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Soprano Astrid Varnay dies at 88

The Swedish-American singer made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera without a rehearsal.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Astrid Varnay, the Swedish-American soprano who made her Metropolitan Opera debut —— without rehearsal — in a nationally broadcast performance and went on to sing for half a century, has died. She was 88.

Varnay died Monday in a Munich hospital of a pericardial infection, said Donald Arthur, a longtime friend who ghostwrote her autobiography. She had been seriously ill for some time, he said in a telephone interview with the AP.

Astrid Ibolyka Maria Varnay was born in Stockholm on April 25, 1918, to Hungarian parents involved in opera. The family moved to the United States in 1920, where her father, tenor Alexander Varnay, died at age 35 in 1924.

Varnay trained her singing voice first under her mother, Maria Javor Varnay, then New York Metropolitan Opera staff conductor and coach Hermann Weigert, whom she married in 1944.

Because an opera career in the United States was deemed unlikely, she also was taking courses in stenography and typing.

But Varnay got her break on Dec. 6, 1941 — a day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — when she filled in for an indisposed Lotte Lehmann. With no rehearsal, she took over the role of Sieglinde in Wagner's "Die Walkuere" in a performance conducted by Erich Leinsdorf that was broadcast nationally on radio. Six days later, Varnay sang her second professional performance, taking over from an ill Helen Traubel as Bruennhilde, one of the toughest soprano roles in the repertoire.

"The exceedingly comely Swedish-American soprano acted with a skill and grace only possible to those with an inborn talent for the theater," Noel Strauss wrote in The New York Times the day after her debut.

"Miss Varnay is a valuable addition to the Metropolitan roster, but her fine abilities would be employed to much better purpose in roles making less heavy demands on her voice, a voice of such innate beauty that it should not be used in parts like this, which might easily impair its quality."

Arthur worked with Varnay for five years on her autobiography, "Fifty-Five Years In Five Acts: My Life in Opera," and remembers talking with her about the Met debut for chapter 1.

"She was pushed out on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera never having sung anywhere in public, and sang the leading role in "Die Walkuere" in a broadcast at age 23," he said. "We were working on it and one of the things I wrote was that 'presumably everyone on the stage was two times my age.' She said: 'What is this presumably nonsense? We'll look it up.' We looked it up and every member of that cast was either two times her age or more."

She would sing some 200 performances with the Metropolitan Opera over her career, though left in 1956 for nearly two decades over conflicts with director Rudolf Bing.

Arthur remembers her description of her departure — indicative of her sharp wit.

Bing "said 'I'm thinking of giving you a leave of absence.' Well, she had a whole raft of contracts waiting for her in Europe and said: 'I don't think I need a leave of absence, I think I need to leave,'" Arthur recalled.

"He said: 'Keep us informed about your career,' and she said: 'You can read about it in your papers.'"

Varnay originated the role of Telea in the world premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Island of God" at the Met on Feb. 20, 1942.

Varnay was seen for the first time in Europe in 1948, where she put on a guest performance at the London Covent Garden Opera.

From 1951 to 1968, she sang at Bavaria's Bayreuth festival, performing the roles of Bruennhilde and Isolde.

Following her husband's death in 1955, she made Europe her permanent home, settling in Munich.

She became a mainstay at some of the world's great opera houses, particularly in Germany where she sang at venues around the country.

She returned to the Met in 1974 after an 18-year absence, singing Kostelnicka in Janacek's "Jenufa." Her final Met performance was as Leocadia Begbick in Weill's "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" on Dec. 22, 1979.

In the mid-1980s, Varnay turned more to character roles. Her last stage appearance was in Munich in 1995.

Varnay had no close relatives, Arthur said. Funeral arrangements were private.