To the Editor:
It was for the most part a pleasure to read Algis Valiunas’s tribute to two of the music world’s finest singers, both of whom passed away last year [“Diva & Anti-Diva,” December 2006]. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson are richly deserving of the praise he bestows on them, and he cannily pinpoints the artistic strengths of each.
I do have a problem, though, with Mr. Valiunas’s extended “diva versus anti-diva” theme. In order to make it work, he is forced to exaggerate the degree to which Schwarzkopf participated in the negative aspects of divadom. She was never famous for the sulks, tantrums, and showy displays of temperament that other artists have exhibited. In his search for material of this kind, Mr. Valiunas is obliged to cite an obscure anecdote from her apprentice days as a nearly unknown contract singer in Berlin. Allegedly, this twenty-six-year-old kicked off a shoe in frustration, causing some accidental damage to the scenery. Shocking!
Searching the rest of Schwarzkopf’s career, one finds an artist who was celebrated for her professionalism and self-discipline, always punctual, scrupulously prepared, cooperative with colleagues, gracious to her public, and dedicated far more to her art than to her ego. She was also relentlessly self-critical, even at the height of her fame. Of how many divas can that be said?
Was Schwarzkopf known for “walking out of performances that did not meet her standard,” as Mr. Valiunas writes? This suggests an artist stalking offstage, Callas-like. In reality, she declined on occasion to be part of productions that, in her view, traduced the vision of the composer or librettist. Not because of her ego, merely, but because of her respect and duty to the masters and traditions of the past. I can only wish that more of today’s established singers would follow her example by resisting some of the foolish and degrading spectacles that sensation-driven director-designers are prone to concoct.
Finally, the fact that Schwarzkopf was a harsh taskmaster in her vocal master classes does not suggest to me self-aggrandizement. She knew from experience that relentless hard work was the only path to excellence, and she sought to instill in students the same uncompromising standards that had taken her to the very top. If she lacked the Paula Abdul touch, is that so bad?
In pronouncing Hunt Lieberson the greater artist, I suppose Mr. Valiunas is within his rights as a critic, but comparative ranking seems misguided. I see two incomparable artists, each with her individual strengths, neither in competition for the other’s laurels, and both equally deserving of our grateful memory and Mr. Valiunas’s elegant memorial thoughts.
George R. Paterson
Algis Valiunas writes:
I thank George R. Paterson for his kind remarks. There is indeed more than one way to be a diva. The most famous diva is a fictional one, Puccini’s Floria Tosca, for whom he wrote perhaps the most heartbreaking aria ever: “Vissi d’arte,” in which, as her lover, Cavaradossi, a devotee of Napoleonic republicanism, is being tortured in the next room, she declares that she has lived for art, love, and piety, and begs God to tell her why He is using her so cruelly. She kills the malign Baron Scarpia, the Roman tyrant’s prized thug, to preserve her virtue; after Cavaradossi’s execution, she kills herself, like the noble Roman that she is. Tosca is the pure embodiment of love, art, honor, and liberty.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf never did sing Tosca, which is just as well, for she would not have understood what Tosca is. Schwarzkopf joined the Nazi party as a shrewd career move, reportedly slept with Nazi superiors who helped speed her way up, and denied her Nazi past for most of her life until she could not deny it any longer. The operatic masterpieces sing of the hard ascent to nobility and freedom. With every part of herself but her voice, Schwarzkopf betrayed the very art at which she excelled. She was the sort of diva who places her career above all else, including love, art, honor, and liberty.