2012-12-14 01:40:38 UTC
Lisa Della Casa, Opera Singer, Dies at 93
By JONATHAN KANDELL
Lisa Della Casa, the Swiss soprano who combined an outstanding
voice, stunning beauty and exceptional stage presence to become one
of the foremost interpreters of Richard Strauss, died on Monday in
Münsterlingen, Switzerland. She was 93.
Her death was announced by the Vienna State Opera, where she
Ms. Della Casa was one of a generation of sopranos to emerge from
war-shattered Europe in the 1940s. In her Strauss roles, like the
title character of "Arabella," which alternately calls for demure
graciousness and soaring enthusiasm, Ms. Della Casa displayed "a
wholly appealing kind of fragility, tender and unmannered," the
musicologist J. B. Steane wrote in his book "The Grand Tradition: 70
Years of Singing on Record." She was equally extolled for her roles
in Mozart operas.
By her own count she sang more than 200 performances each of
Arabella, Donna Elvira (in Mozart's "Don Giovanni") and Countess
Almaviva (in Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro"), and more than 100
performances each of Ariadne (in Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos"),
Fiordiligi (in Mozart's "Così Fan Tutte"), Pamina (in Mozart's
"Magic Flute") and the Marschallin (in Strauss's "Rosenkavalier").
In Europe, where Ms. Della Casa performed at the major opera houses,
her beauty and charisma could seduce even a great conductor like
Herbert von Karajan into pursuing her for roles that were out of her
"Karajan saw me as the Marschallin and, if you can believe it,
immediately asked me to sing 'Tannhäuser' with him," even though the
role, Venus, called for a dramatic soprano or a mezzo with an upper
register and thus was not at all appropriate for her voice, she said
in an interview in Lanfranco Rasponi's book "The Last Prima Donnas."
"He told me I had just the right kind of sexiness to make a splendid
goddess of love." She turned down the role.
Her complaint was the opposite at the Metropolitan Opera, where, she
said, the general manager Rudolf Bing typecast her. She sang four
roles at the Met--Countess Almaviva, Donna Elvira, the Marschallin
and Arabella--a total of 114 times in her 147 performances.
"My 15 seasons at the Metropolitan were not happy ones," Ms. Della
Casa told Mr. Rasponi. "Mr. Bing would not have it any other way,
for he kept repeating that I was indispensable for the Mozart and
Strauss operas, and that he had a surplus of sopranos for the
Italian and French ones."
Yet Ms. Della Casa rarely bickered or engaged in offstage dramatics.
In an opera world notorious for outsize egos and histrionic
rivalries, her colleagues openly admired her. The Romanian soprano
Maria Cebotari, famous for her portrayal of Arabella in the 1940s,
lobbied for the young Ms. Della Casa to sing alongside her in the
role of Zdenka. "I'll put my hand in the fire for her," Ms. Cebotari
told a Vienna opera manager who was skeptical of this relatively
unknown soprano's talent.
Ms. Della Casa was also admired for her glamorous good looks. The
German soprano Anneliese Rothenberger compared her to Elizabeth
Still, at 55 and at the height of her career, she abruptly announced
her retirement in 1974 after singing her last Arabella at the Vienna
State Opera. She then retreated with her husband, Dragan Debeljevic,
and their daughter, Vesna, who was often in poor health, to their
castle near Lake Constance in Switzerland. She offered no public
explanations, nor was she ever tempted into recitals or master
Lisa Della Casa was born on Feb. 2, 1919, in Burgdorf, near Bern, to
an Italian-Swiss father, an ophthalmologist, and a Bavarian-born
mother, who ran a restaurant. Her parents, both musically inclined,
encouraged her to pursue an opera career. At 15 she began vocal
studies at the Zurich Conservatory under Margarete Haeser, her only
teacher, who instructed her in a mixture of bel canto and Strauss.
Ms. Della Casa made her debut in 1941 in the title role of Puccini's
"Madama Butterfly" at the Solothurn-Biel Municipal Theater in
Switzerland. Only two years later she joined the ensemble of the
Zurich Municipal Opera House, making her debut as Annina in "Der
Rosenkavalier," a role written for a mezzo. At the Zurich Opera she
went on to perform most notably as the Queen of the Night in "The
Magic Flute" and Dorabella in "Così Fan Tutte."
After World War II Ms. Della Casa moved on to the more prominent
opera stages of Austria. She appeared first at the Salzburg Festival
in 1947 as Zdenka in "Arabella"; after hearing her premiere
performance, Richard Strauss himself asserted, "The little Della
Casa will one day be Arabella!" In the fall of 1947 she made her
debut as Gilda in Verdi's "Rigoletto" at the Vienna State Opera,
where she remained an ensemble member for 27 years.
After a brief first marriage that ended in divorce, Ms. Della Casa
wed Mr. Debeljevic, a Yugoslav journalist and violinist, in 1949. He
largely dedicated himself to managing her career and helping to care
for Vesna, their only child. (Information on her survivors was not
In 1953 Ms. Della Casa made her debut as the Countess Almaviva at
the Metropolitan Opera, where she continued to perform until 1968.
Her early Met performances as Donna Elvira and Madama Butterfly did
not impress the New York critics. But she hit her stride with
"There was a youth in her movement and a beauty in her appearance
that might well have driven Vienna's gay blades wild," Howard
Taubman of The New York Times wrote in 1957. "And her singing was
unfailingly lovely--accurate, well focused and sensitively
In the late 1960s Ms. Della Casa began to cut back her performances,
particularly after her daughter suffered a near-fatal aneurysm in
1970. But the opera world was stunned four years later when she
decided to retire. She spent the rest of her life with her family
between their castle and a villa on the Mediterranean coast of
"The strange thing about a singer's destiny," she told Mr. Rasponi,
"is that you have to renounce everything for its sake, and then it's
all over in a flash."