Eighteen years ago my wife and I were at the Best Western Hotel on 57th Street West, preparing to go to the Met. There came a phone call from a Dutch New Yorker Joost van Bergen who simply said: ‘Lucia Popp has died’. I’m sure I’m not alone in remembering the exact time and place when I got that sad news. I also remember very well the moment I consciously heard her voice for the first time. I knew her name and reputation somewhat but as I was (and still am) not a great opera-Mozartean I had no records of her.
That changed overnight the moment I brought home the first complete recording of Franz Lehar’s Der Graf von Luxemburg(1968). From the moment I heard her first utterance : ‘Heut noch werd ich Ehefrau’ I was spellbound, amazed by the silvery sound, the impeccable legato, the fine top notes and above else the wonderful phrasing which gave Lehar his right place as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. A simple sentence like ‘Liebe…nie war der Rechte da’ (Love..I never found the right one – so apt for Popp herself) was sung so delicately and full of unfulfilled longing that she immediately eclipsed the well known Schwarzkopf-version.
Lucia Poppova, daughter of Rudolf Popp, was born on the 12th of November 1939 in Uhurska (nowadays Zahorska) in Slovakia. Only a few months before Czechoslovakia had been run over by the German army. The Czech part had become a German protectorate (more like a colony) and on paper Slovakia had became independent while in reality it was a satellite of Germany. Father Rudolf therefore was a soldier in the Slovakian division which assisted the Germans during their Russian invasion.
As his own father had died in the First World War in the service of Austria-Hungary, the son feared the same fate but after a few weeks he was sent back home to a military prison (probably for communist sympathies) and soon released. The Popps as Lucia always said were a real’ Kaiserliche und Koenigliche’ family, that meant they had German, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak speaking members. By the time Lucia grew up, that had changed. Restored Czechoslovakia fell into communist hands in 1948 and the iron curtain came down.
A great deal of her time Lucia was with her grandmother who often told her of the old dual monarchy and of the many, many times she, her sister and her daughter (Lucia’s mum) took the train at Slovakia’s capital Pressburg (nowadays Bratislava) to go shopping or to attend the opera or operetta some 35 miles further away in Vienna; Pressburg being in their opinion a suburb of Vienna.
Though the family is rather discreet, it is clear that father Popp belonged to the communist `nomenclature`. Father was a cultural attaché at the London embassy for a few years and his daughter accompanied him to a reception given by the queen. Young Lucia was a member of one of the many privileged folklore groups from the Soviet Union and its satellites that regularly toured in the West. There always was classical music in the Popp-household. Mother Popp was a gifted lyric soprano who had given some concerts but had never appeared in an opera. So young Lucia was pressed into service as Rodolfo, Cavaradossi or Pinkerton in the duets her mother loved to sing at home.
Young Lucia with her youthful exuberance, her innocent pure blonde beauty and her impeccable credentials soon caught the eye of important functionaries in the cultural business of the party. Barely 16 she already starred in a movie. For a few months she studied medicine as well but soon switched to the Theatre Section of the Arts Academy of Bratislava. While singing a song in a Molière-piece she was taught to have some talent and switched to the Music Section. There they thought far less of her talent and she had to follow a preparatory year. Thus she came into the classes of Anny Hruvosky, a former coloratura of the Vienna Volksoper. She was impressed by Popp’s musical intelligence though not by her vocal talent. Popp once said: “I had a bottom and a top and nothing else between”. Teacher and pupil worked tirelessly and that middle arrived and it was astonishingly beautiful. Popp would never have another teacher.
Her first complete role was Philine in Mignon in an Academy performance. She got her first experiences in small roles in the Bratislava opera and made her début in a principal role as queen of the night (in Slovak) in 1963, not yet 24. Ten days after her debut she accompanied her mother on a holiday to Vienna to visit her grandmother’s sister. Papa stayed at home as the hostage of service because whole families almost never got permission to leave a communist country. By chance Lucia got an audition at the Viennese Opera and was immediately accepted. So far for the legend.
The truth is that Lucia’s future was discussed in heart-wrenching conversations. The whole family had known freedom, remembered the great Vienna days, knew where opportunity for her talent was and had tasted, while being in London, a whiff of Western life. Her parents knew the consequences as well: loss of privileges if Lucia defected. Still they sacrificed their own happiness. Lucia took with her a letter of recommendation from her old teacher and she did her audition in Slovak as her German was almost non-existent. She would later marry the pianist of that audition, the Hungarian conductor Georg Fischer.
The casting people could barely believe their ears when they heard the beautiful sounds of the queen and Rosina. They immediately phoned the boss who was in Berlin, explained the problems and got the permission of Karajan to offer Popp a three-year contract as an aspirant. Popp and her mother phoned father and using the coded language they had agreed on beforehand, got his permission. Mother Popp returned home, alone. Lucia stayed at her grandaunt’s but was now officially a defector which could be punished severely if she ever wanted to return. It was a grave, important and courageous decision by Popp’s parents. From now on they would follow their daughter’s career by her many letters and phone calls. For five years till the well-known Prague Spring of 1968 they couldn’t get permission to see or hear her in person. Only Popp’s beloved grandmother (old and thus useless to the authorities) would twice get permission to see her granddaughter.
The inevitable sadness and loneliness Popp felt was soon replaced by a hectic life. She studied and practiced German intensely and was able to speak the language in a few months time (she wrote letters in German to her father to prove her proficiency). Then there were the courses of Italian, English and French. That last language was deemed not very important as French opera was in a deep dip in the beginning of the sixties and most German opera-houses still performed all and everything in German. Popp had only a haphazard command of French and it is the most glaring gap in her career. As her rare recording of La Navarraise with Vanzo proves, she was a natural and one regrets deeply she never sang Juliette, Mireille, Micaela and especially Manon or some lesser known Massenet’s heroine like Sapho.
There was of course the intense musical preparation as well although Popp was already well-schooled and an expert at score-reading. Only a month and a half after she joined the State Opera she made her début: as Barbarina in a performance in the Redoutensaal. Her colleagues were Keilberth, Prey, Stich-Randall, Rothenberger, Evans, Hoengen. Then the same summer there were small roles in Salzburg in Zauberflöte and Iphigenie en Aulide but she stood on the scene with Lorengar, Gedda, Ludwig, Borkh, King and followed Boehm’s beat.
In October 1963 came the début in a principal role when the State Opera performed at the historic Theater an der Wien. Alva, Gueden, Frick were her colleagues in Die Zauberflöte. Her queen of the night was a triumph. Even Gueden, usually not very sympathetic towards younger colleagues, encouraged and kissed her. The word went around and Walter Legge was one of the first to hear about this new miracle. He signed her for the Angel-recording of April 1964 and then had to overcome the objections of Otto Klemperer. The conductor wanted somebody “more famous” but he relented when he heard the young fresh beautiful voice with the stunning high F. Her career moved into higher gear. Début at the Staatsoper itself (as Karolka in Jenufa) and quite a success in the female part of the Italian duo (the male was Fritz Wunderlich) in Capriccio. It earned her a signature by `Gräfin` Elisabeth Schwarzkopf on the programme stating that Popp was the future.
Nevertheless the young singer still had to do the rounds of every newcomer in this trade: aspiring to the plums in the repertoire but still not above some roles which would later be discarded. One can easily imagine Popp as Adèle in Fledermaus on New Year’s Eve at the Staatsoper. But Princesse in L’enfant et les sortilèges (Volksoper) or Anne Truelove did not return in her later career.
Aspiring conductor Georg Fisher had immediately taken advantage of the fact that he was the first to spot her and he courted her intensely though still in an old-fashioned way. Gundula Janowitz, who lived in the same building as Popp, remembered seeing Fisher all the time in the streetcar. He was so discreet that he always took care to ride one station further than it was necessary. Popp’s trust in her voice was by now great enough to risk the wrath of God himself. Karajan decided to cast her as Xenia for his luxurious 1965 Boris Godounov in Salzburg and didn’t think it necessary to tell her. She read it in the newspaper, thought the role to be too unimportant for a diva, said `no way`, married Georg Fisher and went on a honeymoon to Italy. Later on Karajan would try to get her for another queen of the night ( a role she no longer liked). In 1968 he tried for the last time to engage her and made the strange proposal of Freia. It remained ‘no way’ and so their two names are not to be found together on any programme or recording.
In the autumn of ‘65 the production of Zauberflöte finally arrived at the Staatsoper itself and with it came the inevitable reversal every singer experiences from time to time. Popp was indisposed, cracked and wanted to cancel her next performances. Her husband had himself an engagement and was not at home. So it was Fritz Wunderlich who consoled and encouraged her. She duly recovered but in a letter to her father she wrote: “ I’ve got everything this profession needs, except the most important thing: nerves. I’m not strong enough for this kind of living and when it continues I‘ll end in a mental hospitality or get addicted to alcohol or drugs. Every day I’m so afraid: for growing older, for the competitors, for the moment someone more beautiful or better will arrive and it will happen”. Maybe it sounds too much like the ranting of someone whose overconfidence was temporarily shattered but her stage fright would often return and after her death her last husband Peter Seiffert told the German magazine Orpheus somewhat ungallantly that she never really relaxed, that there never was a quiet moment or a calm weekend.
At that time Popp was of course still young enough not to be type-cast. Her début at Covent Garden was in an Italian role: Oscar (with Vickers, Verrett, Glossop and Shuard). As always the editor of Opera Magazine had some carping to do: she looked too feminine and charming but even Rosenthal had to admit that she sang beautifully and he called her a fine new discovery. Rudolf Bing very much preferred singers who had made their mark elsewhere but he always made an exception for exciting artists from his old home-town. Therefore Popp was invited to participate in the first season at the New Met as the queen of the night and in a very prestigious production as well (Gedda, Lorengar, Prey, Hines, Krips with Rennert producing and Chagall for the sets and costumes). Popp still had time enough to travel in the old-fashioned way with the S.S. France. She was quite a success. That severe critic Harold C. Schonberg liked her and wrote: “she made her two big arias far less an exercise in desperation than is customary. She worked a little hard, it’s true, but she hit the high F’s without squeaking, she maintained pitch and tone and she even articulated the triplets without slurring through them.” She sang Zerlina as well and in addition used her time to go shopping for nice dresses.
After her return to Vienna in Spring 1967 there was more than enough work though with hindsight it remains strange that one of her greatest roles initially escaped her. Otto Schenk who would direct a brand-new Rosenkavalier had more or less promised her the Sophie. He lamely had to explain that Leonard Bernstein didn’t want her. Reri Grist would get the role. Popp was extremely angry but reacted in the best Callas-tradition. For the premiere she bought a ticket in the first row and was definitely not shy in giving her opinion and in accepting during intermissions the many compliments of patrons who would have preferred her. One can only imagine what was said about the skin color of the new Sophie. Three years later Popp got her revenge when she sang the role in a Vienna –revival with the same cast except Grist and that was the cast that recorded the opera for CBS.
1968 was a special year for Popp; one of the two years she was probably more interested in politics than in music. A new generation of communists in Czechoslovakia didn’t believe any longer in harsh dictatorship and Prague Spring began. Finally Popp’s parents got a visa and could regularly visit their daughter and assist at her performances. In August of the same year `Spring` was definitely over when the Soviets invaded the country to restore Stalinist orthodoxy. Popp was once again a defector and letters and phone calls were once more the means of communication with her family while some friends took presents with them on their visits to Slovakia as Popp herself couldn’t go as she wouldn’t be allowed to leave again. Though she had by then an Austrian passport she knew better than to take the risk. For a long time she negotiated this problem with Czechoslovakian diplomats till they finally relented and accepted her new citizenship on condition of her paying a heavy sum as compensation for her Slovak ‘education’. At last she could enter her former country though always on the same harrowing conditions every visitor to communist states had to suffer.
It was however not politics but marriage that got her away from Vienna. Her husband got a long-term engagement as conductor at Cologne (Köln in German) in Western Germany where that other Hungarian Istvan Kertesz was the boss. Kertesz could use a fine leggiero as Popp still was. The devastated city was completely rebuilt by that time (I served as a soldier not far from Köln in 1966) and due to the “Wirtschaftswunder” (economic miracle) had money to spend on its opera. Popp started out with the by now obligatory queen but added soon several new roles like Gilda and Norina.
Of course her Köln years are famous for the formidable Mozart-cycle. The seven major Mozart-operas were produced by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and conducted by Kertesz until his untimely heart-attack at the Israeli-seaside in 1973. Already in the eighties the performances were legendary, due to the outstanding work of Ponnelle (though not always successful at their première) and the fine ensemble of singers. It was in the Don Giovanni-production I first heard Popp live. As could be expected the voice was not overlarge but projected well and the shimmering silvery legato was just as beautiful as on records. Indeed she was a talented scene-stealer and one immediately understood Don Giovanni’s infatuation. She was not the only singer of genius that evening. The French bass-baritone Roger Soyer was the most impressive Don I ever saw and his early decline was one of the great vocal tragedies of the seventies. Margaret Price and Zoltan Kelemen were also part of that Köln-ensemble and so was Swiss tenor Eric Tappy, the fly in the ointment with a lot of goatish sounds. That Mozart-cycle made Popp one of the great Mozarteans and it also meant a gradual change of roles for her: from leggiero to lirico-leggiero.
During her Cologne-years she spread her wings elsewhere. She made débuts in Paris and at La Scala (Sophie). A second run of Zauberflöte at the Met ( she almost died from stage fright at the broadcast performance) made her decide that the role was no longer for her as the voice had somewhat lowered. The role Pamina beckoned and at the end of the Cologne-cycle in 1975 she did Susanna as well. Her other main novelty was her establishment as a fine lieder singer. She had had a first try out in 69 in Australia with her husband but from the seventies on she gave more and more lieder recitals, enriching the repertoire with a lot of songs by Slavonic composers where she had no competition from the inevitable Dieskau’s and Prey’s. She nevertheless did a lot of Schumann and Schubert when possible and she called it a health-cure for her voice. She was one of the few singers I could stand in this repertoire as I don’t like lieder at all (and yes, I can speak German) but she always offered the outstanding colour of the voice, the technical mastery of piano, mezza voce and messa di voce. I especially remember a fine Frauenliebe at De Munt in Brussels where no more than 300 spectators showed up. Her concerts were much in the serious Middle European style: that means a lieder cycle or a judicious mixture of lieder, with a few Schubert’s or Strauss’ (Zueignung) as an encore. No opera arias in the Bumbry-Fleming tradition when the public happily sighs and relaxes.
She was now a well-established singer, moreover a singer’s singer; very much appreciated for her musical intelligence and beauty of sound. She was however not a commercial star like less gifted singers as Rita Streich, Anneliese Rothenberger and even Erika Köth were. She was well-known in the recording studios but not as a solo performer. After the appearance of a solo-album in 1967 with Mozart and Hdndel-arias nothing more was forthcoming. It resembles somewhat the recording career of Carlo Bergonzi who too during his heydays was completely neglected for solo-albums. Like Bergonzi she would record prolifically during her later years and we wouldn’t be without her recordings but it is a pity that no recording company thought of giving her a chance when the voice was at its most fresh, shimmering with youth and beauty. Still with the advent of Youtube several radio broadcasts are now available on the net and one can listen to her interpretation of Giuditta in 1967 and a magnificent rendition of Louisé’s “Depuis le jour” (with the exception of the first sentence and “je suis heureuse” one doesn’t’ understand a word). And lucky for us there is her charming assumption of “ die Christl von der Post” in Zeller’s Der Vogelhändler; a fine television broadcast in color where she radiates charm.
Due to her upbringing she adored operetta but with the exception of a later Der Zarewich-recording nothing came of it. By the seventies the big German-language theatres looked down on operetta. Due to the generous subsidies of the Wirtschaftswunder there were no financial problems at all and the foremost theatres started spending all their money on opera. Das Regietheater made itself more and more felt. Smaller theatres kept up with operetta but they couldn’t pay Popp. During one of her rare Vienna-forays in these years she at last made her stage début as Hanna Glawari at the Vienna Volksoper. No commercial recording was made: an almost criminal neglect. At De Munt I remember the pure brilliance of a voice particularly attuned to the music in Vilja which was one of the few encores I ever heard in an opera house. Her entrance was spectacular. The voice had grown bigger, the top was still secure and she certainly had warmed up because all the sounds were there from the first beat. Then there was the radiant appearance, not a commercial beauty as the face was too round, the figure a little bit too plump but still she exuded charm and one wondered why an oaf like Danilo didn’t immediately propose
This was not only a stage posture. In her daily life she could be as charming and above all she had a sense of humor. The way she described some of her less grand nights at the opera was full of self-depreciating irony and one can hear radio-audiences howl with laughter. A flirt too she was and she had the reputation of being somewhat ‘easy’. Everybody in the business knew that she had had a liaiso with Carlos Kleiber (“Try to have that with a genius”, she afterwards mocked herself ) before returning for a short time to her husband. A famous hunter like Domingo once accompanied her to her Vienna-apartment and wouldn’t take his leave, hoping for more. She saved herself by starting to wash her dog. Her next important conquest after Kleiber was Peter Jonas, at that time manager of the Chicago Symphony and later of the English National Opera and the München Opera. By the end of 1977 she and her husband definitely separated and the consequences were far-reaching. She left Köln and started her wandering years.
There were infrequent meetings with her lover in the States and she felt no need to have a permanent home where she could retire and feel at ease. She preferred renting furnished apartments in the main places where she stayed. She was by then a star in the opera world and she was one of those singers always flying in or flying out and as she was no longer bound, be it for a short time to one theatre, her career became fully international. She had a hectic schedule and it was quite normal for her to take a night flight after a performance to arrive in time for a rehearsal in another theatre or a recording studio. Hotel rooms were often used to have some rest before the performance, but not after as she was already taking a taxi to the nearest airport. Moreover general managers and casting directors of big theatres knew that when an emergency arose one could always phone her and she would often fly to the rescue. It remains a small miracle that the voice didn’t suffer from all this traveling and the small wear could easily described to aging. I first noticed it when she sang a Rosalinde in Fledermaus on New Year’s Eve in 1979. At the end of the czardas the top was not longer so free and sure though the rest of the voice was as beautiful as ever.
By then she had decided to sing not longer on the interest but to use some of her capital, be it sparingly. In 1981 for the last time she appeared at the Met as Pamina in a pedestrian series of Zauberflöte and though the management insisted a lot she wouldn’t return afterwards. 1982 was the decisive year when she really went full steam for the heavier lyric roles. Eva in Meistersinger at London’s Covent Garden was a success and this became soon of her favorite roles. She added roles for which she was especially suited like Marie in Prodana Nevesta and Margiana in Der Barbier von Bagdad and she fell madly in love with the barber: tenor Peter Seiffert. Up to now she had never made a big secret of her loves but this time she was rather reticent as there was the small problem of age difference, Seiffert being 15 years her junior. Her parents were flabbergasted when they finally heard about it. Seiffert himself says that it was he who pushed through a marriage to end all speculation. Later he would complain somewhat bitterly that for a time he was too much Herr Popp and preferred to forget he got some fine roles and a quick break through due to his marriage. But not even her marriage would stop Popp in her rush for engagements.
In the seventies she recorded prolifically though often for smaller companies like the German Eurodisc and with a whole generation of fine sopranos gone she was one of the few stars of the Mozart and Strauss-repertoire left. Her solo albums on all kinds of labels became numerous. With her musical facility she had no trouble learning new roles instantly and record them even if they didn’t belong in her natural province and she would never sing them on the stage. We find her in one of the very last recordings in German of an Italian opera ( Mimi in Boheme with Araiza), as the other spirited Mimi in Leoncavallo’s Bohème or as Djamileh in Bizet’s opera. She promoted herself from Susanna to Countess, from Servilia to Vitellia and she recorded rather heavy stuff like Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. Strangely enough she did not record the roles for which she was always in demand in the eighties: her Eva, her Arabella which she first sang in 1983, her Marschallin in 1985 (both in Munich) didn’t make it onto CD. She was a huge success with the public though less so with the critics who thought the voice was still a little bit light, not hefty enough. She was not impressed and continued adding the Gräfin (Capriccio) and Daphne. At 50 in 1989 she sang Elsa with her husband as Lohengrin. But of course there was more than music on her mind during that year. A few days before her birthday the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. She celebrated with her parents in Slovakia and everyone’s talk was about their own situation. A month and a half later Havel became president of Czechoslovakia and the communist thugs and their regime were in “the dustbin of history”. At last Popp could easily visit or being visited without those well known gangster faces at customs and passports. And at last Bratislava could welcome it’s own world star in concert.
Her last big role debut was Daphne in 1991 in Zurich (she had already recorded the role). She was so enthusiastically acclaimed and the proposals by the Zürich opera were so generous that she finally decided to settle down as she had done many years before in Köln. She chose the Swiss city as the Vienna Staatsoper didn’t want to engage her anymore. She told her friends that general manager (and former baritone) Eberhard Wächter told her:” You are too old and too fat”. Zürich promised her new exciting roles like Sieglinde and Leonore.
Still 1991 was more ominous for another sad reason. We don’t know when she learned about her illness. Maybe only Seiffert knows. But spontaneous outspoken Lucia Popp kept her silence when she learned that there was something badly wrong with her health. She did not tell her colleagues, she didn’t tell her friends and she didn’t even tell her parents. She told everybody that she had bad colds, that the flue didn’t pass etc. Her lieder accompanist Irwin Gage was one of the very few who knew, because he had some health problems as well and because he was the pianist of Arleen Auger on whose terrible fate he kept Popp informed. Popp continued her career on the scene and in the recording studio. She had a real house in Zurich though with unpacked boxes all over the place while she was most of the time on the road. In 1992 her beloved mother died. Next year her father knew instinctively that something was wrong when he was not allowed to stay at her place but had to take a hotel. When he asked her why she wore a wig, she replied that it was more comfortable in summer. She now had to undergo more and more treatments and had to cancel performances. Still nobody in the business had an inkling and most thought that she suffered from a fistula in a lung.
In September 1993 she prepared a lieder concert in Vienna. Her father came to visit her but had to leave before the concert. When they took their leave, she finally broke. Crying she admitted that his suspicions were right, it was cancer and she had not long to live anymore and she was relieved that her mother had not known. She gave her concert, happy that her public had come in droves. Then she left for Munich and a clinic. On her 54th birthday she chatted happily away with the friends who phoned her with congratulations. She said she was in the hospital with ‘diese dumme Geschichte” (this stupid thing). Four days later her colleagues and many friends were devastated when they heard the announcement that she had died.
Courtesy: Opera Nostalgia
by Jan Neckers
(photos courtesy Charles Mintzer collection and Bach Cantatas Website)