“When I first began my career, the competition was tremendous, for there were still many superb singers around,” confessed Elisabeth Grümmer (1911-1986), one of the great sopranos of the post-war era. “But I soon discovered there is always room for another one, provided she has solid qualities to offer.”
Who was she?
If I had a time machine that allowed me to go back and witness musical events of the past, I would probably concentrate on the year 1955: Maria Callas in her prime at La Scala, a revolving cast of all-stars at the Salzburg Festival, Keilberth’s “Ring” at Bayreuth, and Marian Anderson’s historic debut at the Metropolitan — among other triumphs.
(Somehow this proposed time machine also gives me jet-setting privileges.)
Amidst the glitz and glamor of opera’s greatest decade, there was another unmissable artist I’d rush to see: a rather reserved, distinctly un-divalike — and painfully underrated — lyric soprano Elisabeth Grümmer.
Aficionados know her as one of the most gifted singers of her time, but she was never a household name, even in households that listened to opera. Even so, her influence has been far-reaching.
*Kammersängerin, Noun, Ger., Fem.: Literally “chamber singer”; an esteemed honorary title bestowed by German and Austrian governments on distinguished singers of opera and classical music. Abbrev: “Ks.”
Born in the German-speaking region of Alsace-Lorraine (present-day France), she lived through unspeakable hardships during WWII: In 1943, she received a telegram that her home in Aachen had been completely destroyed; she later found out her husband’s body was buried under the debris. Singing became Grümmer’s salvation.
Long before Carrie Fisher and the age of the internet meme, Grümmer had taken her broken heart and made it into art.
Among the “Last” Prima Donnas
In the fall of 1978, the celebrated critic and publicist Lanfranco Rasponi traveled to the Opéra-Comique in Paris, where Grümmer was teaching vocal technique. The entire interview is a marvel — and appears in his book The Last Prima Donnas.
“So warm is her personality, so sensible her point of view, so serene her outlook, so well-balanced her attitude toward life, that ones feels privileged to be in her presence,” he observed.
To what did she attribute the longevity of her voice and career?
“Actually, my husband, who was happy at my success, taught me a lesson that I believe is responsible for me being able to sing as well for as long as I did. He always said that the reason why so many singers’ careers went astray was the lack of continuation of study. And I never stopped until the end, not only vocalizing every day but taking lessons with the best teachers I had available. There is a lot you can do yourself, but no matter how strong the discipline, there must be someone else who follows and hears what sometimes you do not. It is like having your checkups with good doctors.”
The lessons here are astounding — whether or not you are a student of the arts.
The “Little Things” Done Exquisitely Well (and With Great Care)
Although Grümmer is grievously underrepresented in studio recordings of her era, live broadcast editions reveal a considerable amount about her art. Categorically a “lyric” soprano, she made her mark on a relatively small repertory of operatic roles. A brilliant Mozartienne, she also specialized in Wagner, Strauss, and other composers of the Romantic period, even singing Verdi and Puccini in her native German tongue.
Her interpretation of Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischütz, however, has never been bettered.
So what’s good about it? Among other things: the beauty of her tone, her “diction sensitive to any change in emotional temperature” (per C.J. Luten), and the way she makes carefully rehearsed material sound as if it’s spontaneously conceived in the moment (the Italians call it Sprezzatura — the art that conceals art).
What did Ks. Grümmer think of the subsequent generation of singers?
“I simply cannot believe my ears. Have they not read the beautiful texts? How can they be so indifferent to the immense poetry with which these heroines are imbued? It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to judge singers today. Eventually, perhaps sooner than we think, it will become evident that they are destroying themselves. And then there will have to be a very complete reversal.”
That’s why she had to become a teacher.
“I have been teaching now ever since my retirement, for I feel it is my duty to pass on whatever I know. I give courses in Lucerne in the summer, and now here in Paris. My problem is that, incredibly enough, I do not speak French! But it is never too late to learn. That has always been my attitude and always will be. And I try to tell my students…that they must take a lot of time off to themselves, learn to think and feel. For I am convinced that talent is formed in silence.”
Whether you prefer sweating it out at yoga or strolling through your favorite city, we encourage you to find your quiet place and nourish your inner talent. Becoming reacquainted with inspiring artists of the past — and reconsidering their universal wisdom with fresh eyes and ears — will help you get started. Follow 818 Agency and stay tuned for more artistic excavations like this one. Until then, good luck!
Featured Image: Opera Lounge.