Famed Soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Dies at 90

Famed soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, one of the greatest voices of the 20th century, died at her home in western Austria early Thursday, state television reported. She was 90.

Schwarzkopf, ranked alongside Maria Callas as a giant of the opera and concert stage, died about 1:15 a.m. in the town of Schruns in Austria's westernmost province of Vorarlberg, where she most recently lived, state broadcaster ORF said, citing a local funeral home director. No cause of death was given.

Schwarzkopf, who retired in 1975, captivated audiences and critics alike during a career that spanned four decades.

Her leading roles, ranging from Elvira in Mozart's "Don Giovanni" to the Marschallin in Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," were immortalized on records and CDs. So were her recitals of lieder — German songs of a lyrical, often popular character.

After her retirement she admitted having applied to join the Nazi Party in 1939 but she said it was "akin to joining a union" so that should could further her singing career.

Performing with an array of famous conductors, including Wilhelm Furtwaengler, Otto Klemperer, Vittorio de Sabata and Herbert von Karajan, the German-born soprano was a "diva assoluta," an absolute star.

"Perhaps never again will there be a recitalist like here," wrote Andre Tubeuf, one of Europe's most influential music critics and one of her many enthusiastic admirers.

Schwarzkopf was born Dec. 9, 1915, in Jarotschin in what was then eastern Germany, but which became the Polish town of Jarocin in the redrawing of national boundaries after World War I ended three years later.

Her family moved to Berlin, where she became a prize-winning student at the Berlin Hochschule fuer Musik, now part of the Berlin University of the Arts.

A wrong analysis by her first voice teacher, who thought she was a contralto, almost thwarted her ambitions, she recalled later. Her mother recognized the danger and made her change teachers.

Schwarzkopf first was paid to sing as a member of the chorus in a 1937 recording of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham.

One year later, she made her operatic debut at the Berlin Municipal Opera as one of the flower maidens in Richard Wagner's "Parsifal." Given short notice, she learned the part overnight. Two years later she already was singing prominent parts, including as Zerbinetta in Strauss' "Ariadne on Naxos."

Tuberculosis forced her to rest for a year, just after she was signed by the Vienna State Opera. Following recovery in 1944, she could sing only a few weeks in Vienna before Allied air raids sent the curtains falling on all stages.