Martin Kettle

Monday 23 November 2009 15.16 GMT

The Swedish soprano was not just a great singer and actor, but a
remarkable woman

The newspaper obituaries of opera singers, which are invariably written
by anorak-coated music critics, too often take a standard and not very
interesting form. Born. Studied with. Made debut as. First appeared
in this country as. Much admired in the roles of X, Y and Z.

Triumphed as this or that. Retired early -- or late. Much loved. Now
dead. Usually accompanied by a nice photo in costume.

Just occasionally, however, a singer is too interesting and too
rounded a human being to be confined within that dull mould. There
was an example of that last week in the obituaries of the remarkable
Armenian- Greek soprano Arda Mandikian, who I confess was barely
a name to me but whose life and art would clearly be worth a full
biography. Now, all too rapidly after the death of a great southern
European soprano, comes the death of a great northern European one,
and one who, like Mandikian, can simply not be adequately recalled
within the list of the roles that she sang.

Elizabeth Soderstrom was not so much a great soprano - though she was
one -- as a great actor and a remarkable woman. I can tell you when I
heard her first -- at Covent Garden as the Countess in The Marriage
of Figaro. And I can tell you when I heard her last -- the New York
Met 10 years ago in her farewell performances as a very different
Countess, in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades. I can tell you some
of the roles I heard her sing, too -- Melisande, Madeleine and Katya
Kabanova among them.

The feeling that touched an audience in a Soderstrom performance,
though, was not the response to the voice, lovely though that was. It
was the response to the person. Soderstrom possessed a remarkable
ability to communicate the personality of the character she was
portraying by drawing on things within her own personality. I do not
in the slightest degree mean that she always played herself -- as
Pavarotti did or Bartoli does. She could not have been more different
when she portrayed Katya or Madeleine. What you always got from her
was intelligence and empathy. You cared about her character because
you cared about Soderstrom. Everything she did was always interesting.

You could, I suppose, say that she was a superb actor, which she was,
but that would not capture the presence and humanity that she always
conveyed. She was a giver to an audience, all the time.

I was once told a story about Soderstrom that may help to convey how
her artistry burned. She was rehearsing the Countess Madeleine at
Glyndebourne under John Pritchard. The contract with the orchestra
meant that Pritchard had to stop the rehearsal on the dot, or else
the musicians would start qualifying for overtime, which could not be
afforded. The rehearsal went slowly, and had only reached part way
through the magical closing scene for the soprano when the deadline
was reached. In the pit, Pritchard promptly put down his baton. The
orchestra stopped and began packing up. Soderstrom, in full flow and
unprepared for the break, looked as if she had been physically struck
down by the sudden end of the rehearsal. In tears, she refused to stop,
and sang her part unaccompanied to the end.

She was such a nice woman too. I only met her once, at the court
theatre at Drottningholm outside Stockholm where she was artistic
director for a few years in the mid-1990s. "Hello," she said as I
arrived for my appointment, "I have been so looking forward to this.

Let's go and have some lunch and you can tell me about English
politics." She laughed a lot. She told great stories. She was a great
talker. Meeting her was like meeting a favourite relative.

Many years ago Soderstrom appeared on Desert Island Discs. Unlike some
sopranos, who choose only records by other sopranos and sometimes only
records they have made themnselves, I remember that Soderstrom chose
a wonderfully eclectic selection. One of her choices was a really
grungey heavy metal track -- I can't remember who it was by. Why did
you choose that, she was asked? Because my son likes playing it all
the time, very loudly, and it will remind me of him, she replied.

With some singers, what matters is the voice. With others, it's the
stage presence. Soderstrom had both the voice and the presence. But
she had something even more special, her life-enhancing personality
and warmth which infused every aspect of her artistry. Many singers
attract admiration. A few attract worship. Soderstrom, on the other
hand, attracted love.