Historical Performances: Die Walküre with Nilsson, Hotter, Rysanek, Suthaus and Rankin, San Francisco Opera in Los Angeles, November 4, 1956

This is the fifth of ten observances of historic performances of the San Francisco Opera that I attended during the company’s annual tours of Southern California

On October 24, 1956 our mothers drove Stephen and myself from San Diego to the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles where I saw my first Italian Opera – Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” with Leonard Warren, Renata Tebaldi and Boris Christoff. Instead of attending the performance, our moms waited outside, and then had the pleasure of driving us back home that evening in pea soup Pacific Coast fog.

Not wishing to do that again, but not wishing to deprive us of our first Wagnerian opera, they arranged for Stephen and me to fly from San Diego to Long Beach (my first of what must now be zillions of airplane flights) and to stay with a friend of my family’s, a widow in her 60s, whose first opera, accompanying her teenage charges, was to be the San Francisco Opera’s production, again at the Shrine, of Wagner’s “Die Walküre”.

I have seen “Die Walküre” more than than any other opera (sometimes excepting Puccini’s “Tosca” – the opportunity and interest to see each of these operas seems to occur in a kind of balance with each other). The strengths of the first cast have been matched, on a role by role basis, in later performances, but at no time have all six principals had the collective lustre of this Shrine sextet.

Following two performances as Brünnhilde in San Francisco as part of her American debut, Birgit Nilsson’s third operatic performance on American soil was this L. A. “Walküre”. Her Wotan was the iconic bass-baritone Hans Hotter.

[Below: Wotan (Hans Hotter) explains the history of the universe to his daughter, Brünnhilde (Birgit Nilsson) in her American debut season; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Waelsung pair were Ludwig Suthaus as Siegmund and Leonie Rysanek as Sieglinde. Hunding was played by San Francisco Opera stalwart Lorenzo Alvary and Fricka by the much-admired Nell Rankin.

Suthaus, who joined Kirsten Flagstad in the legendary EMI recording of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, was at the height of his career, and sang with the San Francisco Opera in 1953 and 1956. This performance at the Shrine was to be his last with the company.

[Below: Ludwig Suthaus as Siegmund in the San Francisco Opera’s 1956 new production of “Die Walküre”; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

I never saw either Suthaus nor Hotter perform again, nor Rankin (who in the previous week had been my first Dorabella in Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte). San Francisco Opera was fortunate to have several seasons with either Birgit Nilsson or Leonie Rysanek or both, and I took advantage of that fortune as often as possible.

Nilsson’s roles included all of the three Wagner operas in which Brünnhilde appears, and Rysanek’s roles included Sieglinde. In fact, I saw Nilsson and Rysanek paired again in Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten” in 1980 with James King as the Emperor, Rysanek in her signature role as the Empress and Nilsson as the Dyer’s Wife; and saw both repeating their 1956 “Walküre” roles in 1981 with King as Siegmund.

The production by Leo Kerz (which I saw repeated in a modified form in 1963 at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House) was quite controversial in 1956, with one critic decrying having onyx steps leading up to Bruennhilde’s rock and Valkyries coiffed in pony-tails. By 21st century standards that production would have been considered very traditional – even conservative.

[Below: Hans Hotter, in costume backstage at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, wielding Wotan’s spear; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The conductor, Hans Schwieger, like San Francisco Opera’s General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, was a refugee from the chaos that befell Germany and Austria in the first half of the 20th century. He established his American reputation with the Kansas City Symphony.

By the way, the widow lady who accompanied Stephen and me to the performance, opined that although she was no judge of operatic singing, she believed that the women who were singing at that performance were the greatest voices she had ever heard. When, as an operatic novice, she selected Nilsson, Rysanek and Rankin as the subject for such praise, she certainly showed she had perceptiveness and taste. And the performance certainly did its part in assuring that both Stephen and I would be lifelong Wagnerians.