One of the great voices of the 20th century fell silent on December 15, 2010 when Hilde Rössel-Majdan left this earth at the age of 89 to grace a heavenly chorus.
My memories of Frau Rössel, as we students called her, are of an accomplished artist at the height of her powers, willing to devote hours and hours a week to imparting her flawless technique, her peerless musicianship, and her personal philosophy to a gaggle of aspiring vocalists at Vienna's Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst (now known as the Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst). In the process, she shaped generations of accomplished singers of Opera and Lieder who have helped assure her spot in the pantheon of all-time greatest singers and voice teachers.
I first met Frau Rössel a few days after arriving in Vienna as a newly minted graduate of Vassar College. Knowing that if I wanted to sing in the German-language repertoire I had better study somewhere in Germany or Austria, Vienna beckoned - onetime home to so many of the composers I adored and the musical capital of Europe. In the process, I might even learn to waltz.
As the recipient of a Maguire Fellowship from Vassar, my proposal for studying Voice at the Hochschule had been accepted. My entire future, including the funds for the fellowship, depended on auditioning successfully and being admitted to the Hochschule, one of the world's most selective music schools.
By the time of my arrival in Vienna I had made the first cut, based on submitting a tape recording. But everything would depend on a ten-minute audition in front of the entire Voice Faculty. It also meant lining up a teacher in advance who might be willing to take me as a pupil if I was good enough to get through the audition. My voice teacher at Vassar, Albert van Ackere, had reviewed the list of the Hochschule Voice Faculty and recognized just two names - Hilde Rössel-Majdan and Josef Greindl. "Go with Rössel-Majdan," he said. "You're a soprano and it is time you studied with a woman!"
I had sent her a letter, drafted in my best college German, to which I received a noncommittal reply. So on the afternoon of my audition, I asked the clerk in charge of sending the supplicants into the concert hall if he could point her out to me during the next break, before the group that would include me. A few minutes later, he pulled me by the sleeve until we caught up with a tall figure with gray hair and he introduced us. Yes, she had gotten my letter and she would take me as a pupil...provided I sang well enough. "Toi-toi-toi," she exclaimed and smiled, offering me my first exposure to the Viennese equivalent of "break a leg."
I tried to calm my nerves and to stop thinking about how everything hinged on this kind, maternal figure and what came out of my mouth in the next ten minutes. The pieces I had chosen, a Schubert song and part of Mozart's Exsultate Jubilate, were ones I had sung dozens of times. I hoped this would help me get through the ordeal with confidence and without forgetting the words. I sang my heart out, but as so often in performing, I was convinced that I had just bombed and embarrassed myself beyond redemption.
In the days that followed and as I waited for the results of my audition, I reviewed various scenarios for what I would tell my parents and the Maguire Fellowship's Board if I skulked home from Vienna, rejection in hand, career over before it had begun. Instead I got the best present ever when on my 22nd birthday a friend phoned to say that the list of acceptances had just been posted at the Hochschule and I was in! I was walking on air as I headed for the enrollment office and looked up at the white marble plaque over the door listing a dozen of the school's most illustrious graduates and my personal heroes, including Higini Angles and Claudio Abbado. Not on the list yet - Hilde Rössel-Majdan, destined to become one of the school's most accomplished graduates and respected faculty members.
Tuition for those of us who were not Austrian citizens was the equivalent of $90 a semester. An unbelievable bargain considering all the voice lessons, coaching sessions, and music courses I would be getting!
Despite the low tuition, the cost of living in Vienna was high and I needed to watch every Grosschen to stay within my stipend. For this reason, a vivid memory of life in Vienna is of bone-chilling cold and dampness for the period from October 15 to April 15 each year when an impregnable gray cloud parks itself over Vienna and the Danube Valley at the eastern tail end of the Alps' foothills. While I was fortunate to have my own apartment with bathroom and piano, its source of heating was natural gas - an expensive luxury but at least I did not have to haul firewood or jugs of heating oil up three flights of stairs to my flat. The high cost of gas meant turning the heat off at night and sleeping under duvets filled with goose down, emerging in the morning long enough to turn on the heat and then dive back under the duvets until the combination living room/dining room/bedroom warmed up. Staying warm during the day was not a problem, as I was either in Frau Rössel's studio, a Hochschule classroom, or the Kunsthistorisches (Art History) Museum, near my apartment, where my student identification card meant free admission to spend hours studying the amply heated and magnificent collection of Old Masters.
Frau Rössel's approach to teaching singers was something apart from anything I had ever experienced and from what her colleagues did. It involved showing up early in the morning, four days a week, at the Voice Department in the Metternichgasse in the Third District of Vienna. The Department was in a former palace with Frau Rössel's studio on the third floor, looking out over a courtyard toward the dome of a Russian Orthodox Church.
The studio was a small room with a Bösendorfer grand piano, a floor-to-ceiling mirror, and walls ringed with chairs. As I discovered to my horror on the morning of my first lesson, "studio" meant sitting all day with her other students as we listened to one another's lessons. I would have to start over from scratch, she announced. While I had a pleasing voice, she reassured me, I had no technique and without technique, no possibility of a career.
As it turned out, her teaching methods were ideal. I learned far more from listening to other singers and how she corrected their mistakes and suggested improvements to their interpretations, than I ever could have learned one-on-one. She was tough and unrelenting, patient and encouraging. Her standards of musicianship, punctuality, and dedication were the highest.
The 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.
Frau 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.
Frau 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.
Her 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.
Frau 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.
Although 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 mezzos.
She had 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.
I loved 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.
We did 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 La Scala, 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 absence.
My own 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 did not return for years. Frau Rössel sent me to her ENT specialist, a doctor to the Stars of the Staatsoper, 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.
We 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.
A 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 as 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.
Frau 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. He is a Professor of Voice at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg and is the Director of its International Summer Academy. For more about Wolfgang Holzmair, visit his website.
In 2015, my husband Michael and I traveled to Vienna to celebrate the 40th anniversary of my admission to the Music Academy and enjoyed a "mini class reunion" with Wolfgang Holzmair, including a review of his collection of Frau Rössel's recordings.