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Having trained initially as an organist, Karin Branzell was an assistant organist at the Hjorthagen Church in Stockholm between 1910 and 1913. At the same time she studied singing with Thekla Hofer and acting with Elisabeth Hjortberg. Her operatic debut was in 1912 at the Royal Opera Stockholm as Prince Sarvilaka in Eugen d’Albert’s opera Izeyl and during the same seaon, 1912–1913, she also sang Amneris / Aida and Nancy / Martha with this company. Branzell continued her studies however, her teachers including Anna Eugénie Schön-René (a pupil of Pauline Viardot), Louis Bachner in Berlin, and Enrico Rosati in New York. Until 1918 Branzell remained with the Royal Opera Stockholm, in this year making her debut as Fricka / Die Walküre at the Berlin State Opera.

As a member of the Berlin company she sang a large repertory that included Azucena / Il trovatore, Dalila / Samson et Dalila, Fides / Le Prophète, Laura / La Gioconda and the title role in Carmen. Branzell took part in the first performance of Pfitzner’s Palestrina in 1919 and created the role of the Nurse in the 1920 Berlin premiere of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten with the composer conducting. She made her debut at the Metroplitan Opera, New York in Febuary 1924 as Fricka / Die Walküre, of which Olin Downes wrote in the New York Times: ‘She made the shrewish Fricka a character eloquent and human, and sang her music in the grand manner.’ Branzell returned to the Metropolitan for every season until March 1944, generally during the first months of each year, and sang a total of 412 performances of twenty-one roles. Her repertoire was focused predominantly upon Wagner and included, in addition to many of the roles already mentioned, Brangäne / Tristan und Isolde, Erda / Das Rheingold and Siegfried, Magdalene / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Ortrud / Lohengrin, Venus / Tannhäuser and Waltraute / Götterdämmerung. She returned to sing Erda in Rudolf Bing’s first Ring cycle of spring 1951. At the Met she also sang Klytaemnestra / Elektra, Herodias / Salome and the Kostelnička / Jenůfa; and created the part of Queen Iceheart in the American premiere of Weinberger’s Schwanda the Bagpiper in November 1931.

Alongside her commitments in Berlin and New York, Branzell sang in many other major opera houses including at the Bayreuth Festival (1930, 1931), Brussels (1941), Buenos Aires (1926, 1934, 1938), Chicago, Leningrad (1935), Milan, Munich Summer Festival (1935–1939), Paris, Rio de Janeiro (1934), San Francisco (1941), Vienna (1921) and Zürich (1922, 1939). She appeared at Covent Garden in 1935, 1937 and 1938, singing both in Wagner and in Borodin’s Prince Igor under Sir Thomas Beecham. She was also active as a concert and lieder singer, and sang Mahler with Stokowski (Philadelphia, 1934–1935) and Fritz Busch (Chicago, 1949).

After her retirement Branzell taught at the Juilliard School (1946–1950) and later at the Adelphi School of Music (1952–1958), both in New York City. Her pupils included Mignon Dunn, Jean Madeira and Nell Rankin. Tall and statuesque, Branzell possessed a rich and very powerful voice, which made her an ideal interpreter of Wagner, as her recordings, many taken from live performances, clearly attest.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).

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