The German soprano Elisabeth Rethberg (22 September 1894 – 6 June 1976) was an opera singer of international repute active from the period of the First World War through to the early 1940s. Some hailed her as the greatest soprano of her day. (Her chief contemporary rival at the New York Metropolitan Opera was the Italian-American soprano Rosa Ponselle, who possessed a bigger and darker-hued voice.)
While she did not break any new ground dramatically or vocally, Rethberg was just as much at home singing in Italian or German. She employed her pure, stunningly beautiful and good-sized lyric voice with such focus that she never seems obscured in old recordings by either loud orchestras or larger-voiced partners. She slotted ideally into delicate Mozartian roles yet was one of the greatest Verdi sopranos that the Metropolitan Opera has ever known. Her singing of the more lyrical Wagnerian soprano parts such as Sieglinde, Eva, Elsa, and Elisabeth was unsurpassed in its day and probably since.
Rethberg was born Elisabeth Sättler in Schwarzenberg. She studied at the conservatory in Dresden with Otto Watrin, and she made her operatic debut in that German city opposite Richard Tauber in 1915 in the operetta Der Zigeunerbaron by Johann Strauss II. Rethberg sang with the Dresden Opera until 1922. In that year, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Aida in Giuseppe Verdi's opera of that name. She moved to the USA and remained with the Metropolitan for 20 seasons, singing some 30 roles on stage and in the recording studio, opposite such famous tenor colleagues as Beniamino Gigli, Giovanni Martinelli and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. She also was engaged by London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where she sang in 1925 and in 1934-1939. The Salzburg Festival in Austria heard her too, as did audiences in Milan and elsewhere in Europe. Rethberg returned often to Dresden where, in 1928, she created the title role in Richard Strauss's Die ägyptische Helena.
The brilliantly dynamic if dictatorial Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini was a particular admirer of Rethberg's vocal talent.
During the latter half of the 1930s, Rethberg's voice lost some of its bloom, owing perhaps to the repeated singing of Aida and other heavy roles. She retired from the stage in 1942. Yet even at her least impressive (for example, in a 1942 recording of Verdi's Otello), she remained a well-schooled singer and an elegant reminder of the Metropolitan Opera's great period during the 1920s and early 1930s, when her powers were at their peak.
In her magnificent prime, Rethberg was remarkable for the combination of a seemingly delicate, feminine sound with a capacity for great vocal intensity, to which she added impressive breath control and dynamic light and shade (from piano to forte notes). She made many splendid recordings of arias and ensemble pieces in Germany and the United States between 1921 and the outbreak of the Second World War. Many of these are available on modern CD transfers.
The most fascinating records of her art, however, may be the live Metropolitan recordings that capture her (admittedly, past her zenith) in complete operas by Mozart, Verdi and Wagner. These recordings are somewhat difficult to obtain in America because the Met forbids their sale in the United States, owing to royalty concerns. They include Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Verdi's Il Trovatore, Simon Boccanegra and Otello.
- JB Steane. Voices: singers and critics. London: Duckworth; 1992: pp.125–135.