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 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 perhaps the greatest Amelia in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera 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 Dresden’s conservatory with Otto Watrin and made her operatic debut in that German city in the operetta Zigeunerbaron by Johann Strauss in 1915. Rethberg sang with the Dresden Opera until 1922. In that year, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Aida. 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 Strauss’s Die ägyptische Helena.
During the latter-half of the 1930s Rethberg’s voice lost its bloom due 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 a classy reminder of the Metropolitan Opera’s great period during the 1920s and early ’30s, when her powers were at their peak.
In her 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 Met 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, Un Ballo in Maschera, Simon Boccanegra and Otello.
Rethberg was married to the Russian-born Met comprimario singer George Cehanovsky (1892-1986). She died in Yorktown Heights, New York in 1976 at the age of 81.