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The Berlin-born dramatic soprano Frida Leider (1888-1975) became legendary for her Wagner roles, although on the basis of recordings, her humane warmth and vocal ease were also stunning in Verdi and lieder. This first biography of the singer sometimes called a bel canto Wagnerian focuses on the tragedy Leider faced after years of singing glory, when the Nazis arrived to power and her husband, a Jewish violinist who was concertmaster of the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, had to flee. Leider was given misleading assurances that her career in Germany would not be impacted if she remained. Rieger, music historian and author of previous books about Nannerl Mozart, Wolfgang’s older sister, and Minna Wagner, the composer’s first wife, observes that Leider finally ‘gave up opera when it became clear that adaptation was not enough and that there was no politics-free space in [German] culture’.

Before realising this, Leider performed before appreciative fans such as Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Reich minister of propaganda, who noted in his diary in 1932 about a Berlin performance of Tristan und Isolde during which Leider sounded ‘like velvet, [Lauritz] Melchior like a cello’.

Eva Rieger is aware of the subtleties and ironies of some issues affecting German refugees at the time, since she herself was born in an internment camp in Port Erin on the Isle of Man. Her father, Julius Rieger, was a German Protestant theologian and anti-Nazi writer who had ministered to a congregation at the St George’s German Lutheran Church in Alie Street, Aldgate, just to the East of the City of London, before being interned with his family as enemy aliens. For Leider, as for her operatic contemporaries, obliviousness was a poor career choice, as she later admitted in her memoirs: ‘I just forgot that the world around me had started to burn.’

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Opera Now, 2017 - ©Rhinegold Publishing