküre in 1949 as well. It was during her performances of Die Walküre, at La Fenice, Venice, that conductor Tullio Serafin convinced her to study the score to I Puritani by Bellini to replace Soprano Margherita Carosio who had fallen ill. Maria had only a few days to study the score. She memorized the music to the role of Elvira while finishing the remaining two Brünnhildes. Three days after the final Walküre, she sang her first Elvira, marking a turning point in her career, and revolutionizing the opera world by reviving this nearly forgotten repertoire. Although, Maria Callas, never sang Wagner again, it is interesting to hear the very few recordings that exist of this period. Maria Callas performed and recorded these Wagner roles in Italian.
"Liebestod" Tristan und Isolde
Jane Eaglen (b. 1960)
Jane Eaglen was born April 4, 1960 in Lincoln, England, in the North Midlands. She started piano lessons at the age of five, continuing until she was sixteen. Her piano teacher then suggested she take singing lessons, and for a year she studied with a local teacher. After having been turned down by the Guildhall School on London, Jane auditioned at age eighteen for Joseph Ward, the voice professor at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Ward recognized her potential, and took Ms. Eaglen on as a student. In 1984 she joined the English National Opera, and spent a couple of years singing the First Lady in Mozart's The Magic Flute and Berta, the servant in Rossini's Barber of Seville. Other roles included Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore. When she was cast as Santuzza in Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, audiences went wild. Ms. Eaglen sang Brünnhilde in her first complete cycle of Wagner's Ring at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1996, repeating the role in the summer of 1999 with San Francisco Opera and in the spring of 2000 with the Metropolitan Opera. She sang her first Isolde with Seattle Opera in 1998, and repeated the role with Chicago Lyric Opera in 1999 and at the Metropolitan Opera in 2000. Jane Eaglen now resides in Seattle with her husband Brian Lyson.
"Mein Erbe nun nehm' ich zu eigen" Götterdämmerung
Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962)
Kirsten Flagstad was born in Hamar, Norway in 1895 and made her debut in Oslo at the age of eighteen. She had a wide repertoire of opera and operetta in Scandinavia, but came to prominence only in 1933, when she sang at Bayreuth. She made her Metropolitan Opera début in 1935 as Sieglinde in Die Walküre to great critical acclaim. Her American performances, before the war, consolidated her position as the finest Wagnerian soprano of the century.  She sang Isolde seventy-three times at the Metropolitan Opera, In sixty-seven of them alongside Lauritz Melchior. These performances have become legendary, and the pair sang in nine Saturday afternoon broadcasts of this opera in the seven seasons that they appeared together. After virtually retiring in 1941 to be with her husband in Norway during the Second World War, Kirsten Flagstad's successes in Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre at the San Francisco Opera in the Fall of 1949, at the age of 54, was a turning point for her return to the United States. After the war she was regarded with some suspicion, her loyalty to the Allied cause was called into question, and she did not sing again at the Metropolitan until 1951. She appeared at Covent Garden from 1948 to 1951 and, after retirement, became Director of the Norwegian National Opera in 1959. She died in Oslo in 1962.
flag2 "Liebestod" Tristan und Isolde
Lilli Lehmann (1848-1929)
One of the first Wagnerians who went on to become one of the great Wagnerians of all time. Lilli Lehmann sang at the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876. At that first fabled Ring Cycle, Wagner himself cast the soprano in the roles of Woglinde and Helmwige. The daughter of a German heldentenor and a German Jewish soprano, Lilli Lehmann became one of the most sought after opera singers of the end of the nineteenth century. She sang in London's Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and became a regular at the Salzburg festival. At the Metropolitan Opera, where she matured as one of the greatest Wagnerians of her time, she helped to popularize the composer's music. Ironically, the anti-Semitism of the Green Hill during Cosima Wagner's tenure prevented Bayreuth audiences from hearing her definitive Brünnhilde and many of her other great roles. Lehmann's voice was an incredibly versatile instrument. It was perfect for Wagner, and also excellent for such roles as Bellini's Norma and most of the Mozart repertory. At the end of her life she became a vocal teacher where she taught Geraldine Farrar and Olive Fremstad. Miss Lehmann died in Berlin in 1929.
"Der deiner harrt" Tristan und Isolde
Christa Ludwig (b. 1928)
She was born in Berlin to a famous theatrical family. Her father was the tenor Anton Ludwig and her mother the contralto Eugenie Besalla-Ludwig. Christa studied exclusively with her mother. She made her debut as Orlovsky at Frankfurt at the age of 18, where she sang until 1952. She was engaged to Hanover and Darmstadt. She joined the Vienna Staatsoper in 1955 and remained there for more than 30 years. In 1954 she appeared in Salzburg as Cherubino and returned there until 1981. Her American debut was in Chicago as Dorabella in 1959. At the Met (1959 - 1990) her roles included the Dyer’s wife, Dido, Ortrud, Kundry, the Marschallin, Charlotte, Waltraute, Fricka and Klytemnestra. At Bayreuth she sang Brangäne and Kundry. She appeared at Covent Garden in 1968 as Amneris, returning there years later as Carmen. She also sang at Hamburg, San Francisco, Munich, La Scala and Paris. Her repertory included mezzo-roles and some dramatic soprano roles as well. From 1957 to 1971 she was married to the great bass-baritone Walter Berry.
"O ihr, der Eide ewige Hüter!" Götterdämmerung
Martha Mödl (1912-2001)
One of the most admired and dramatic of the postwar generation of German opera singers, Martha Mödl enjoyed an extraordinarily long career, beginning in 1942 and continuing for almost fifty years. She is best remembered for her roles at Bayreuth in the 1950's, where her intense portrayals of Brünnhilde, Isolde, and above all Kundry epitomized Wieland Wagner’s New Bayreuth style. Like her rival, Astrid Varnay, she made audiences forget the strain sometimes evident in her singing, by virtue of her riveting interpretations. For although she valued musical accuracy, it was the dramatic potential of a role which interested her most of all. Mödl was born in Nuremberg where she worked as a bookkeeper and secretary until the age of 28. She gave that up to study at the Nuremberg Conservatory, and began her career at Remscheid in 1942 as Hänsel and Azucena. The Wagner roles quickly followed: Venus at Hamburg, and Kundry at La Scala under Furtwängler in 1950 and a year later under Knappertsbusch at the Bayreuth Festival’s legendary reopening season, directed by Wieland Wagner, one of her staunchest supporters. There during the 1950s she was also to be heard as Brünnhilde and Isolde, a role she sang in London during Stuttgart Opera’s visit there in 1955. Mödl is immortalized on recordings of her major roles at Bayreuth, most notably Kundry with Knappertsbusch (1951) and Isolde with Karajan (1952), and, as Brünnhilde, on Furtwängler’s Ring cycle for EMI.
"Dich teure Halle!" Tannhäuser
Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005)
Birgit Nilsson was born in Västra Karups, Sweden, on May 17 1918. She studied with Joseph Hislop at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm, and made her début in 1946 at the Royal Opera in the role of Agathe in Der Freischütz, She sang the role of Electra in Mozart's Idomeneo at Glyndebourne in 1951, and all three Brünnhildes in Munich in the complete Ring Cycle in the 1954-1955 season. Nilsson made her début at Bayreuth as Elsa in Lohengrin in 1959, and returned regularly to sing at the Festspielhaus until 1970, performing Isolde, Sieglinde, and Brünnhilde. In 1956 she made her American début with the San Francisco Opera, and in 1959 she attained international stardom when she made her début at the Metropolitan Opera as Isolde. She was the Brünnhilde in the John Culshaw/Sir Georg Solti Ring recording, and she made many classic complete recordings of Wagner's work for London/Decca, mostly under Solti's baton. Her other roles included Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio, Turandot, and Strauss's Elektra and Salome. Widely regarded as the finest Wagnerian soprano of her time, she retired from the stage in 1984. She died on Christmas Day in her native Sweden.
"Weiche, Wotan" Das Rheingold
Ernestine Schumann-Heink (1861-1936)
She was born Ernestine Roessler at Lieben, near Prague, she got her aggressiveness and stubbornness from her father, and her softer qualities and appreciation for art came from her mother, who taught her to sing. Among her professional teachers was Giovanni Battista Lamperti. She made her début at the Dresden opera as Azucena in 1878 in Il Trovatore where she revealed a unique individuality in her vocal category. After marriage to Ernst Heink, she was engaged to sing in Hamburg where she stayed until 1897.  She was a much acclaimed Erda, Fricka, Waltraute and Brangäne and performed the roles with Gustav Mahler at Covent Garden. In 1893, after divorce from first husband, she married the actor Paul Schumann. A very close relationship to the Bayreuth Festival lasted from 1896 to 1914. Cosima Wagner was very fond of the artist and admired her greatly. She became a regular member of the Metropolitan Opera from 1898 to 1903. Ernestine Schumann-Heink gave birth to seven children. By then she had begun a series of popular cross-country American concert tours that made her into a national legend. Her huge repertory included close to 150 roles. Her English and American stage career was mainly centered on Wagner. Her farewell performance was at the Met in 1932 as Erda, one of her greatest achievements on stage.
"Fliegt heim ihr Raben" Götterdämmmerung
Nina Stemme (b. 1963)
Swedish soprano Nina Stemme is regarded by all major musical critics as this era's greatest Wagnerian sopranos. Since her youth in her native Stockholm she was attracted to music. She played the piano and the viola as a child, and on an exchange trip to the United States, as a high school student, she joined the Langley High School choir in Virginia. Her degree in economics and business administration ran parallel with her musical studies. In a meteoric career she has performed in the world's major opera houses most of the principal Italian roles in the repertory, as well as the great soprano Wagnerian roles. Her 2010 performance as Brünnhilde was compared to Kirsten Flagstad as far as her vocal command and ease in the role. She is one of today's most in-demand singers, and her interpretation of Puccini's Turandot, and the heroines of Richard Strauss have become legendary. Her many recordings include the EMI release of Tristan und Isolde with Plácido Domingo. Ms. Stemme will once again sing the role of Isolde in a new production opening night of the 2016-2017 Metropolitan Opera season.
"Der Männer Sippe sass hier" Die Walküre
Helen Traubel (1899-1972)
Helen Traubel was born in St. Louis in 1899 and grew up in a German-speaking household. She began singing at an early age and made her professional debut with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1923. After several radio and concert appearances with Dimitri Mitropoulos and Sir John Barbirolli, the doors to the Met finally opened. She was offered the role of Venus in a production of Tannhäuser, but she refused the role since she wanted to sing Sieglinde in Die Walküre instead. After much initial resistance by the management, she was finally allowed to make her Wagnerian début as Sieglinde in 1939 opposite Kirsten Flagstad. During the war years she was left in sole possession of the Wagnerian repertoire, and she quickly established herself as a highly acclaimed singer. She appeared 176 times on the Met stage: 168 of those performances were in Wagner operas. She was forced off the stage by the newly appointed General Manager Rudolf Bing because she also wanted to sing in nightclubs. Her contract was not renewed and she gave her last performance in 1953 as Isolde. Soon her name was splashed over the posters of the show programs of New York’s Copacabana Club, The Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas and the Clover Club in Miami. She also appeared on TV, opposite Groucho Marx, Red Skelton and Jerry Lewis. She played in films and appeared in Rogers and Hammerstein’s revue Pipe Dream. She spent the last years of her life in Santa Monica, where she died in 1972.
"Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort " Götterdämmerung
Astrid Varnay (1918-2006)
One of the most respected Wagnerian sopranos of the mid-twentieth century, Astrid Varnay was born in Stockholm, Sweden, the child of two celebrated Hungarian singers. After spending her infancy in Norway, she moved with her parents to Buenos Aires, and finally, the family settled in the United States. She made a surprise Metropolitan Opera debut as Sieglinde on December 6, 1941, when the great Lotte Lehmann took ill and no other substitute was available. Varnay was already under contract for performances in the lighter Wagnerian soprano repertory beginning the following month, but her success in Die Walküre, broadcast nationwide, served notice that hers was a voice destined for larger roles. Just six days later, another indisposition put her on stage as Brünnhilde, an even greater challenge. Varnay was to be a mainstay at Bayreuth for seventeen seasons. She was one of the group of great singers whom Wieland Wagner selected to re-open the Bayreuth Festival in 1951. Although she made few studio recordings, her live performances reveal a huge instrument of enormous depth. Her legendary Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde, recorded under conductor Hans Knappertsbusch in 1951 confirmed her vocal greatness in every measure of the exhausting role.
"Du bist der Lenz " Die Walküre
Deborah Voigt (b. 1964)
Deborah Voigt was born near Chicago and raised in Southern California. After winning the first prize in the 1988 Pavarotti Competition and the Gold Medal of the 1990 Tchaikovsky Competition, Ms. Voigt made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1991 as Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera. Since then she has been heard in other major roles of the Italian and German repertoires in all the important opera houses of Europe and the United States. She has had a close identification in recent seasons with the operas of Richard Strauss and Wagner. She has sung the roles of Chrysothemis, Sieglinde (opposite Plácido Domingo), and Elsa under James Levine with the Metropolitan Opera, as well as the title role in Die ägyptische Helena with the Royal Opera Covent Garden and at the Baden-Baden Festival, under Christian Thielemann; the Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Met, also under Mr. Thielemann, and at Covent Garden under Christoph von Dohnányi; the title role in Die Liebe der Danae at the Salzburg Festival under Fabio Luisi; and Sieglinde, Elisabeth, Venus and Isolde with the Vienna Staatsoper.


More Great Wagnerian Sopranos and Altos of the Past. Click the aria's name to hear a sound sample.
Maria Jeritza
Emmy Destinn
Helene Wildbrunn
Lotte Lehmann
Melanie Kurt