While best known for her Wagner and Strauss, soprano Leonie Rysanek was also greatly admired in the dramatic Verdi roles, especially Lady Macbeth. She had a rich, full voice that could cut through heavy orchestration, but was also capable of fine piano singing. Her first career ambition was drama, and she was known for her formidable stage and vocal acting, though some critics commented unfavorably on her occasional disruptions of the vocal line and extramusical effects to emphasize a dramatic point. Modestly, she declined offers of the heaviest Strauss and Wagner such as Isolde and Brünnhilde, declaring that Birgit Nilsson's renditions were the ideal. (Compare that to the feuding of many divas and divos!) Vocally, her middle was a weak point through the early years of her career, though it strengthened with time.
She studied at the Vienna Conservatory with Alfred Jerger and Rudolf Grossman, and made her opera debut at the Innsbruck opera in 1949 as Agathe in Weber's Der Freischütz. Her feminine and yet powerfully-voiced Sieglinde at her Bayreuth Festival debut in 1951 brought her to world attention. She made her Covent Garden debut during a Vienna State Opera tour as Danae in Strauss' Der Liebe der Danae in 1953. Her United States debut was in San Francisco in 1956 as Senta in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. Her Met debut was in 1959, replacing Maria Callas as Verdi's Lady Macbeth, though she was scheduled to appear later that season as Verdi's Aida. Though she had to win over a hostile audience, she became a Met favorite and for the rest of her career, was a regular there as well as in Vienna. In 1981, she starred in Götz Friedrich's film of Elektra, conducted by Karl Bohm and co-starring with Astrid Varnay. In the mid-1980s she began to sing mezzo roles, marking her 30th anniversary U.S. debut by appearing as the Kostelnicka in Janácek's Jenufa at San Francisco, and added such roles as Clytemnestra and Herodias to her repertoire. She retired as a singer in 1996 and became president of the Vienna Festival.