Sunday, May 30, 2010
Remembering Anneliese Rothenberger
I was saddened by the death of the soprano Anne-Liese Rothenberger in Switzerland last weekend, which aroused dormant memories of my time as a student at the University of Munich in 1961-1963.
I rented one of two rooms which comprised the apartment of Frau Berta Shovanek at Agnesstraße 45, a fifteen-minute walk to the University. Frau Shovanek was a woman in her 70’s who, like so many elderly German women, had lost virtually everything in the War, including her husband, two sons, all of her property, and her homeland, all of which were formerly operative somewhere in the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia. She lived from a tiny refugees' pension from the government and rented out one half of her apartment to students.
She was effusively friendly and a bit desperate for company in old age, as it seemed to me, and it took me awhile to bring her to the realization that I was not there to help keep her occupied in her declining years. Otherwise our relations were cordial enough, and I appreciated the dumplings and sauerkraut and cakes she plied me with from time to time.
One of the peculiarities of life in Germany during those years was that the whole country went into a state of complete lockdown on Sundays, which in Catholic Bavaria meant no shopping, no public entertainments, no movies, no nothing. The idea was that after church (optional) you were supposed to get yourself invited for Sunday dinner somewhere, and thus spend the afternoon on social visits with friends or family. The Museums were open, and you could also go for a walk when the weather was fine, but winters were often severe in Munich, and without relatives or friends I wound up staying home a lot on Sundays.
In those years the Bavarian Radio broadcast operetta music every Sunday afternoon. I became aware of this by hearing muffled arias and choruses sneaking through the hallway underneath Frau Shovanek’s glass-paneled living-room door. Becoming curious, I fired up my tube-driven Grundig radio set and tuned in for myself, and thus I gradually developed the habit of listening to operettas on house-bound winter Sunday afternoons in Munich.
It is hard to imagine a more perfect manifestation of musical kitsch than the German operetta. It grew out of the opéra comique in Paris around the middle of the 19th century which soon found its way to Vienna and Berlin. It frequently described a vanished European world when God was still in his heaven and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was still intact and young princes fell in love with commoners and handsome young men wore beautiful uniforms and nobody got hurt much, assuming you knew the right people. In short, the world of operetta, which has as much intellectual depth to it as say Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma, was about as far removed from modern masterwork operas like Alban Berg’s Lulu and Wozzeck as it was possible to get.
The genre was therefore popular with older people, especially I imagine with those whose lives had been ruined by two world wars. This was the older audience served by Bavarian Radio on Sunday afternoons, and the reigning queen of operetta was the lyric soprano Anneliese Rothenberger, then at the peak of her fame.
Rothenberger doubtless had her own war stories to relate, starting her professional career in Germany in the 1940’s, an initial role being Berg’s Lulu, which she sang years later at the Met. She was a fine opera singer, especially for Mozart and Strauss, but her voice was absolutely perfect for operettas, which after awhile you’d think had been written especially for her.
She must have recorded every soprano aria in the entire operetta repertory. Unhappily most of this incredible output occurred before the arrival of stereo, although there are some fine stereo recordings from the late 60’s and later. In the 70’s she had two popular shows on German tv, but again these targeted the geriatric crowd, since young people in Germany then as now found operetta music ridiculous.
Anneliese Rothenberger was one of those few celebrity artists one can think of who not only looked gorgeous and sounded wonderful, but who apparently got almost everything else right as well. Widowed after a marriage of 44 years and having recovered from cancer, she wound up in a comfy but hardly ostentatious villa on the Swiss side of Lake Constance, where she spent her later life -- the Germans say Lebensabend, life's evening -- painting vividly impressionist pictures of flowers from her garden.
There are several clips of her in YouTube. For pure perfection, nothing exceeds her Sophie in Rosenkavalier, singing with the cross-dressing Sena Jurinac:
Or you can go to YouTube directly here.