5 October 1930 - 17 April 2020


In the 1960s and 70s she was the "prima donna assoluta" of the Hamburg State Opera during the Liebermann era. Now Arlene Saunders has also become a prominent victim of the currently rampant Corona pandemic.

Born on October 5, 1930 in Cleveland, Ohio, as Arlene Pearl Soszynski, she discovered her passion for opera at the age of 10, and so she studied singing at the Baldwin-Wallace College of Arts after High School. Her first engagement took her to the National Opera Company in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she sang Rosalinde in "Die Fledermaus", "Donna Elvira" in "Don Giovanni" and even the title role in Cole Porter's musical "Kiss me Kate".

She won First Prize in a competition of American opera singers in New York and received a scholarship with which she went to Italy, where she perfected her vocal studies and made her role debut as Mimi in Puccini's "La Boheme" at the Teatro Nuovo in Milan.

Back in America, Julius Rudel engaged her at the New York City Opera, where she made her debut as Giorgetta in Puccini's "Il Tabarro" and was cast in lyric soprano roles, including Charpentier's "Louise" and Micaela in "Carmen". Another engagement took her to the Cincinnati Opera, where she sang the roles of Fiordiligi in "Cosi fan tutte", Donna Elvira in "Don Giovanni", and Marguerite in "Faust". With the New York Metropolitan Opera she went on the annual MET tour across the USA and sang Evchen in "Die Meistersinger" and Rosalinde in "Die Fledermaus" (alternating with Beverly Sills).

In 1963, Rolf Liebermann, Artistic Director of the Hamburg State Opera, was looking for talent in New York, Arlene Saunders sang the aria of Magda from Puccini's "La Rondine" for him and was hired on the spot. Hamburg now became her home and the center of her artistic life. With her newly acquired white sports car Karmann-Ghia, she loved to explore the city and the surrounding area of Hamburg. Her Hamburg debut role was Pamina in "Die Zauberflöte", for which she was then also engaged as a guest at the Staatstheater Stuttgart, and the Stuttgarters also invited her immediately for Mimi. In Hamburg, he made his role debuts as Marzelline in "Fidelio", Marie in "The Bartered Bride", Liu in "Turandot" (with Birgit Nilsson and James McCracken), Iphis in "Jephtha", Antonia in "The Tales of Hoffmann", Fiordiligi in "Cosi fan tutte", and Ann Truelove in "The Rake's Progress" (the premiere series was conducted by Igor Stravinsky himself).

However, her Hamburg contract gave her enough freedom for international guest performances, and so she sang Micaela in "Carmen" (with Marilyn Horne, Franco Corelli and Justino Diaz) in Philadelphia in 1965, Pamina at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1966, Marguerite in "Faust" (with Alfredo Kraus) at the San Francisco Opera in 1967, followed by Charpentier's "Louise" and Freia in "Rheingold". She made guest appearances as Mimi in Florence and at La Scala in Milan, and made her Canadian debut in Gluck's "Orfeo ed Eurydice" in Toronto. In Lausanne, Switzerland, she was Donna Elvira in "Don Giovanni" (with Gérard Souzay, Michel Sénéchal and Beverly Sills). She made her debut at the Vienna State Opera as Marzelline in "Fidelio", where she also sang Eva and Donna Elvira. In 1967 she signed a guest contract with the Deutsche Oper Berlin, where she made her debut as Nedda in a new production of "I Pagliacci".

In Hamburg she expanded her repertoire to include roles such as Tatjana in "Eugene Onegin", "Figaro" Countess, Agathe in "Freischütz", in order to finally switch to the youthful-dramatic soprano repertoire with Elsa in "Lohengrin" (in this premiere Placido Domingo sang his first Lohengrin). This was followed by new productions of "Arabella", "Ariadne auf Naxos" (with this production the Hamburg State Opera also made guest appearances at the Edinburgh Festival), "Tannhäuser"/Elisabeth (directed by Harry Meyen, Romy Schneider's husband at the time, which gave the premiere evening a special glamour, because Magda Schneider and many other greats of German film were also present), "Die Walküre"/Sieglinde, as well as her first "Tosca".

Shortly afterwards she sang Tosca in Cincinnati, where she also sang Mimi. This was followed by a new production of "Arabella" in Amsterdam, and she returned to the San Francisco Opera as Eva for a new production of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" (with Theo Adam and James King as partners). She made her debut at the Boston Opera Company as Natasha in the American premiere of Prokoffiev's "War and Peace" (directed and conducted by Sarah Caldwell), and in Washington she sang the world premiere of the opera "Beatrix Cenci", composed especially for her by Alberto Ginastera, with which the J.F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was ceremoniously opened in 1971. This production was later taken over by the New York City Opera.

Arlene Saunders has also appeared in two opera premieres at the Hamburg State Opera, in Giselher Klebe's "Jakobowsky und der Oberst" (Marianne) - with which the Hamburg State Opera made a guest appearance at the New York MET, together with "The Rake's Progress" and "Der Freischütz" - and in Giancarlo Menotti's "Hilfe, Hilfe, die Globolinks" (Madame Euterpova), which was also made into a film. Other opera films of the Rolf Liebermann productions in which Arlene Saunders participates are "The Marriage of Figaro" (Countess), "Der Freischütz" (Agathe), "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" (Eva), and "Arabella" (available on DVD from Arthaus). In December 1972 there was the world premiere of Paul Burkhard's opera "Ein Stern geht aus Jaakob" at the Hamburg State Opera, in which Arlene Saunders sang Maria and Vladimir Rudzak sang Josef, this opera was recorded for television and broadcast on Christmas Eve.

Another TV movie is Carl Millöcker's "Gasparone" with Arlene Saunders as Carlotta, Barry MacDaniel in the title role, as well as Martha Mödl and Benno Kusche (as Zenobia and Nasoni). During this time, Arlene Saunders recorded the operettas "The Tsarevich" and "The Count of Luxembourg" for Philips. RCA had already published Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" under Erich Leinsdorf, and Mozart's "Il Re Pastore" (with Arlene Saunders as Tamiri as well as Lucia Popp, Reri Grist and Luigi Alva).

Arlene Saunders has also been active as a concert singer, singing Beethoven's "Missa solemnis" under Leonard Bernstein at the Tanglewood Festival, Richard Strauss' "Four Last Songs" and Franz Schreker's "Songs of Walt Whitman" under Erich Leinsdorf at the Berlin Philharmonic, Haydn's "Creation" under Igor Markevitch in Monte Carlo, Beethoven's Ninth at the Hamburg Musikhalle, Geoffredo Petrassi's "Orationes Christi" under Massimo Freccia in Berlin; She has also given recitals in Hamburg, Hanover and Oslo with songs by Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Franz Liszt, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Silvestre Revueltas, Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, among others.


The 1970s and 80s continued to be highly successful for Arlene Saunders: At the Hamburg State Opera, further role debuts followed as Marschallin in "Der Rosenkavalier", as Countess in "Capriccio", and as Chrysothemis in "Elektra". She made her debut at the Opéra de Paris in a new production of "Tosca" (with Placido Domingo and Gabriel Bacquier as partners under the direction of Charles Mackerras), sang Sieglinde in a new production of "Die Walküre" directed by Peter Stein, and in later seasons also Chrysothemis/"Elektra" and Marschallin. A particularly acclaimed Parisian production was the ballet production of Richard Strauss' "Four Last Songs", choreographed by Maurice Béjart and integrated into the stage with Arlene Saunders, singing and acting in the midst of the dancers.

At the Seattle Opera she sang the Marschallin in a new production of "Der Rosenkavalier", this role also in Brussels and Stuttgart. At the Cologne Opera House she sang her first Senta in "The Flying Dutchman" as well as another new production of "Tosca". As "Tosca" she was also a guest at the Teatro Nacional Sao Carlos in Lisbon. In Turin, she took part in a RAI radio production of Hindemith's "Cardillac" (Role of the Daughter). She returned to the Vienna State Opera as Donna Elvira and as Elsa. This was followed by appearances at the New York Metropolitan Opera as Eva in "Die Meistersinger" (with Thomas Stewart and Jean Cox), and as Elsa in a new production of "Lohengrin" in Hartford (with Karl-Walter Böhm and Mignon Dunn).

Finally, she made her role debut as Minnie in Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West" at the Boston Opera. Minnie became one of her favorite roles, with which she also returned to the New York City Opera, which took her to the Teatro Colón Buenos Aires in 1979 (with Placido Domingo and Gianpiero Mastromei as partners) and finally to London's Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 1980. At the English National Opera North in Leeds she made guest appearances as Senta (with Norman Bailey as "Dutchman") and sang her first "Manon Lescaut" there in 1982. In London, she sang the title role in Richard Strauss' "The Love of Danae" in a BBC radio production conducted by Charles Mackerras, which has been released on CD.

At the Grand Théâtre de Genève she sang Elsa in "Lohengrin" and Marschallin in "Rosenkavalier" at the opening of the 1980-81 season.

Arlene Saunders made further role debuts as Nadia in the American premiere of Michael Tippet's "The Ice Break" in Boston, as Santuzza in "Cavalleria rusticana" in Buenos Aires, as Marquise in Verdi's "Un Giorno di Regno" at the Verdi Festival in San Diego, and as Giulietta in "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" at the Hamburg State Opera, where she continued to sing the Marschallin, Mimi, Tosca, Elsa, Senta, Chrysothemis, as well as Gertrud in "Hansel and Gretel" during the Christmas season (she was the premiere Gertrud in 1972).

This was followed by other interesting engagements at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Florence, as "Tannhäuser"-Elisabeth (with Wolfgang Neumann, Hermann Prey and Brenda Roberts in the other main roles), as "Tosca" at the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome, as Marschallin in new productions of "Rosenkavalier" in Boston, Bordeaux and Bonn as well as at the Viennese Festival in Minneapolis, and as Senta in "Holländer" at the Wolf Trap Festival. She made her Australian debut in the 1983-84 season at the Australian Opera in Sydney in her signature role, Minnie in "La Fanciulla del West", the radio recording of this premiere has been released on CD.

She retired from the international opera stage in the 1985/86 season as Marschallin in a new production of "Der Rosenkavalier" at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, in order to enjoy her private life, to devote herself to her numerous hobbies - including watercolor painting - and to move from Hamburg to New York. There she lived with her husband, psychologist Dr. Raymond Raskin, until his death in 2017 in a beautiful large apartment overlooking the East River. On April 17, Arlene Saunders, 89 years old, died in a New York retirement home. As an incomparable interpreter, especially of Strauss, Wagner and Puccini roles, she will remain unforgettable.

Wolfgang Schmitt