Blame it all on my mom, my love of opera and vocal music. And on Rita Streich. For a birthday celebration in my youth Mom persuaded Dad to drive our family into NYC from Long Island to a performance of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte [The Magic Flute] by the Salzburg Marionette Theater. To my youthful eyes and ears, those two-foot high marionettes came to life, transporting me to a magic world of glorious music and remarkable singing as they acted to the 1953 DG recording led by Ferenc Fricsay with a cast that included a youthful Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Papageno.
It was, however, the coloratura glories of Rita Stretch as the Queen of the Night that grabbed me by the throat and elicited a “Wow! Music can sound like that?!?” In her famous second act aria “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” (often referred to as “The Queen of the Night’s Aria,” although she has another beautiful aria in act one), the Queen puts a knife into the hand of her daughter, Pamina, threatening to deny and curse her if Pamina doesn’t kill Sarastro, the Queen’s rival.
The aria begins: “The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart, Death and despair flame about me …” And flame it does, boiling over with piercing emotion and an astonishingly stratospheric F6 above top C, that both scared me and thrilled me at that first performance. An interesting footnote: a recording of the aria by Edda Moser, with the Bavarian State Opera led by Wolfgang Sawallisch, is included in a collection of music from Earth on the Voyager 1 satellite … stratospheric singing now way beyond our stratosphere.
Although I’ve enjoyed many Queens of the Night in live performance and recordings in the 50+ years since that first one, my heart still belongs to Rita Streich, the German-Russian coloratura soprano renowned throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s, who introduced me to the glories of the human voice. Thank you, Rita. Thank you, Mom.