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LISA DELLA CASA

The Swiss soprano Lisa della Casa was internationally recognised throughout her professional career as one of the finest Strauss and Mozart sopranos of her generation. Her recordings provide eloquent testimony of her vocal beauty, her innate sense of musical style and her deeply felt operatic interpretations.

Lisa della Casa was born in the Swiss canton of Burgdorf in 1919 into a family of Italian, Swiss and German extraction: her father was a doctor. She began to study singing when she was fifteen years old at the Zurich Conservatory with Margarete Haeser, her only vocal teacher. She made her operatic début in the title rôle of Madama Butterfly at the Municipal Theatre of Solothurn-Biel in 1941. Two years later, already active as an actress and a concert singer, she joined the ensemble of the Zurich Opera House. She remained with this company until 1950, her parts including Mimì (La Bohème), and the Queen of the Night (Die Zaublerflöte), as well Serena (Porgy and Bess) and the Young Woman in the world première of Paul Burkhard’s Die schwarze Spinne. In 1946 she sang Zdenka in Richard Strauss’s opera Arabella opposite the soprano Maria Cebotari in the title rôle. Impressed, Cebotari recommended her to the Salzburg Festival, where she repeated the same rôle in 1947, this time opposite Maria Reining and Hans Hotter. After hearing her performance, Richard Strauss himself prophetically commented, ‘That girl will be the Arabella some day!’ In the same year she married the Yugoslav writer Dragan Debeljevic and made her début at the Vienna State Opera as Gilda in Rigoletto. She quickly became a member of this distinguished company, where her early rôles included Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier and Nedda in Pagliacci, as well as Mimì and Butterfly.

She appeared at La Scala, Milan, for the first time in 1949 as Sophie and Marzelline in Fidelio, earning the praise and admiration of the company’s music director, Victor de Sabata. She sang the Countess (Capriccio) at Salzburg in 1950 and the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro at Glyndebourne in 1951, the year in which she appeared in the title rôle of Arabella for the first time, with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. She repeated this rôle with great success when this company visited Covent Garden in 1953 (a recording of a broadcast from the run of this production has been published). During the previous year, 1952, she had received the honorary title of Kammersängerin of Austria, and had sung Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival, but chose not to return there, citing her dislike of operatic intrigue. She returned to the Salzburg Festival on the other hand regularly: her rôles there included Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier (1953), Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos (1954–55), Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni (1956), Chrysothemis in Elektra (1957), Pamina in Die Zaubeflöte (1959), the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier (1960, for the opening of the large Festspielhaus) and the Countess in Figaro (1960). Between 1953 and 1968 she sang regularly at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where her rôles included Mozart’s Countess, Donna Elvira, Eva, Butterfly, and Arabella, as well as Elsa (Lohengrin) and Saffi (Der Zigeunerbaron) (given in English). She sang the Marschallin for the first time in 1955 on the occasion of the re-opening of the Vienna State Opera: she had thus sung all the three major female parts in this opera.

During the 1960s Della Casa extended her repertoire to parts such as the title rôles in Strauss’s Salome, which she sang in Munich in 1961, and Puccini’s Tosca, before returning to her signature rôles in Mozart and Strauss operas. She retained her flexibility and professionalism throughout her career: when her former colleagure in Vienna, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, sang the Marschallin for the first time in New York in 1964, Della Casa was happy to return to the rôle of Octavian. As the 1960s drew to a close her voice began to decline, and her appearances became fewer. After a performance of Arabella at Salzburg in 1974 she unexpectedly announced her retirement. She settled with her husband in a magnificent castle in Switzerland, where she celebrated her ninetieth birthday at the beginning of 2009.

Lisa della Casa possessed all the attributes required to excel in her chosen repertoire. Possessing great personal beauty, she looked superb on the operatic stage, which she commanded naturally and with great charisma. At the same time her voice was ideally suited to Strauss’s rhapsodic vocal writing, which she was able to realise absolutely, and without any hint of effort. In the words of the distinguished critic, John Steane: ‘Della Casa remains one of the best of all sopranos in Richard Strauss. Her voice has that touch of spring and silver that Strauss loved and wrote for; her tone will float and soar.’


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