Elisabeth Söderström was an opera singer and a singer of romances. She was best known for her performances of music by Mozart, Richard Strauss, and Leoš Janáček.
Elisabeth Söderström was born in Stockholm in 1927. She was the daughter of Emanuel Söderström, a merchant, and the Russian pianist Anna Palasova. Elisabeth Söderström’s mother was training as a concert pianist at the conservatoire of music in Saint Petersburg when she married Emanuel Söderström in 1925. Her father was a trained singer (tenor).
When Elisabeth Söderström was 14 years old she decided to begin taking singing lessons. Her teacher in Stockholm was the well-known Russian-born coloratura soprano Andrejeva von Skilondz. Her lessons followed the Garcia school method which was believed to help protect the longevity of vocal chords. This turned out to be true for Elisabeth Söderström who enjoyed a lengthy singing career. Elisabeth Söderström was also a pupil at the Ahlström school at this time, where she gained her school-leaving certificate following 13 years of education.
Following an appearance at a soirée at which she sang Russian songs Elisabeth Söderström was invited to perform in the Mozart lyrical drama entitled Bastien och Bastienne at the Drottningholm slottsteater (castle theatre) in 1947. This was her first official appearance as an operatic performer. Having initially intended to study at the Dramaten theatre school she was instead persuaded to apply to the Opera school at which she was accepted. The students were able to work as covers for minor roles at Kungliga Teatern (the royal theatre, now known as Kungliga Operan). In 1949 she was employed as stipendiary at the Opera and made her debut in the spring of 1950 when she unexpectedly had to cover for an artist in a performance of Czardasfurstinnan. This was the same year that Elisabeth Söderström was taken on by the Opera as a soloist and from that point on she remained faithful to her home stage until she retired in 1980.
Elisabeth Söderström also made guest appearances abroad. Despite being a mother of three children her contract allowed her to have four months off from her home stage every year. She spent the 1959–1964 and 1983–1987 periods at the Metropolitan Opera House where she also put in a guest performance as the Duchess in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. She made guest visits to several opera stages in America, performed several times at Covent Garden in London, as well as at numerous other opera houses and major festivals across the globe.
A significant number of Elisabeth Söderström’s English appearances occurred as part of the annual Glyndebourne opera summer festivals. Her successes there include the part of the Composer Ariadne auf Naxos (her debut appearance there), as Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, as Madeleine in Capriccio, as Christine in Intermezzo, and as Leonora in Fidelio.
Elisabeth Söderström stated that the most important role she performed was as the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavaljeren. She – probably quite uniquely – performed three leading roles in the same opera: further to her main role she also performed the parts of Sophie and Octavian. She also performed the part of the Marschallin in Paris in a production directed by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, whilst she first performed as the Marschallin at the New York Metropolitan in 1987. Elisabeth Söderström’s other significant roles include Leoš Janáček’s leading female roles in Jenůfa, Kát’a Kabanová, and Věc Makropulos (which was known as Testamentet in Stockholm). All three of these roles were released as recordings and gained glowing reviews.
Elisabeth Söderström was also a prominent singer of romances and she made recordings of eight acclaimed LPs of Russian songs, one of Chopin’s songs, as well as a prize-winning record of Schubert’s songs using texts by Goethe. EMI released an LP of Richard Strauss’s music which, after its great retail success, was followed up by a record dedicated to Benjamin Britten’s music.
Elisabeth Söderström’s versatility allowed her to collaborate in a variety of productions. She created the role of Clitoria in György Ligeti’s opera Den stora makabern (Le grand macabre) at its premiere in Stockholm in 1978. She performed the lead role in an opera that had been specially written for her, Dominick Argento’s The Aspern Papers, at the Dallas opera. A few years later this opera was performed in Stockholm, once again featuring Elisabeth Söderström.
Elisabeth Söderström has a fairly extensive discography. She also wrote two autobiographies: I min tonart, from 1978, and Sjung ut Elisabeth!, from 1986. She was the Drottningholm slottsteater artistic director from 1993–1996. In 1996 she was also appointed professor. One of the many prizes she was awarded was the Commander of the Order of the British Empire, the CBE, in 1985.
Elisabeth Söderström died in Stockholm in 2009. She is buried at the Galärvarv cemetery.