MARITA NAPIER, soprano, born 16 February 1939 (Johannesburg), died 10 April 2004 (Cape Town)
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The following is an article written by Henning Viljoen, and taken from Scenaria magazine (August 1984)
Marita Napier is currently regarded internationally as being the greatest opera singer to have emanated from South Africa. Apart from singing at virtually all the best known and prestigious opera festivals in the world – Bayreuth, Aix-en-Provence, Orange, Verona, München, Wiener Festwochen, Maggio Musicale Florence, and Tanglewood – she has also conquered the most famous big opera houses of the world, such as Hamburg, München, Berlin, Vienna, La Scala, Paris, Covent Garden, Liceo, Teatro Colon, and San Francisco. The sole exception to the list is the Metropolitan Opera, where she will make her debut in 1986.
Marita (née Jacobs) was born in Johannesburg and matriculated at the DF Malan High School. As a child of three she commenced ballet classes together with her elder sister. She later changed to piano lessons receiving her first instruction and musical background from Olive Liebertz. After leaving school she befriended a music enthusiast, Maartin Coetzee, who was at that time working at the SABC. He introduced her to a musical world which stimulated her to start singing lessons with Stella Cavalli. This circle of friends led to her first singing engagement in 1963 in Handel’s Xerxes, which was to be followed by performances of the opera Die Swart Spinnekop [The Black Spider]. These operas were conducted by Bruno Peyer and produced by Peter Haffter. She also joined a vocal quartet, which was invited to do the solo parts in various choral works by Bach and Handel. Two other members of the quartet coincidentally were also named Jacobs, although they were not related to one another, and since Marita had not at that stage envisaged an international singing career for herself, believing instead that she would most likely remain a member of the quartet, she decided to change her surname to Napier, the name of one of her forefathers, in order to avoid confusion. During this period, she developed a burning desire to make singing her career, and to receive proper training in Europe. This resulted in a tremendous effort on her part to save enough money for at least two years of study in Europe. The final impetus came from a concert given by Reneè Webb, who had just returned from studying in Germany. Marita was so impressed by Miss Webb’s technique that she decided to go to the same teacher, Prof Theo Lindenbaum, in Detmold, Germany. Although she and Maartin Coetzee decided to embark on this adventure together, she eventually went alone, and he followed a few years later. On leaving South Africa in 1966 she set herself a target of two years in which to gain some indication of her recognition as an opera singer, failing which she fully intended to return to South Africa to train as physiotherapist.
She studied for three years with Prof Lindenbaum in Detmold, during which time opportunities to sing steadily came her way, indicating that, with a little bit of luck, she would be able to make the grade. The first big opportunity came when she sang the soprano lead in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in Dijon, France. This was followed by an invitation to take part in the Jeunesse Musicale at Schloss Weikersheim – a festival where young singers are offered the chance to display their talents. At this festival she sang the Verdi Requiem together with a talented young tenor, Edward Sooter, who is today the leading heldentenor at the Metropolitan Opera. Soon after her success at this festival, she received an invitation to sing with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium in Bielefeld.
This performance was received with critical acclaim, paving the way for her first permanent contract in 1969, with the opera house in Bielefeld, as the ‘jugendlich-dramatische’ soprano of the house. However, before she received this contract from Bielefeld, she was offered a contract by Bernhard Klee (the husband of Edith Mathis), the director of the opera house in Lübeck, to sing all the performances of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier during the following season. After receiving the contract from Bielefeld, Marita felt it would be better for her future career to accept the Bielefeld offer rather than the one in Lübeck, because she would still be in close proximity to her teacher. Klee, however, took her decision as a personal insult, and it was not until much later, when he conducted her performances of Ariadne at Covent Garden, that they ironed out their differences.
In Bielefeld, Marita sang her first Lady Macbeth (Macbeth), Abigaile (Nabucco) and Venus (Tannhäuser), as well as the Second Lady in Die Zauberflöte. At the rehearsal of Die Zauberflöte, she met her future husband, the lyric tenor Wolfram Assmann, who was singing the role of Tamino. This Zauberflöte, the Nabucco (where Assmann sang Abdallo), and Porgy and Bess were to be the only times that they shared the stage together. Soon after the ‘Zauberflöte-courtship’ they were married. In this ‘musical marriage’, although her husband gave up his singing career a few years later, he still remains her greatest admirer and critic.
Marita is presently changing from the ‘jugendlich-dramatische’ fach into a truly dramatic soprano. She has until now sung almost the entire lyric-dramatic German and Italian repertoire, with the dominant roles being Senta (Der Fliegende Holländer), Chrysothemis (Elektra), Leonore (Fidelio), and Ariadne (Ariadne auf Naxos), averaging more than seventy performances in each. Her favourite roles are Ariadne and the Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten, in contrast to roles such as Eva, Abigaile, Lady Macbeth, and Leonora (Il Trovatore) which she would not like to sing again. There are, however, roles which she would very much like to include in her repertoire, such as the forthcoming Isolde, and also Salome, the Marschallin, and one day when the voice has darkened enough, Kundry and Ortrud. Marita considers next year’s Isolde for PACT [Performing Arts Council of Transvaal] as one of the greatest challenges of her career and the fulfilment of one of her biggest dreams. She hopes that one day she will be able to count the role of Isolde as being her greatest triumph.
Looking back on her career, there are a few rewarding performances which she treasures for one or another reason – mostly because she believes that she sang them exceptionally well – the first being the new Ponelle production of Der Fliegende Holländer in San Francisco, where she was voted the best singer of the season. Another exceptional performance was a production of Elektra in München in which she sang the role of Chrysothemis and in which everything just seemed to collaborate to bring about the once-in-a-lifetime performance, also featuring Ursula Schroeder-Feinen (Elektra) and Astrid Varnay (Klytemnestra) with the great Strauss conductor Karl Böhm. There also springs to mind a Lohengrin in Vienna, conducted by Zubin Mehta, where she portrayed Elsa together with Christa Ludwig (Ortrud), James King (Lohengrin), and Karl Ridderbusch (Heinrich). Last but not least is her performance of her first Turandot in Stuttgart, where she had to follow in the footsteps of two great predecessors, Anja Silja and Birgit Nilsson. Apart from the near hysterical reaction from the captivated audience, the press praised her performance as being on a par with that of her predecessors.
Marita also had the privilege of sharing the stage with a very impressive list of world famous singers such as Birgit Nilsson (Elektra), Theo Adam (Scarpia, Holländer, Pizarro and Wotan), Karl Ridderbusch (Hunding, Daland, Heinrich and Hans Sachs), Christa Ludwig (Ortrud and Klytemnestra), James King (Bacchus, Florestan, Siegmund, and the Kaiser in Die Frau ohne Schatten), Peter Hoffmann (Lohengrin, Siegmund and Florestan), Placido Domingo (Riccardo), and Spas Wenkoff (Tannhäuser) to name only a few.
However, one partnership is quite exceptional – the one with Leonie Rysanek. After Marita’s Bayreuth debut she was frequently referred to as the ‘young Leonie’, not realising that one day she would share the stage with the person she was supposed to succeed. In San Francisco, Marita sang Venus while Leonie sang Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. In Marseille she sang Elsa to Leonie’s Ortrud, and in Cape Town she portrayed Brünnhilde to Leonie’s Sieglinde in Die Walküre. This partnership is to proceed in 1985 when both of them are to make their respective debuts in Jenufa with Marita as Jenufa and Leonie as the Kostelnicka in a new production in Marseilles. Another partnership which gave Marita a tremendous thrill, being a South African, was when she and Elizabeth Connell shared the stage at the State Opera in München as Elsa and Otrud in a production of Lohengrin.
She has also sung with almost all the great conductors of today, be it Karl Böhm, Mehta, Sawallisch, Stein, Leinsdorf, Santi, Janowski, Boulez or Maazel, to name but a few. However, one exception remains – Karajan. Karajan once asked her to sing the Queen of the Night very early in her career, which she did not accept, and since then, she was never asked again. Although it is almost impossible for her to name her favourite conductor, she says that she will always remember the wonderful rapport between her and Ozawa and Maazel.
Marita is entering the next few years of her career with great excitement, but also with apprehension. In September this year  she is to make her debut as Senta in Poland at the opera house in Warsaw. This will be followed by some of her regular contractual commitments at Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Berlin. In November this year she will sing her first Stabat Mater (Rossini) at the Alte Oper in Frankfurt, which is at present that city’s new concert hall. This will be preceded by a production in Cologne of Kurt Weill’s Der Zahr lass sich Photographieren, together with another South African soprano, Carla Pohl.
In February 1985 South Africans will be able to share in her debut as Isolde for PACT. She will also sing the title role in Aida with the opening of the Sand du Plessis Theatre in Bloemfontein. Rumour also has it that she will sing her first Elektra for PACT in 1986 with Carla Pohl as Chrysothemis – a partnership which will most probably also be heard in Durban with NAPAC’s (Natal Performing Arts Council] production of Die Walküre, with Marita as Brünnhilde and Carla as Sieglinde.
As a person, Marita is very reserved and reluctant to talk about her own achievements. She has only one regret, and that is that she has so little time to spend at their wonderful home in the Lüneburger Heide in Germany and their beautiful house in Marina Beach at the South Coast of Natal.