"Why would I need a tree onstage when I have Astrid Varnay?"
Wieland Wagner's famous quip about the bare stages in his Bayreuth productions is appearing in all the obituaries of the great Hungarian-Swedish-American soprano, who died yesterday morning in Munich at age 88.
Astrid Varnay was born in 1918 in Stockholm (just a few weeks, Gramophone Online notes, before her colleague Birgit Nilsson, who died last Christmas) to Mária Jávor and Alesander Várnay, a pair of Hungarian opera singers who were performing in Sweden at the time. The Varnays subsequently went on to Kristiania (now Oslo), where they founded the Opera Comique — and where the child Astrid was at one point put to sleep in a drawer in the dressing room of Kirsten Flagstad, who would remain a family friend and a key influence on Astrid's career.
The family later moved to Argentina. In 1924, while in New York en route to Europe, Alesander Várnay died suddenly; mother and daughter remained in the New York area and the young Astrid studied singing with Jávor.
When Varnay was 19, Flagstad advised her to begin studying with Hermann Weigert, a coach at the Metropolitan Opera whom Varnay subsequently married. According to Wikipedia, by age 22 she knew 15 dramatic soprano roles, including 11 by Wagner.
Her professional debut was one of those sudden star-is-born performances that enters legend: in 1941, she replaced an ill Lotte Lehmann as Sieglinde in a Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinee of Die Walküre heard nationwide on radio; six days later, she stood in for Helen Traubel as Brünnhilde in the same production. According to Gramophone, she promptly became a stalwart of the Met's resident ensemble, taking on many leading Wagner and Strauss roles.
Flagstad played another key role in Varnay's career in 1951: the then-veteran soprano declined an invitation to perform at the first postwar Bayreuth Festival and recommended that Wieland Wagner engage Varnay instead. Following her Bayreuth debut that year, Varnay's European career took off; after difficulties with Metropolitan Opera general manager Rudolf Bing, she left that company and based herself in Europe. She was a stalwart of the opera houses in Munich, Berlin, Vienna and Paris and remained a regular at Bayreuth to 1968.
Varnay was famous for galvanizing audiences, colleagues, directors and conductors in the roles of Isolde, Brünnhilde, Ortrud (in Lohengrin) and Elektra; while her vocal technique was never as rock-solid as those of Flagtsad and Nilsson, her electrifying stage presence and dramatic intensity remain legendary.
Beginning in the 1960s, according to Gramophone, Varnay began taking on dramatic mezzo roles such as Klytämnestra in Strauss's Elektra and Herodias in Salome. Her final stage performance was in 1995 in Munich as the Nurse in Boris Godunov.
According to the Associated Press, Varnay died of a pericardial infection and left no immediate family.