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The much fêted German mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender, celebrated her 80th birthday in 2019 with the publication of these memoirs, charting her life as a singer, director and in the latter part of her career, artistic director of the Tyrolean State Theatre in Innsbruck.

With a voice that was ample, warm and gravelly, notably masculine-sounding in its lower registers, Fassbaender was particularly applauded for the trouser roles she sang, including Nicklausse in The Tales of Hoffmann, Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus. On record, she participated in a galvanising 1973 Rosenkavalier at the Bavarian State Opera led by Carlos Kleiber (available on the Orfeo label) as well as Enescu’s Œdipe (Warner Classics) and Humperdinck’s Sleeping Beauty (Dornröschen, CPO). In the latter, she is appropriately terrifying in the speaking role of Dämonia, the wicked fairy (Fassbaender always maintained that acting was in fact her first love over singing).

Fassbaender’s father, German baritone Willi Domgraf- Fassbaender, was one of the stars of 1930s Glyndebourne and was clearly an abiding influence in Brigitte’s life. Expressing pride that Virginia Woolf jotted flattering words about her father’s performance at Glyndebourne in her diary, Fassbaender is apologetic that he ‘venerated the mediocre conductor and director Heinz Tietjen, a staunch Nazi’ and ‘nominally’ joined the Nazi Party to ‘help Jewish friends and colleagues more than he had already done.’ She is equally forthright about the sexual shenanigans (especially the wandering hands of tenors) that were part and parcel of the opera world until the arrival of the #METOO movement.

It was Fassbaender’s father who offered practical advice for her budding singing career, such as at conservatory, ‘don’t sit around in the canteen too much; you will meet frustrated and dissatisfied people.’ He also helpfully persuaded her that singing is a ‘high-performance sport’ for which one must remain fit and make personal sacrifices. She duly followed his wise counsel.

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica


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