Gadski, Johanna

German-American soprano, 1872 - 1932

A stunning picture from my own collection

Biographical notes:

She was born in Anklam and began her vocal training at the age of seven in Stettin with Anna Schröder-Chaloupka. She was just 16 when she was engaged for the Kroll Opera, Berlin, initially for the purpose of singing one of the "boys" in Die Zauberflöte, but after two rehearsals management assigned her the rôle of Pamina instead, followed by the title rôle in Lortzing’s Undine . For the next four years, in addition to her Berlin engagements, she sang in Bremen, Frankfurt and Mainz in a varied repertoire which included Marguerite in Faust, Berthe in Le Prophète , Mozart rôles ranging from Cherubino to Donna Elvira, the comic operas of Marschner and Lortzing, and Bedura in d’Albert’s first opera, Der Rubin (under the composer’s baton). "She delights by her youthful, fresh, yet fully ripened voice," the Berlin critic Otto Lessmann wrote of her Anna in Hans Heiling in 1892, "her temperamental delivery, her lively and characteristic acting." She had no choice but to be "youthful" and "lively," as she was still 19 at the time.


As Isolde


In 1894 she embarked on extensive concert tours of Germany and Holland, and was announced as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser and a solo Flower Maiden in Parsifal at that summer’s Bayreuth Festival, but was obliged to cancel the engagement due to illness. Walter Damrosch engaged her for the opera company he was taking to America, and she joined the ranks of such illustrious Wagnerians as Emil Fischer, Rosa Sucher, Marie Brema, Katherine Klafsky and Max Alvary. She made her New York debut on March 1, 1895, as Elsa in Lohengrin. Initially, she went against the grain of the New York critics who at that time preferred new arrivals to have lengthy and illustrious European careers. W. J. Henderson in The New York Times found her "very light soprano voice too small," called her a "passable" Gutrune and a "tolerably good" Eva, and predicted that she was "not the kind of singer to make a serious impression" on New York. "Seldom can a review have been less prophetic," Robert Tuggle wrote in his Golden Age of Opera , since "this ‘small-voiced’ soprano went on to sing more performances of Wagner with the Metropolitan than did Lilli Lehmann, Olive Fremstad, Margarete Matzenauer, Kirsten Flagstad, or Birgit Nilsson."

She spent the next few seasons with the Damrosch company, making extensive tours of the United States, singing the "lighter" Wagnerian roles, Micaela in Carmen, Marzelline in Fidelio and Hester Prynne in Damrosch’s own opera, The Scarlet Letter, a rôle she created. The year 1899 was a major turning point in her career, for it was then that she made her Covent Garden debut (as Elisabeth), sang at Bayreuth (as Eva) and became a resident member of the Metropolitan Opera (again as Elisabeth, while the company was appearing in Philadelphia). She was to remain a stalwart at the Metropolitan for many seasons to come.


As Elsa


It was there that she advanced to Brünnhilde and Isolde, but continued to sing all the major Wagnerian soprano rôles (except Kundry), as well as many Italian rôles, such as Aida, Leonora in Il Trovatore and Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera. Her repertoire was unusually large and varied, and she managed to enjoy a great deal of public favor despite the fact that, at various times, her "competition" included Lillian Nordica, Olive Fremstad, Emmy Destinn and many others. Her versatility and reliability made her immensely popular with the Metropolitan’s management, but she left the company in 1904 over a salary dispute, and stayed away until 1907, when her demands were eventually met. In the interim, she made extensive tours of the United States and Canada in concerts, and appeared at Covent Garden, Cologne, Munich and Salzburg, and was decorated by Prince Regent Luitpold of Bavaria with King Ludwig’s Order for Art and Science.

The World War caused her considerable trouble, since her husband, Captain Hans Tauscher, was a German reserve officer who dealt in firearms, and was used as a patsy by Franz von Papen (then the millitary attaché but later Germany’s Chancellor) to supply German agents with guns and dynamite in an aborted plot to blow up Canada’s Welland Canal. Making matters considerably worse, when her husband was arrested, she was reported as saying she personally would blow up American munitions plants attempting to supply Germany’s enemies. Although her husband was eventually acquitted, and she attempted to claim a reporter led her into making her threat, sentiments ran high and the damage was done. When America entered the war in 1917, the Metropolitan dropped German operas (and singers), and her long career there came to an inglorious end.



The war forced her to remain inactive for the duration, and she did not sing in New York again until a Carnegie Hall recital on October 30, 1921, after which Musical America proclaimed: "Caruso arisen from the dead could scarcely have been acclaimed with more fervor." She continued coast-to-coast concert tours of the United States and parts of Canada throughout the 1920s, but did not sing again in opera until 1929, when a wealthy New York friend financed the "German Grand Opera Company," with Gadski as the star attraction singing Brünnhilde in the Ring cycle and occasionally Isolde and Senta. The company included many other important singers, such as Karl Jörn, Johannes Sembach, Margarete Bäumer , Carl Braun, and Ottilie Metzger, to name but a few, and appeared with great success in New York and in large cities and small towns throughout the United States for three consecutive seasons. Gadski had every intention of touring in a fourth season, even though she’d be past 60 by then, but died in a Berlin automobile accident before the tour came to fruition. At her funeral, the conductor/composer Max von Schillings delivered the eulogy.


As Valentine in


For a dramatic soprano of her era, Gadski made an unusually large number of recordings, and is one of the best represented singers on early discs. Ward Marston recently transferred all of her surviving recordings to CDs. Technology of her day made a voice of Gadski’s size rather difficult to record, but she and the Victor technicians achieved many satisfactory results. Too often, unfortunately, her top notes give the false illusion of being weak, when in fact she was obliged to sing them that way on purpose in order not to blast the fragile wax master recordings to pieces. This was not always the case, and some of Wagner’s most dramatic excerpts were successfully captured for posterity. Brünnhilde’s "Ho-jo-to-ho!" rings out fully and brilliantly in a number of versions, particularly the first (recorded with piano accompaniment in 1903) and last (made with an orchestra of sorts in 1916). Also from Die Walküre, by far the work in which she was most admired, she recorded "Fort, denn eile," a record remarkable for the drama and brilliance of the music, but also for the fact that she sings first as Sieglinde and then as Brünnhilde. But in a necessarily abbreviated excerpt from the third act, Brünnhilde’s pathetic appeal to Wotan, full of delicacies and subtle nuance, she has left us with one of her finest records of all.



From Siegfried she recorded the passage "Ewig war ich," which is perfection except for a less than dead-center high C. Then, as now, Götterdämmerung was not a work that took kindly to "excerpts," but she made several recordings from it anyway, including an unnecessarily rushed portion of the "Immolation Scene." She flies through the music at a break-neck tempo, which is a puzzle when one looks at an original copy of the recording, and sees that there was plenty of room to spare between the grooves and the label. From Tristan und Isolde, "Dein Werk?" is a splendid recording, and she attempted "Mild und leise" no less than three times. There is probably no one from the acoustical era who made a true success of this music on record, but Gadski comes close, particularly in the 1907 recording, when she rushes the tempo to save time to linger a while on the final F sharp.


As Brünnhilde


She recorded prolifically from her Wagnerian repertoire: Senta, Elsa, Eva and Elisabeth are all represented. Senta’s "Ballad" is one of her most successful records; there is no rushing of the tempo, and her tones range from bold attacks to a delicate caressing of the music. Four excerpts of Elisabeth’s music are magical for the same reasons, but she is represented on records in a variety of music extending far from the Wagnerian works in which she specialized. In New York, London and Berlin, she was famous for her interpretation of Verdi’s Aida, and this rôle is very well represented on discs. "O patria mia" and "Ritorna vincitor" are cruelly cut, but somehow manage to be effective, and there are a number of duets with the splendid Caruso, the majestic Louise Homer and the powerful Pasquale Amato that are revelations. Again with Amato, she recorded the Leonora-di Luna confrontation from Il Trovatore, which, despite its vintage, is considered by many to be the definitive recording of the scene. Unfortunately, Gadski omits the high D flat at the end, while her singing of this note on stage in the rôle frequently drew praise from critics. As Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera, she demonstrates the true art of the dramatic potentials to be found in the singing of "recitative." Mozart rôles, another of her specialties, too often sound short-breathed, particularly her "Porgi amor" from Le Nozze di Figaro and "Ah lo so" from Die Zauberflöte (sung in Italian), while the rest are frequently spoiled by the dry, gravelly singing of Otto Goritz. Elvira’s great scene from Don Giovanni is too abbreviated and rushed to be truly satisfying.


As Senta


Gadski is well represented in song as well: Schubert’s "Erlkönig"and Franz’s "Im Herbst" are among her finest records, as are other lieder too numerous to mention. Still, when one sees a program for one of her recitals, it is easy to resent recorded titles such as "Ave Maria," "Kathleen Mavourneen," "Annie Laurie" and their like, when on stage she sang "Morgen," "Für Musik" and numerous other fine art songs that were not recorded.

Still, with an output of nearly 100 records, of music ranging from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride to Strauss’ Salome, she remains one of the most successful recording artists of her truly "Golden" era.



The Complete Johanna Gadski Vol. 1 (2 CD)


The Complete Johanna Gadsi Vol. 2 (3 CD)




Johanna Gadski was a unique singer in many ways. She possessed a voice of tremendous volume and dramatic power, yet was capable of shading it with soft, subtle nuance and great delicacy of tone. The Brünnhilde and a distinguished Isolde of her era, she was equally admired in the operas of Mozart and Verdi, and was highly effective on the bare concert platform. She freely admitted that she loved her concert work best, as it was in this field that she was constantly on guard to give her absolute best, since she always could be assured that the audience had come to hear her and her alone. Yet in a distinguished operatic career that spanned more than four decades, her "leading men" ranged from Jean de Reszke to Giovanni Martinelli, from Enrico Caruso to Jacques Urlus . In an era of colorful and tantrum-prone prima donnas, Gadski opted to distinguish herself with the opera-mad press of her time as more of the homespun sort. Her lack of pretense and serene, un-diva-like personality delighted reporters and opera-lovers alike. Despite the difficulties she and her husband encountered during the war years, they became American citizens in 1925.

Dame Nellie Melba was the godmother of their only child, Charlotte Busch, who later taught voice and drama in Berlin.

 Fort denn eile (Brünnhilde in Die Walküre / Wagner / Victor 1909)



My warmest thanks to George Parous and Charles B. Mintzer