bulk of my time was spent in Frau Rössel's studio during the day and at the
Vienna State Opera each evening, where a ticket to the Standing Room section in
the Upper Balcony was the equivalent of 60 cents. There was no better preparation for a career on the opera
stage than this - learning my roles by
hearing the world's greatest artists interpret them while I developed an
admiration for opera as a unique art form.
Rössel knew a few words of English but from the beginning it was clear that the
two students from Wales and I, her only foreign students, would be learning the
German vocabulary of Voice and mastering every bit of German text we sang. I was her first American student but not her
last, including Claudia Visca who has followed in her footsteps and taught at
the Universität. My Austrian cohorts in
Frau Rössel's studio helped me to pick up the language quickly, including a
wealth of slang and Viennese dialect that, to this day, conjures up a feeling
of home as nowhere else. After all
these years, it is the German term that first pops into my head when discussing
vocal technique and interpretation of music.
Rössel's vocal technique was flawless and transforming for her pupils who
absorbed it. It took an athlete's
discipline of training, repetition, honing, and pushing ever further toward
perfection. Involved were a combination of breathing and precise focus of the
sound, aligning anatomical components such as the soft palate, sinus cavities,
and jaw. Getting it right meant opening
up a huge voice range coupled with agility, while concentrating on phrasing and
legato singing. How many times did she
lift her long necklace into her hand and caress the pearls, one at a time, to
remind us that each note deserved full attention rather than sliding sloppily
from beginning to end of a phrase.
concept of the voice was big and sensuous.
By contrast, in the U.S. there was a backlash against the huge,
star-power voices from Europe who had dominated the Metropolitan Opera stage,
in favor of smaller, homegrown voices and singing actresses. Frau Rössel was having none of that. Big was beautiful, but volume was not to be pushed. It was all about contrasts, subtlety, and
harnessing the lush, big sound while reserving it for greatest dramatic effect
and husbanding the instrument for a long career. And so it was that she uncovered the big voice in me, the one
that had been languishing due to my earlier lack of technique. At the end of my first year in her studio,
she proclaimed that I was a dramatic coloratura - a soprano capable of
intricate vocal gymnastics and stratospheric high notes but with power,
especially in the middle range - and that I had better get to work learning
Mozart's Queen of the Night.
Having sung for decades at
the Vienna State Opera, La Scala, and other great European opera houses, she
knew the demands a career would make on young singers, both technically and
emotionally, as they strove to establish themselves in the cutthroat world of
classical music. She gave us
a taste of this on a daily basis.
Showing up unprepared, falling ill but failing to report in, displaying
over confidence or lacking respect for a colleague, all were grounds for a
dressing down in front of our classmates.
More often than not, the remedy for a poorly sung phrase or a ragged
exercise was Frau Rössel demonstrating how to do it correctly. The room would resound with her rich,
velvety contralto, soaring to the top of the soprano range or down to the upper
reaches of the baritone range as she demonstrated the correct approach and we all
instantly got it.
Rössel was a solid woman. She was not
overweight, just ideally built for the roles she sang, with the long trunk and
shorter legs typical of contraltos and essential for the challenging Wagner and Strauss
roles at which she had excelled. While she had
a commanding presence, she was not some temperamental diva. She was a down-to-earth mother and wife from
the wine-growing area of Sievering on the outskirts of Vienna. Her vehicle of choice was not a
chauffeur-driven limo but a no-nonsense Peugeot that she navigated with gusto
through Vienna's maze of one-way streets.
well past the retirement age of first-rank opera singers, Frau Rössel continued
to perform at the Vienna State Opera and I had the privilege of hearing her on numerous
occasions. What a thrill it was to see
her on stage in the evening, for the whole world to hear, after a lesson in the
morning meant for just a few of
us. On the stage she became the
character she was portraying, transforming herself into everything from a maid
to a witch to a goddess to a coquette, all convincingly. Frau
Rössel always said she would know when to stop performing in public. She didn't want to hang on like those
pitiful creatures, formerly sopranos, who as they got older and their high
notes disappeared, dipped into her territory and clung to fading glory as
no patience with the prima donna antics of some operatic colleagues, and
especially, of some of her budding students.
Her gray hair, coiffed short in a carefree style, her conservative
dresses or suits, her down-to-earth manner, set her apart from her fellow
artists and endeared her to her fans.
Encountering her on the Graben, one would have mistaken her for a
middle-aged housewife on her way to meet friends at Demel for a coffee and
pastry, not one of the world's most accomplished and revered opera singers.
She detested phonies and
loathed the favoritism and sexual politics of the music
business. National politics also came
into the mix in a post-war era for singers and conductors who had not opposed
the Nazi regime that had imprisoned her husband throughout the Second World
War. All of us in
the Studio became aware of those who were not her favorites, and took pains
never to mention them. The stands she
took on principle were personal, based on deeply held beliefs and may have
limited her career opportunities, but we respected her for them.
that she had an all-encompassing approach to music and pushed her students to
broaden their horizons, albeit seldom past the 19th century, which was just fine
with me. How often she would quiz a
student who had just sung an aria. What
was going on in the composer's time?
Who were the rulers, the literary figures, the great painters? Music did not exist in a vacuum, she
insisted. It was the product of the
culture and society in which the composer worked and so any interpreter of his
music needed a frame of reference to be convincing and successful.
have our clashes from time to time.
Being American, I expect I had a certain independent streak causing me
to question things that others readily accepted and to have a healthy
skepticism for authority. For example,
when I told Frau Rössel that I would be gone for ten days with Vienna's
Jeunesse Choir to Milan to sing Mozart's C Minor Mass with Claudio Abbado at
her reaction was anything but approving.
I had no business singing with a chorus, she warned. Fearing that it might be my only chance to
perform in the most revered of all opera houses, I told her the opportunity was
too good to miss and, with all due respect, I had decided to go. She accepted my reasoning and excused my
promising career came to an abrupt halt, however, at the end of my second year
at the Hochschule. A freak sinus
infection robbed me of my high notes and, even after recovering from the
illness, they never returned. Frau
Rössel sent me to her ENT specialist, a doctor to the Staatsoper Stars, who
informed me that he needed to operate on my sinuses. "Will I get my high notes back?" I demanded to
know. "Perhaps," was his
response. Not good enough. After a few more months of waiting for nature
to take its course, and with some disastrous performances in the interim, I
packed my bags and headed home. But not
before we had a final lunch together in Frau Rössel's home in Sievering. Even in the midst of my devastation, she was
gracious and encouraging. I would find
something rewarding to do, she reassured me, and the time I had spent as her
student would not have been in vain.
stayed in touch over the years and I saw her several times on return trips to
Vienna while studying law in Salzburg.
Even after retiring from the Staatsoper, she continued to explore wider
horizons, such as embarking on a program to train singers in Japan, where she
remained in high regard with lovers of classical music.
decade after leaving the Hochschule, my high notes miraculously returned. But having become a tax lawyer in the
meantime, it was too late to resume my training and career as a singer. That did not stop me from performing again,
albeit in a very limited way, in the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which served
the chorus for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Learning the score to Mahler's Second Symphony for a performance with
Zubin Mehta gave me the chance to pull out Frau Rössel's recording with Otto
Klemperer and the Vienna Symphony. No
one has ever sung the alto solo more beautifully or better evoked what Mahler
had in mind. Preparing for a
performance of Janacek's Glagolitic Mass under the direction of Simon Rattle
provided another chance to hear Frau Rössel's artistry while learning the
score, phonetically, to be sung in Czech.
Rössel's gifts to the world of music carry on in those she has taught and who
have become stellar performers and teachers in their own right. For example, Wolfgang Holzmair continues to
perform both Lieder and operatic roles at the pinnacle of international
acclaim and teaches at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. For more about Wolfgang
Holzmair, follow this link. And while not her student
while he attended the Hochschule, Drew Minter later discovered her
unique sound as he explored her repertoire (especially the works
by J.S. Bach) while building his
career as a countertenor. For more
about Drew Minter, who is on the Voice Faculty at Vassar College, follow this
touch with Frau Rössel in the last few years, to my profound regret. But she is always with me in spirit on the
rare occasions when I perform. Her
handiwork was evident on August 2, 1997 when I sang the National Anthem at
KPMG's Family Spirit Day at the Houston Astros. My accounting firm colleagues were astonished that I
"sounded like an opera singer."
They might have expected something closer to the Roseanne Barr version
of the Star Spangled Banner? My Rössel
training didn't let me down while having the thrill of a lifetime singing for
70,000 cheering fans!
husband, Michael, and I journeyed to Vienna in 2008 I had hoped to re-unite
with Frau Rössel and introduce him to her.
But attempts to contact her, including through her daughter, were
look back on the time I spent as Frau Rössel's student, I remain eternally
grateful for her inspiration and guidance.
First, there is the vocal technique that remains with me to this day,
whether singing the National Anthem for a sporting event or the Bach-Gounod Ave
Maria for a wedding. Twenty minutes of
warm-up and I'm good to go! Second,
there is the insistence on the highest standards of music performance for
myself and others. Being a performer
means dedication and commitment to the composer and to one's fellow performers,
not just showing up and getting the notes right. The same applies to building a successful career in the business
world (where the metaphor is more often a sports team but the outcome is the
there is the self-confidence that accumulates with mastering an operatic role
or a song cycle and then presenting it well to an audience. As a business person, I draw on that
training every time I "perform," whether giving a speech on
international business or advising a company's board on tax strategy. Fourth, there is the passion for the arts as
a whole coupled with a zeal for discovery and appreciation, which I hope will
never leave me. Now that I have reached
the age Frau Rössel was when she taught me, her lessons for music and for life
resound more fully than ever.
Rössel was a great lady, a superb artist, a gifted teacher. I am privileged and
grateful to have known her.
obituaries in German, follow these links -- Kurier
following is a list of recordings I own.
For a more complete listing, follow this link to the Deutsche National Bibliothek
Katalog des Deutschen Musikarchivs and
to purchase many of her recordings, follow this link to ArchivMusic.com.
Sebastian Bach, The Passion According to Saint Matthew (with Teresa
Stich-Randall, Waldemar Kmentt, Walter Berry, Hans Braun, Vienna Chamber
Choirs, Boys Choir of the Schottenstift, Vienna State Opera Orchestra conducted
by Mogens Wöldike), Vanguard, undated
Sebastian Bach, Magnificat in D (with Mimi Coertse, Margaret Sjöstedt, Anton
Dermota, Frederick Guthrie, Chor and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
conducted by Felix Prohaska), Vanguard, undated
van Beethoven, Missa Solemnis (with Teresa Stich-Randall,
Julius Patzak, Gottlob Frick, Chorus of the Musikfreunde, conducted
by Volkmar Andrae), Archipel, remastered from live recording
at Großer Musikvereinsaal on May 18, 1955.
van Beethoven, The Nine Symphonies (with Gundula Janowitz, Waldemar Kmentt,
Walter Berry, Vienna Singverein, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Herbert von Karajan), Deutsche
Josef Haydn, Mass in Time of War (with Netania Davrath, Anton Dermota, Walter
Berry, Choir and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Mogens
Wöldike), The Bach Guild, re-mastered 1993
Janacek, Glagolitic Mass, (with Evelyn Lear, Ernst Haefliger, Franz Crass,
Radio Symphony Orchestra & Chorus conducted by Rafael Kubelik, Deutsche
Grammophon), remastered 2003
Amadeus Mozart, The Magic Flute (with Hilde Güden, Leopold Simoneau, Wilma
Lipp, Kurt Böhme, Emmy Loose, August Jaresch, Paul Schoeffler, Judith Hellwig,
Christa Ludwig, Vienna State Opera and Chorus, conducted by Karl Böhm), Decca,
Amadeus Mozart, Requiem in D Minor KV 626 (with Wilma Lipp, Anton Dermota,
Walter Berry, the Wiener Singverein and the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by
Herbert von Karajan), Deutsche Grammophon, 1962
Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C Minor ("Resurrection") (with Elisabeth
Schwarzkopf, Philharmonia Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Otto
Klemperer), EMI, 1963
Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C Minor ("Resurrection") (with Ilona
Steingruber, Academy Chamber Choir and Vienna Singverein, Vienna Symphony
Orchestra, conducted by Otto Klemperer), Vox, Undated
Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier (with Maria Reining, Ludwig Weber, Sena Jurinac,
Alfred Poell, Hilde Güden, Anton Dermota, Chorus of the Vienna State Opera,
Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Erich Kleiber), London, 1954
Weber, Euryanthe (excerpt conducted by Meinhard von Zallinger)
Die Sänger der Wiener Staatsoper zur Wiedereröffnung des Hauses
am Ring 1955 (The Singers of the Vienna State Opera upon the
Re-Opening of the House on the Ring 1955), Preiser Records,