The 20th century produced many fine singers, but with her rich, plangent tone and keen ear for text, few are as instantly recognisable as Brigitte Fassbaender. Not only that, following a long and fruitful career, the Berlin-born mezzo pulled off the rare feat of quitting while she was ahead, leaving a varied and refreshingly flawless discography. This July she turns 80, and thanks to a subsequent career as an opera director she’s as busy as ever. But as the daughter of baritone Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender and film actress Sabine Peters, she might easily have followed in her mother’s footsteps.

Brigitte FassbaenderBrigitte Fassbaender. Photo © Siegfried Lauterwasser/Deutsche Grammophon

“I wanted to become an actress but then, still in childhood, I discovered something like a voice and I felt there was something special, something strange going on,” she explains over the phone from her home in Munich. “I always was torn between acting and singing, so I thought on the opera stage one could combine it.”

Moving to Nuremburg after the war, her father proved invaluable, becoming her one and only teacher. “We worked on technique and he prepared my recitals and my opera parts,” she explains. “Always he was there for me when I wanted his help, and that was a wonderful fact up until his death in 1978. He was really my great mentor.”

Famous for her visceral, passionate performances, Fassbaender was also a great singing actor, so did her mother help as well? “She helped me,” she suggests, “but not in the case of working with me like an actor works onstage. She was very critical about how I moved, how I gestured, and so she gave me all sorts of advice. But singing and acting, they are another pair of shoes.”

From her earliest days at the Bavarian State Opera – she debuted in 1961 as Nicklausse in The Tales of Hoffmann, the first of a long line of trouser-roles – the unique Fassbaender sound was already in place. “I think it was there from the beginning on,” she says, “but the timbre also develops over the years. It was a special colour and I had it. I think it became a little darker over the years. A more powerful feeling in the body, I think, rounds the timbre as well.”

Vocal longevity isn’t just a matter of a good voice – she was also “full of scruples,” as she puts it, about choice of roles. “I always said no if there came an offer for Kundry or an offer for Ortrud,” she explains. “I sang Eboli and Amneris, but then I stopped these heavy parts because I wanted to keep my voice as fresh as possible for my lieder singing. I always felt with my temperament on the opera stage that I often went over the limit, but I always knew my limitations – what I should do and what not.”

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Her first Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier was in Munich, in 1967. For many, her signature role, it launched her international career with a Covent Garden debut in 1971 and her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1974. But for all of her acclaim in roles such as Brangäne and Orlovsky, it is Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther that Fassbaender cites as her favourite part, mostly because of its acting demands. “It was wonderful to sing,” she adds. “I love Puccini and Puccini didn’t write anything for my voice. Massenet is here something like Puccini.”

In a career with few regrets – “every part I loved I got to sing very often,” she says – the only part she wishes she had sung more is Marie in Wozzeck, a role she essayed only the once. She also took care not to outstay her welcome in those ‘young man’ roles. “I decided at the end of my 30s to drop Cherubino and Hansel. One shouldn’t sing it getting older,” she laughs. “Also, Octavian. I decided, I hope in time, not to sing it anymore. I found a simple explanation the moment I understood every word the Marschallin was saying in the first act. If one feels more like a Marschallin than an Octavian, then it’s time to go.”

For the last 10 years of her career she deliberately cut back on opera roles to focus on her beloved lieder. “I wanted to spare time for recitals,” she admits. “Thank God, in my time they had recitals in German towns all over. In lieder, I never felt a limitation of the repertoire. In opera it repeats and repeats. In lieder it’s never ending, you are always finding something new.”

Looking back, Fassbaender counts what she considers special collaborations with conductors on the fingers of one hand: “I was absolutely fascinated by Carlos Kleiber,” she says. “I also loved Rafael Kubelík and Carlo Maria Giulini. These three conductors I appreciated the most because I could learn the most. With Kubelík and Giulini, they were also wonderful human beings – ‘grandes seigneurs’ – and not only dictators in the pit. A lot of conductors are not loving working with singers. They think singers are stupid and only know their own music, so they don’t take us as a real partner. But even Kleiber took a singer as a partner if the singer was following him.”

Among singers, she idolises Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose recital programs she considers revolutionary. Favourite stage partners include Fritz Wunderlich – “such a wonderful, fresh and charming colleague, it was always fun on stage with him” – as well as Gundula Janowitz and Lucia Popp. “And my father! He was a brilliant singer. I have never lost his voice out of my heart and he’s still my greatest idol,” she adds, before offering a teasing codicil. “There are a lot of colleagues I loved to sing with and a lot that I didn’t love to sing with… but I can’t tell you that!”

She also talks surprisingly frankly about suffering from nerves as a performer. “I always felt like a lamb in front of the slaughter,” she admits. “The first steps out on the stage, they cost me a lot. And it didn’t get better. The more you are successful, the expectations are growing enormously, and the public pay a lot. You always have to give 1000 percent and that is very hard to do. I felt an enormous responsibility. I hated it actually. I’m still very nervous when I’m directing. A day like the premiere is not a liveable day!”

Following her stage retirement, Fassbaender became Intendant of the Tiroler Landestheater in Innsbruck from 1999 until 2012, while more recently, she has been Director of the annual Richard Strauss Festival in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. “I never had in mind being an intendant or director, but it was quite logical,” she explains. “I had – what we say – another leg to stand on professionally and it’s still going on strangely enough. I’m just working in Munich here, a Henze opera, Der Junge Lord. It’s followed by Lucia di Lammermoor and then in front of me comes Wagner’s Ring. If I’m still alive, I think this is good rounding up my life with the Ring.”

As for young singers, and the profession in general, she has no tips, but she does have some strong words. “Singing is a hard profession and you have to sacrifice a lot,” she says. “No Facebook and no ‘handy’ [mobile phone] and no computer laptop because that all takes you away from the important thing you have to do. Often with young singers when I am directing they only look into their ‘handys’. They Google through the world and don’t learn their parts. They are unconcentrated and don’t sleep because they play around with their ‘handys’. There is nothing you can change. You only can warn and put the finger on the wound and hope there are from time to time some people in the profession who really understand.”

As for her own considerable achievements, she’s simply grateful still to be working. “I am only happy that I still get asked at my age,” she laughs. “I am a very old theatre horse, but I am still allowed to say something in the huge world of theatre and that makes me thankful and proud.”

Deutsche Grammophon releases the 11CD Brigitte Fassbaender Edition today. Find out how you could win a copy here.