Erna Sack’s unusual voice attracted attention even when she was still at school and also through the church choir in which she sang. She studied singing at the Prague Conservatory and later in Berlin with Oscar Daniel. Here (when she was thirty) Bruno Walter’s wife happened to hear her during one of her singing lessons and persuaded Walter, then music director of the Städische Oper, Berlin to give Sack an audition. This was successful and she was a member of the Städische Oper from 1928 to 1930, singing small and soubrette roles, but also taking part in three significant Berlin premieres during 1929: Wolf-Ferrari’s Sly (May), d’Albert’s Die schwarze Orchidee (June) and Lothar’s Tyll (September). In addition she sang several small parts for Berlin radio.
Walter advised Sack to gain a wider repertoire by joining a provincial opera company and in 1930 she joined the Municipal Theatre at Bielefeld. Here she sang high soprano and coloratura roles, including Susanna / Le nozze di Figaro, Micaëla / Carmen and Sophie / Der Rosenkavalier, making a strong impression also in 1932 as Norina / Don Pasquale. In that year she moved to Wiesbaden and then in 1934 to Breslau (now Wrocław), where her roles included Zerbinetta / Ariadne auf Naxos. In the same year she returned to Berlin, singing Gilda / Rigoletto at the State Opera with great success (opposite Heinrich Schlusnus and Walter Ludwig, with Erich Kleiber conducting) and appearing as a guest with the Dresden State Opera as Rosina / Il barbiere di Siviglia and Frau Fluth / The Merry Wives of Windsor (Nicolai).
In 1935 Sack undertook the first of her extensive concert tours, encompassing Austria, Holland, France and the United Kingdom; signed a recording contract with Telefunken; and appeared in the film Blumen von Nizza. She also moved to the Dresden State Opera, remaining there until 1941. Having appeared with great success as Isotta in the first performance of Richard Strauss’s Die schweigsame Frau (1935), she was then cast by the composer as Zerbinetta in the performances of Ariadne which he conducted with the Dresden company at the Royal Opera House, London in 1936. An admirer of her singing, Strauss rewrote several passages in Zerbinetta’s aria to exploit the unusually extended range of her voice (she could sing C above high C).
Now Sack’s career took off internationally: in 1937 she sang the Queen of the Night / Die Zauberflöte in Rome opposite Tito Schipa and Licia Albanese with Tullio Serafin conducting, shared a concert with Josef Schmidt and Richard Tauber at Carnegie Hall, New York and appeared with the Chicago Opera as Rosina and in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor. In addition she continued to record extensively and appeared in the hit operetta film Nanon of 1938.
During World War II Sack appeared in both occupied and neutral European countries. After the end of the war she toured so extensively in South America that she and her husband (Hermann Sack, whom she married when she was twenty-one; her maiden name was Weber) took Brazilian citizenship; but she enjoyed her greatest success in Canada and for several years lived in Montreal.
After touring Africa Sack returned to Germany in 1950, touring that country as well as Australasia in 1953 and in 1954 returning to the USA (and to Carnegie Hall). Following further tours of both West and East Germany in 1954 and 1957 respectively she retired from professional life; her eventual death followed surgery for cancer.
Like Mado Robin, Sack possessed a voice of extraordinary flexibility and range. Combined with her glamorous appearance, this made her an extremely popular singer, earning the nickname ‘the German nightingale’.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).