Waltraud Meier was already active as a singer in her youth, singing in numerous choral groups and taking singing lessons at university (where she studied English and Romance languages) firstly with Anton Theisen and, after his death, with Dietger Jacob in Cologne. Having sung in the chorus of the Würzburg Municipal Theatre, she made her solo debut there in 1976, as Lola / Cavalleria rusticana. At Würzburg between 1976 and 1978 Meier sang such roles as Cherubino / Le nozze di Figaro, Niklausse / Les Contes d’Hoffmann and Concepción / L’Heure Espagnole.
It was in Mannheim, where she was a member of the Opera between 1978 and 1980, that Meier sang her first Wagnerian roles. These were Fricka and Waltraute / Der Ring des Nibelungen; and here too she sang the title part in Carmen and Octavian / Der Rosenkavalier. From 1980 to 1983 she was with the Dortmund Opera, where she sang Kundry / Parsifal, Eboli / Don Carlo and Santuzza / Cavalleria rusticana.
Meier’s international debut was as Fricka at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires in 1980; but her major breakthrough came in 1983 when, having on her own initiative telephoned the Bayreuth Festival for an audition, she was hired to sing Kundry. Great success and immediate fame followed, with Bayreuth becoming Meier’s artistic home. Here she sang Kundry (1983–1993), Brangäne / Tristan und Isolde (1985), Isolde / Tristan und Isolde (1993–1999), Sieglinde / Die Walküre (2000) and Waltraute before leaving Bayreuth in 2000 following a disagreement with the Festival’s management.
During this period Meier was a member of the Hanover Opera for the 1983–1984 season and sang with the Stuttgart Opera between 1985 and 1988. She made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1987 as Fricka, with James Levine directing his first Das Rheingold. The following year she sang Kundry at the Royal Opera House, London with Bernard Haitink conducting; while in Europe she appeared regularly at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, the Vienna State Opera, La Scala, Milan and the Paris Opera. At the Met she sang Kundry for the first time in 1992 and Santuzza in 1993, a performance which the New York Times hailed as ‘superb’.
Throughout this time Meier worked closely with Daniel Barenboim, not only at Bayreuth but elsewhere: for instance singing Marie / Wozzeck with the Berlin State Opera in 1994 and Leonore / Fidelio at the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1998, the year in which she made her Munich debut as Ortrud / Lohengrin. She sang Isolde at the Salzburg Festival in 2000 with Lorin Maazel conducting and in 2001 opened the Munich Opera Festival as Dido / Les Troyens under Zubin Mehta.
Meier devoted the 2003–2004 season entirely to recitals and concerts, singing not only works by Schubert, Brahms and Wolf but also Bach’s St Matthew Passion throughout Europe, Russia and the United States. She returned to the operatic stage the following season, as Carmen in Dresden; and in 2005 sang Isolde in a new production at the Paris Opera conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Her Kundry at the Met in 2006 ignited the critics, with the New York Times describing her assumption of the role as ‘propelling herself into it like a wide-bore, high-explosive cannon shell.’ The same newspaper hailed as ‘perfect’ her performance as Venus / Tannhäuser at Baden-Baden in 2008. Continuing to expand her repertoire, Meier tackled Klytaemnestra / Elektra at the Salzburg Festival in 2010.
Essentially a mezzo-soprano with sufficient flexibility at the top of her voice to allow her to sing dramatic soprano roles from time to time (such as Leonore / Fidelio), Meier at her best combines a floating expressivity with a seemingly effortless ability to cut through orchestral textures. Dramatically she is one of the finest singing actors of her generation and one who can generate great intensity of emotion on stage.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).