The Swedish soprano Elisabeth Söderström died on November 20 in Stockholm at the age of 82. She maintained a career of over a half a century during which her vocal and dramatic versatility enabled her to embrace a very wide repertoire. Among the roles for which she was celebrated were Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio, Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck as well as lighter parts like Rosalinde in Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. For many people, though, Söderström’s name will be inextricably linked with the operas of Janácek, which she recorded in Decca’s classic series conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras (and all three of which secured Gramophone Awards).
She was born in Stockholm to a Russian mother and a Swedish father, and an early aptitude for acting lead her to apply to the Stockholm Academy of Dramatic Arts. She was rejected and instead turned her attention to singing. She made her professional debut in 1947 singing the role of Bastienne in Mozart’s early opera at Drottningholm, and soon she was singing lighter soprano roles (Pamina, Sophie, Louise, Violetta and the four roles in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann among them).
The 1950s saw her gaining an international reputation with debuts in Salzburg and at Glyndebourne (1957), and she made her Met debut in 1959 as Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. Over the next four years she appeared regularly at the house in Faust, L’elisir d’amore and La bohème. She was also one of the few singers to take on all three soprano roles in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (only her Octavian was captured commercially on a highly thought of disc of excerpts conducted by Silvio Varviso for Decca – “impassioned and youthful sounding” according to Gramophone’s Alec Robertson). Her Covent Garden debut in 1960 was actually with the Royal Swedish Opera when she sang Daisy Dodd in Blomdahl’s Aniara. She returned to the house many times with roles ranging from the Governess in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw to Debussy’s Mélisande under Pierre Boulez (a role she recorded with him for CBS).
With the birth of her three sons in the 1960s she focused her performances on Sweden and countries nearby. She became a favourite at Glyndebourne and over two decades from the late 1950s to 1970s she sang three Strauss roles – the Composer, Octavian and the Countess in Capriccio – as well as Susanna and Leonore. She returned to the States in 1977 to sing the title-role in Janácek’s Kat’a Kabanová. Her last stage appearance came in 1999 when she emerged from semi-retirement to sing the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades at the Met. Interestingly she never sang any roles by Verdi and Wagner, on the advice of her singing teacher.
She was also a talented recitalist and later in life tended to focus on Lieder. Among the mementos of this period are two magnificent sets of songs by Tchaikovsky and Sibelius accompanied by Vladimir Ashkenazy (the Sibelius set took a Gramophone Solo Vocal Award). From 1991 to 1996 she directed the Drottningholm Festival Opera and also directed a number of opera with success.
On record her versatility is well illustrated. In addition to the Janácek operas and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande she can be heard on Otto Klemperer’s set of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis (EMI), Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs (EMI Eminence with Richard Armstrong conducting) and Britten’s War Requiem (EMI, under Simon Rattle).
In Gramophone (June 2004) John Steane wrote that “Her voice was one of those which, while being of no more than moderate volume, carry within it a certain concentration of dramatic power … She used the limited volume to the finest possible effect, grading carefully so that the climax tells. Her singing has presence; it is continent and compact; you listen.”
Read John Steane's June 2004 "Reputations" article on Elisabeth Söderström.