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Ruth Michaelis, German contralto

By November 6, 2023No Comments

Ruth Michaelis had a very long career with the Munich Opera. Her main stage roles were Dorabella in Così fan tutte, Marthe in Faust, by Charles Gounod, Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, by Puccini, Floßhilde in Der Ring Des Nibelungen, by Wagner, and Hänsel in Händsel und Gretel, by Humperdinck.

She was a wonderful contralto/mezzo, who had beautiful legato and was expressive without sacrificing the composer’s intent. Unfortunately, there are very few recording of Michaelis on YouTube. I have found two that I think display her talents. I hope that you enjoy them.

W.A. Mozart, “Ombra felice … Io ti lascio”, recitative and aria for contralto and orchestra K25

Ombra felice! tornerò a rivederti.
Apri i bei lumi, e consola,
deh, almeno in questo istante
con un pietoso sguardo il fido amante.
Porgimi la tua destra,
un pegno estremo del tuo affetto mi dona.
Ah, che la mia costanza or m’abbandona.
Io ti lascio…

Io ti lascio, e questro addio
se sia l’ultimo no so.
Ah, chi sa, bell’idol mio,
se mai più ti rivedrò.
Vengo, oh ciel!
vengo, deh lascia, oh ciel!
deh lascia, oh pene!
per te sol, mio ben, pavento.
Il più barbaro tormento,
giusti dei, chi mai provò.
Vengo, oh ciel! deh lascia,
oh pene, il più barbaro tormento,
giusti dei, chi mai provò.

Mozart, “Happy shadows… I leave you”, K255

Happy shadows! I will return to see you again.
Open your beautiful lights and console,
ah, at least in this moment,
the faithful lover
with a compassionate glance.
Give me your hand,
give me a last pledge
of your affection.
Ah, how my resolution
now abandons me.
I leave you…

I leave you, and I know not
if this goodbye will be the last.
Ah, who knows, my beautiful idol,
if I will ever see you again.
I am coming, oh heaven!
I am coming, ah be gone, oh heaven!
ah leave me, oh pain!
for you alone, my love, do I fear.
The cruelest torment,
righteous gods, anyone will ever feel,
I am coming, oh heaven! ah be gone,
oh pain, the cruelest torment,
righteous gods, anyone will ever feel.

J.S. Bach from .S. Bach, Kantate BWV 205 “Zerreißet, zersprenget, zertrümmert die Gruft“: Nr. 7 Aria “Können nicht die roten Wangen“ BWV 205
This is the 7th aria from the above cantata. The cantata is referred to as “secular”.

Können nicht die roten Wangen,
Womit meine Früchte prangen,
Dein ergrimmtes Herze fangen,
Ach, so sage, kannst du sehn,
Wie die Blätter von den Zweigen
Sich betrübt zur Erde beugen,
Um ihr Elend abzuneigen,
Das an ihnen soll geschehn.

If my red cheeks,
That make my fruits resplendent,
Cannot possess your angry heart,
Ah, then tell me, how can you watch
How the leaves on the branches
Bow themselves, unhappily, to the ground,
In repugnance to the misery
That will occur?

Ruth Michaelis
1909 – December 3, 1989

Known primarily in West Germany, where she sang with the Munich Opera for nearly three decades, Michaelis was once called a “model exponent of ensemble art” by Times music critic Martin Bernheimer, who first heard her when he was a student in Germany. She was “the kind of performer who made the most of big assignments, yet also managed to elevate the smaller ones far beyond their customary insignificance,” Bernheimer wrote in 1968.

She studied voice and dramatics in Berlin with Hans Beltz and then with Jeanne Robert and Anna Bahr-Mildenburg.

At Munich, where Michaelis made her debut in 1933, she continued to sing into the 1960s even after moving to Istanbul to organize a new state opera school in Turkey’s largest city. She performed often in “Die Meistersinger,” “Der Rosenkavalier,” “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Otello.”

Born in Posen, Germany, she came to the United States in 1961 at the invitation of Lotte Lehman and taught Lehman’s master classes at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. The following year she joined the music faculty at USC, teaching voice and staging operas.

She also staged productions for the Pasadena Opera and judged Metropolitan Opera and other auditions in the United States and Europe.

In 1954 she was named a Kammersangerin by the German government, an honorary title reserved for only the finest artists.

Although not Jewish herself, Miss Michaelis devoted the wartime years to helping Jews flee Nazi Germany, using her political and artistic influence to get them out of the country.

“Then at last came the end of the war. . . . Now we could sing to the whole world again,” she once recalled.

She was also the author of several books, among them “Church Year in Song,” a collection of religious music for vocalists, and “German Lied,” a work still used in classrooms.