Leonie Rysanek was one of the most well-know high dramatic sopranos of the post-WWII period. She had an enormous voice that she used badly. By this, I mean that she put enough pressure on her voice that it was mostly out of tune, and it had a wobble in her middle and later years. Why am I posting her? Because in spite of its flaws, the voice was a magnificent instrument. I am specifically posting two pieces from her early years, when her voice was still fresh. Just as an aside, I was at her farewell Met performance, mentioned below, and I can attest that the audience did give her a standing ovation for 40 minutes.

Zweite Brautnacht!
Zaubernacht,
überlange!

Dort begonnen
hier beendet:
Götterhände
hielten das Frühlicht
nieder in Klüften
spät erst jäh
aufflog die Sonne
dort überm Berg!

Perlen des Meeres,
Sterne der Nacht
salbten mit Licht
diesen Leib.
Überblendet
von der Gewalt
wie eines Kindes
bebte das schlachterzogene Herz!

Knabenblicke
aus Heldenaugen
zauberten mich
zum Mädchen um:
zum Wunder ward ich mir selbst,
zum Wunder, der mich umschlang.

Aber im Nahkampf
Der liebenden Schwäne
Des göttlichen Schwanen Kind
Siegte über den sterblichen Mann!
Unter dem Fittich
Schlief er mir ein
Als meinen Schatz
Hüte ich ihn
Funkelnd im goldnen Gezelt
Über der leuchtenden Welt.

Second wedding night
extended magic night!

There it began,
here ended:
godly hands
held the dawn
down in the crevices;
only late
the sun flew up
over the mountain!

Sea Pearls,
Stars of the night
anointed this body with light.

Too strongly blinded
by violence,
as if from a child,
whose battle-raised heart trembled!

Boyish glances
from a hero’s eyes
transformed me
into a maiden,
A miracle I became to myself
the one who embraced me became a miracle.

But in the hand-to-hand fighting
of loving swans
the child of the divine swan
Vanquished the mortal man!
Under the wing,
He fell asleep in my presence
As I guarded him
like a treasure
twinkling in the golden tent
Under the shining world.

NB: the aria begins at approximately 6:52

KAISERIN
fährt mit einem Schrei aus dem Schlummer empor
Wehe, mein Mann!
Welchen Weg!
Wohin?
Durch meine Schuld!
Die Tür fiel zu,
als wär’s ein Grab.
Er will heraus
und kann nicht mehr.
Ihm stockt der Fuss,
sein Leib erstarrt.
Die Stimme erstickt.
Sein Auge nur
schreit um Hilfe!
Weh, Amme, kannst du schlafen!

Da und dort
alles ist
meine Schuld –
Ihm keine Hilfe,
dem andern Verderben –
Barak, wehe!
Was ich berühre,
töte ich!
Weh mir!
Würde ich lieber
selber zu Stein!

Empress
starting out of sleep
Ah, my husband!
What a road to travel!
To where?
Through my fault!
The door closed
As if it were a grave.
He wants to come out,
And never can.
His foot is halted,
His body stiffens,
His voice is choked.
Only his eyes
Cry for help!
Ah, Nurser, how can you sleep?

Here and there
Everything is
My fault.
No help to him,
Ruin to the other one –
Barak, alas!
Whatever I touch
I kill!
Woe is me!
Rather would I myself
Be turned to stone!

Leonie Rysanek
November 13, 1926 – March 7, 1998

Rysanek was born in Vienna on Nov. 14, 1926, one of six children of a Czech father, a stonecutter, later a chauffeur, and an Austrian mother. As a adolescent during the war years, Rysanek had to work in a munitions factory. She aspired to be an actress. But her oldest brother, who had a pleasant baritone voice, encouraged her to take her singing seriously. She entered the Vienna Academy at 16, where she studied with Alfred Jerger, and later, Rudolf Grossmann, a baritone who became her first husband. They couple later divorced.

Her professional debut was at Innsbruck in 1949 as Agathe in Weber’s ”Der Freischutz.” But international acclaim came in 1951, when she was asked by Wieland Wagner (Richard Wagner’s grandson) to sing Sieglinde in the first postwar production at Bayreuth, Germany, of Wagner’s ”Ring.” Her American debut was in 1956 with the San Francisco Opera as Senta.

A long association with the Met began in 1959, unexpectedly. She was scheduled to make her debut that season in late February as Aida. But when Maria Callas, who had been scheduled to sing Verdi’s Lady Macbeth in the Met’s first production of the opera, was fired by the general manager Rudolf Bing during a bitter contractual dispute, Bing asked Rysanek to take over the role. Leonard Warren was Macbeth; Erich Leinsdorf was the conductor; the night was Feb. 5, and the audience had been expecting Callas.

”I was hesitant to debut in a production made for Callas,” Rysanek said during an 1996 interview in The Times. ”I already had a major success in Europe. But in New York, the attitude was: ‘Who are you? Who knows you? How dare you?’ ”

When she made her first entrance, someone shouted, ”Brava, Callas!” Rysanek was not rattled. ”I said to myself, ‘If he is against me, I will show him my high C’s.’ So I sat on that high C, which is incorrect.” Her performance was a triumph.

The next season, in 1960, singing Senta in Wagner’s ”Fliegende Hollander,” Rysanek solidified her claim on Met audiences. The Dutchman was George London. At the end of Act II, the reception was rapturous; a large contingent of fans kept applauding through the intermission, until the conductor Thomas Schippers returned to the pit to begin Act III.

By the late 1960’s, she was giving most of her services to her two favorite companies: the Vienna State Opera, where she sang a total of 532 performances, and the Met, where during 37 years she sang 299 performances of 24 roles.

At the Vienna State Opera in 1977, and later at the Met, in one of her most renowned portrayals, Rysanek sang the Empress in Strauss’s operatic fable ”Die Frau Ohne Schatten,” with Birgit Nilsson as a dyer’s wife. This work had been considered muddled and musically cumbersome until these powerful soprano champions sang it. A pirated recording of their Vienna performance, conducted by Karl Bohm, circulated among collectors until Deutsche Grammophon released it commercially in 1985. It is one of the most treasured of Rysanek’s many recordings.

After her 25th-anniversary gala at the Met, Rysanek returned almost every season, singing a particularly memorable Kundry in 1985 to the great Parsifal of the tenor Jon Vickers. In 1992, at 66, she gave a performance in Janacek’s ”Jenufa” as Kostelnicka, a Moravian villager so ashamed of her stepdaughter’s out-of-wedlock son that she drowns the infant in a stream.

The role of Rysanek’s Met farewell, when she was 69, was the old countess in ”Pique Dame,” which is ”vocally almost nothing,” she conceded at the time. But dramatically, her portrayal dominated Elijah Moshinsky’s haunting production. Even after the character’s death, Ms. Rysanek’s ghostly countess was a riveting presence. Her ovation lasted for 40 minutes.