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Lisa Della Casa (2 February 1919 – 10 December 2012) was a Swiss soprano most admired for her interpretations of major heroines in major operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Richard Strauss, of German lieder, and for her great beauty. She was dubbed “the most beautiful woman on the operatic stage”.
Lisa Della Casa was born in Burgdorf, Switzerland to an Italian-Swiss father, Francesco Della Casa, and a Bavarian-born mother, Margarete Mueller. She began studying singing at the age of 15 at the Zurich Conservatory, and made her operatic debut in the title role of Puccini's Madama Butterfly at Solothurn-Biel Municipal Theater in 1940. She joined the ensemble of Zurich Municipal Opera House in 1943 (staying there until 1950) and sang various parts, from the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute to Dorabella in Così fan tutte. Later she sang Fiordiligi. An earlier marriage having ended in divorce, in 1949, she married Yugoslavian-born journalist and violinist Dragan Debeljevic, with whom she had a daughter, Vesna.
Della Casa sang the part of Zdenka in the performance of Richard Strauss's Arabella at Zurich Municipal Opera House to her revered soprano Maria Cebotari's Arabella in 1946. Cebotari recognized her talent and introduced her at the Salzburg Festival in 1947, where she sang Zdenka again in a production starring Maria Reining and Hans Hotter. After the premiere performance, Strauss himself commented, "The little Della Casa will one day be Arabella!" ("Die Kleine Della Casa wird eines Tages Arabella sein!"). That same year on 18 October, she made her debut at the Vienna State Opera House, singing the part of Nedda in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. Soon she moved to Vienna and joined the ensemble of the Vienna State Opera House. In 1949, she made her debut at La Scala in Milan as Sophie in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier and Marzelline in Beethoven's Fidelio. Victor de Sabata, the musical director of La Scala at that time, tried to persuade her to move to La Scala, but she chose to remain in Vienna.
She made her British debut singing the part of Countess Almaviva in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro at the Glyndebourne Festival. It was at this festival, during a crisis involving Fritz Busch, that someone asked what her husband, who always accompanied her, did in life, and she replied matter-of-factly: "He loves me." ("Er liebt mich.") She went on to sing the title role in Arabella for the first time, at the Bavarian State Opera House in Munich in 1951. It became her signature role. She sang Eva in Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival in 1952, but would never sing at Bayreuth again, preferring the Salzburg Summer Festival.
In 1953, Della Casa sang the part of Arabella in the Bavarian State Opera Company's performances at Covent Garden, and sang the part of Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier for the first time, at the Salzburg Festival. On 20 November 1953, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York (the Met) as the Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro. Since her debut, she sang a total of 173 complete opera performances at the Met until her last performance there on 9 December 1967 as Countess Almaviva. Her repertoire at the Met was as follows:
In 1955, she sang the part of the Marschallin in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier for the first time; this was in a series of performances to celebrate the opening of the restored Vienna State Opera House. As a result, she had sung all three parts - the Marschallin, Octavian, Sophie - in Der Rosenkavalier as well as a single performance as Annina replacing an indisposed singer in Zurich. The Salzburg Festival was one of the most important venues in her career. She sang Ariadne in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos and Donna Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni in 1954, (once again) Donna Elvira in 1956, Chrysothemis in Strauss's Elektra and Countess Almaviva in 1957 (she also gave a recital at the Festival in the same year which has been preserved as a recording) and Arabella in 1958. Colleague Inge Borkh stated emphatically: "She was THE Arabella!" ("Sie war DIE Arabella!)"
Della Casa sang Pamina in The Magic Flute in 1959. On 26 July 1960, the newly built Salzburg Festspielhaus opened with a performance of Der Rosenkavalier under Herbert von Karajan. She sang the part of the Marschallin in this performance with Sena Jurinac as Octavian and Hilde Gueden as Sophie. Originally, Karajan and film director Paul Czinner planned to make a film of the performance; they asked Della Casa to sing the part of the Marschallin in the film too and she gladly accepted. But due to Walter Legge, well-known recording producer of EMI and husband of Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Della Casa was replaced by Schwarzkopf for the film. Shocked with being betrayed by this last-minute decision, although she sang the scheduled performances of the season (the Marschallin and Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro, Della Casa decided never to sing there again. When asked several times subsequently to do so, she declined, replying: "No, sir, for me, Salzburg is dead." (“No, sir, Salzburg für mich ist gestorben.")
She surprised her audiences by singing the title role in Salome at the Bavarian State Opera House in Munich in 1961. Colleague Inge Borkh said that Della Casa was "very sexy ... because she did not seek to be so!" ("Sie war sehr sexy... unbewusst!") From this time onward, she took few dramatic parts in Italian operas, succeeding notably as Desdemona in Verdi's Otello and the title role in Puccini's Tosca, but finally returned to lyric parts in Mozart and Richard Strauss operas. In 1964, when Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (now both her colleague and rival at the Vienna State Opera House) made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera of New York as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, Della Casa sang Octavian . Anneliese Rothenberger and Rolf Gerard attested that, contrary to Bing's and the public's desire for scandal, no hard feelings between the two sopranos were apparent during this period. Gerard who was working at the time with famous Met director Rudolf Bing called the latter a "publicity genius".
Other significant roles were Cleopatra in Handel's [Julius Caesar], the Countess in Strauss's Capriccio, Ilia in Mozart's Idomeneo, and the female roles in Gottfried von Einem's Der Prozess.
In the mid-1960s, her taste for the operatic stage began to decline and she gave fewer performances. As film excerpts show, her singing was still functioning at its best. However, in 1970, her daughter Vesna, then 20 years old, suffered an aneurysm. She kept to her engagements, notably in Handel's Agrippina in Zürich. Vesna had to be operated on immediately. She survived the operation, but there were complications. She begged her mother to continue singing, as it made her feel healthier, but Della Casa devoted more and more time to her daughter’s recovery, even buying a house in Spain where the family could gather undisturbed most of the year, and gave fewer and fewer performances until her final performance at the Wiener Staatsoper, as Arabella on 25 October 1973. And in 1974, she surprised the opera world by announcing her sudden retirement, aged 55. She was then considered to be at the height of her career and left her fans bewildered: "no explanations, no comeback, no masterclasses, no interviews, no private appearances". Vesna spoke movingly of her mother's "unceasing, limitless love" ("eine Liebe ohne Ende"). Many years later she herself suffered a kind of stroke, but recovered after four years.
Lisa Della Casa admitted she did not like the "music business", with its intrigues and vanities. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau said of her that after hearing a performance he was astonished and wanted to congratulate her, but she was still so involved in her role that she never heard his compliments. She also smoked during her career, with defiance: "Why not?" ("Warum nicht?") In a 1963 BBC television interview conducted in English, when the soprano was in mid-career, she was asked if smoking were not bad for her health. Smilingly she replied: "You know, while in Vienna, I went to a special singers' doctor [who told me] 'it is the singing which is more dangerous than the smoking', and I smoke longer than I sing."
She made several complete opera recordings mainly for the Decca label: her interpretations of Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro (Erich Kleiber) and the title role in Arabella (by Sir Georg Solti) are regarded as among the finest recorded. She made the first commercial recording of Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs (Karl Böhm) in 1953 for Decca, and many classical music lovers claim this recording to be the greatest available. Her Elvira, sung to perhaps the greatest Don Giovanni of his time, Cesare Siepi, is available both on CD and DVD. She recorded a memorable Countess under the direction of Erich Leinsdorf at the Met, starring the American bass-baritone Giorgio Tozzi in the title role.
As an interpreter of lieder, she often performed with the German pianist Sebastian Peschko and Hungarian Arpad Sandor. She made several appearances in the acclaimed US television edition of the Bell Telephone Hour and appeared regularly on Swiss television, giving interviews and performances, as well as participating in game shows. In October 2007 and November 2008, Della Casa, members of her family and her colleagues agreed to be interviewed as part of a Liebe einer Diva, (Loves of a Diva), a German documentary film by Thomas Voigt and Wolfgang Wunderlich about the soprano's life and career. The film was last shown on 5 April 2010 on German television channel 3SAT and has ample footage of Della Casa's career, as well as rare television footage.
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