Rethberg, Elisabeth

German soprano, 1894 - 1976

The greatest Aida of her time

Biographical notes:

She was born in Schwarzenberg (Saxony). Her parents, whose surname was Sättler, were good amateur musicians, and, as was so often the case in those days, there was always music in the home. She studied first the piano and she reputed to have sung the Winterreise cycle at the age of seven! In 1912 she enrolled with the Dresden Conservatory as a piano student first (she was so talented that she originally planned to become a concert pianist). Eventually, her vocal coach, Otto Watrin, persuaded her otherwise.  In 1915, at the age of twenty-one, she made her debut at the Dresdener Hofoper as Arsena in Zigeunerbaron. Her exceptional musicality and her ability to learn new rôles rapidly, enabled her to build up a considerable repertoire. By the time she left Dresden in 1922, her repertory included more than 100 rôles! In 1923 she and her teacher Otto Watrin travelled to New York and headed straight away for the Met, where an Aida rehearsal was underway. Still in her travelling clothes, she auditioned for Aida’s Ritorna vincitor. She remained on the roster of the Met for the next twenty seasons. She appeared as Aida, Desdemona, Leonora in La Forza del Destino and Il Trovatore, Santuzza, but also Donna Anna, Sieglinde, Agathe, Pamina, Elsa and Rachel in La Juive. She was never much of an actress. To some extent she compensated with her voice. Toscanini compared her voice to a finely played Stradivarius. The “Guild of Singing Teachers of America” had voted hers the most perfect voice in the world (1928). She frequently returned to Dresden where special “Rethberg weeks” were organized.  She also sang at the Salzburg Festival in several Mozart rôles. In the late 1930’s the decline of her voice accelerated (it is documented on the late live recordings), and in 1942 was brought up short in the face of her failure in a thoroughly misguided attempt to sing the Siegfried Brünnhilde. She retired, non too gracefully, that year.


As the Countess (photograph by Herman Mishkin)


As Donna Anna


“You might easily be reminded, by her phrasing of the art of a master of bowed instruments, so just is her sense of the shape and balance and musical designs, her delicate instinct for line and cadences and proportion.”

Lawrence Gildman, New York critic



Halévy - La Juive (Merola 1936 live, abridged/Martinelli)


Mascagni - Cavalleria rusticana (Papi 1937 live/Rayner, Morelli)


Mozart - Don Giovanni (Walter 1937 live/Pinza, Helletsgruber, Borgioli, Lazzari)

Naxos Historical

Mozart - Le Nozze di Figaro (1940 Panizza live/Pinza, Brownlee, Sayao, Novotnà)

Music&Arts Arkadia

Verdi - Otello (Panizza 1938 live/Martinelli, Tibbett)


Verdi - Simon Boccanegra (Panizza 1939 live/Tibett, Martinelli, Pinza, Warren)

Myto          Naxos Historical

Wagner - Lohengrin (Leinsdorf 1940 live/Melchior, List Huehn, Thorborg)


Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Bodanzky 1936 live/Schorr, Branzell, List, Habich)


The Complete Brunswick Recordings 1924 - 1929


The HMV, Parlophone, Victor Recordings 1927 - 1934


Recital - The Odeon Recordings 1920 - 1922 (and a few Brunswick recordings 1925)

Preiser - LV

Great Recordings


The Hugo Wolf Society 1931- 1938

EMI            Pearl

Covent Garden on Record Vol. 3 and 4


Met - 100 Singers


Grosse Mozartsänger Vol. 1 1922 - 1942


Ezio Pinza: Early Italian Songs


Richard Tauber: Arias and Duets


Beniamino Gigli: Victor Recordings Vol. 2


Mike Richter’s Opera Page: The Record of Singing Vol. 2 and 3



As Cio-Cio-San


“I do not hesitate to compare her voice to a finely played Stradivarius.”

Arturo Toscanini


In two of her Wagner roles: Elisabeth and Elsa


Elisabeth Rethberg is a “singer’s singer.” She is a master of perfect legato singing and of a wonderful messa di voce. Her head register is a miracle, and her impeccable phrasing shows her as a tasteful musician. Despite a rather light and “not Italian-like” voice, she was an outstanding singer for the Italian repertoire. Her voice can be compared to a diamant, whereas Meta Seinemeyer’s remind us of a ruby. Rethberg feels through the music and the words, but she never imposes too much emotion on them! From 1934 there were limitations. The famous critic Herman Klein had warned ten years before that she did not have the voice for Aida (“a lovely organ, skilfully managed”, but “too light”). However, she took over heavy roles as Rachel in La Juive and  (1930) and the danger was probably not clearly audible then. But by the mid-1930s it was (and in 1934 she was only 40 years old!). In the late 1930s the decline accelerated and she retired, none too gracefully, that year.

Many of Elisabeth Rethberg’s records belong to the most beautiful soprano treasures, above all,  her splendid legacy of recordings she made from 1921 to 1934.


Elisabeth Retberg, at the time when she recorded for Odeon

My favorite recordings:


- Duets with Richard Tauber (Odeon 1921/22)

- Heil’ge Quelle (The Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro / Mozart / Odeon 1921)

- O patria mia (Title role in Aida / Verdi / Brunswick 1924)

- Vissi d’arte (Title role in Tosca  / Puccini / Brunswick 1924)

- Leise, leise, fromme Weise (Agathe in Der Freischütz / Weber / Brunswick 1929)

- Einsam in trüben Tagen (Elsa in Lohengrin / Wagner  / Brunswick and HMV 1927)

 Euch Lüften, die mein Klagen (Elsa in Lohengrin / Wagner / Brunswick 1927)

- Aida - Nile Scene with Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and Giuseppe de Luca   (Aida / Verdi / HMV 1927 - 1930)

- Ma dall’arido stelo (Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera / Verdi / Victor 1929)

- Morrò, ma prima in grazia (Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera / Verdi / Victor 1930)

- Sieh, Ev’chen with Friedrich Schorr (Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg / Wagner / Victor 1929)

- Hat man mit dem Schuhwerk with Friedrich Schorr (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg / Wagner / Victor 1929)

- Johohoe! Tragt ihr das Schiff (Senta in The Flying Dutchman / Wagner / Victor 1930)


- Klänge der Heimat (Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus / J. Strauss / Victor 1931)

- So elend und so treu (Saffi in The Gypsy Baron / J. Strauss / Odeon 1921 and Parlophone 1931)


- Ständchen (R. Strauss / Odeon 1921)

- Traum durch die Dämmerung (R. Strauss / Odeon 1921)

- Italienisches Liederbuch - Several songs (Wolf / HMV 1934)


Mimì                                                      Agathe