Elisabeth Höngen was born into a musical family and started to play the violin from the age of six, followed by the piano. Although not possessing a voice remarkable in its untrained state, she developed a strong desire to become a singer and took singing lessons in Wuppertal, later moving to Berlin where she studied with Hermann Weisenborn. By not forcing her voice she was able to develop naturally into a singer who could undertake both comic and dramatic roles; and made her professional singing debut in Handel’s Deborah in Berlin in 1932.
Having been offered a contract by the Wuppertal Opera in 1933, Höngen made her debut there as Irmentraut in Der Waffenschmied by Lortzing. Her versatility quickly led to her undertaking a wide range of parts successfully: when a production of Der Ring des Nibelungen was imported from Berlin she was one of the few local singers to participate, singing all the principal mezzo roles in the complete cycle. She also sang Marcellina / Le nozze di Figaro in a guest performance by the Wuppertal ensemble in Holland in 1934.
Between 1935 and 1940 Höngen was a member of the Düsseldorf Opera and between 1940 and 1943 of the Dresden State Opera. With the former she took part in the premiere of Magnus Fahlander by Fritz von Borries in 1937 and sang Fricka / Die Walküre on a visit by the company to Holland in 1938. Greatly admired by the conductor Karl Böhm, she joined the Vienna State Opera in 1943, making her debut as Ortrud / Lohengrin, and remained with this company until 1971. Her repertoire was extensive, ranging from dramatic parts in the Italian repertoire (including Amneris / Aida, Azucena / Il trovatore, Eboli / Don Carlo, Lady Macbeth / Macbeth and Ulrica / Un ballo in maschera) through major Wagnerian roles (such as Brangäne / Tristan und Isolde and Waltraute / Der Ring), character parts in Richard Strauss (for example Herodias / Salome, Klytaemnestra / Elektra, the Nurse / Die Frau ohne Schatten and Clairon / Capriccio) to comic roles (including Dorabella / Così fan tutte and Baba the Turk / The Rake’s Progress, in its Viennese premiere of 1965).
After the end of World War II Höngen developed an international career. She sang at the Royal Opera House, London in 1947 with the visiting Vienna State Opera company and returned during the 1959–1960 season as Herodias and Klytaemnestra, roles she also sang at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1952. At the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires in 1949 she sang Magdalene / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and the Nurse; and in 1950 participated in the famous Ring cycle conducted by Furtwängler at La Scala, Milan. She had first appeared there in 1943 and at the Paris Opera in 1953, as Klytaemnestra on both occasions. Other opera houses where Höngen appeared included Barcelona (1956), Monte Carlo (1957–1958, 1960), Strasbourg (1960, 1963), the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (1962) and Brussels (1963).
At the Salzburg Festival Höngen was a frequent visitor, singing Gluck’s Orfeo / Orfeo ed Euridice (1948–1949), Lucretia / The Rape of Lucretia (1950), Marcellina (1948, 1956), Clairon (1949–1950) and in the premiere of Heimo Erbse’s Julietta (1958), as well as participating in many concerts. She appeared at the 1951 Bayreuth Festival as Fricka and Waltraute and sang Czipra / Der Zigeunerbaron at the 1961 Bregenz Festival.
Höngen became a professor at the Vienna Academy of Music in 1957, but continued her stage career at the State Opera until 1971, making her farewell appearance as the Principessa / Suor Angelica.
While not possessing an especially beautiful voice, Höngen generated tremendous dramatic intensity in her performances, as is evident for instance in her wartime recording of Lady Macbeth. A tone was never an end in itself, it always expressed an emotion. In addition to her undoubted star qualities, she was also greatly valued as an ensemble player, for whom there was no such thing as a ‘minor role’.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).