A chameleon-like artist, mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Höngen covered nearly the entire spectrum of roles written for her voice register. From Lady Macbeth to Marcellina in Mozart's Figaro, from Carmen to an Orfeo of spiritual probity, she impersonated her every role with a conviction that seemed to change her very physiognomy. Possessed of neither a great voice nor outstanding personal beauty, she bewitched her collaborators on stage, the conductors who worked with her, and intensely loyal audiences in Austria, Germany, and elsewhere. Not a superstar, she was an ensemble player and valued colleague. Fortunately, she recorded often and many of her finest characterizations were preserved in studio and live recordings. Even without the vocal resplendence certain other artists brought to these roles, her interpretations remain inescapably compelling.
Höngen was born in Westphalia to parents who valued music as a part of family life. She took up the violin at age six and studied piano as well. Although she had an inconsequential voice, she developed a strong desire to become a singer. Despite lessons in Wupperthal, which strengthened her instrument somewhat, it was not until after she traveled to Berlin to study with Herman Weissenborn that she found her voice developing. Learning to absorb the essence of the music and to always resist forcing, she grew into the singer who could undertake both parts requiring agility and those wanting dramatic power. Showing her parents a contract for the Wupperthal Opera melted their opposition to her having a singing career, and in 1933 she made her stage debut as Irmentraut in Lortzing's Der Waffenschmied. Höngen's scope as an interpretive artist soon led to a wide range of roles. When a production of Wagner's Ring brought a near wholesale importation of artists from the Berlin Staatsoper, she alone of the Wupperthal company was assigned major roles, singing all the principal mezzo parts, Rheingold through Götterdämmerung.
From 1935 through 1940, Höngen was at Düsseldorf before responding to a call from Dresden where she continued adding to her repertory and collaborating with Germany's most celebrated artists. In 1943, Höngen accepted an invitation to become a company member at the Vienna Staatsoper and, after a successful debut as Ortrud, remained there until her retirement in 1971. In Vienna, she sang an extensive variety of roles, undertaking Verdi (Amneris, Azucena, Eboli and Ulrica as well as Lady Macbeth) in addition to Strauss, Wagner, and Mozart. A favorite role of hers was Dorabella in Così fan tutte where her gift for comedy was afforded an incomparable setting. Among her Strauss creations, the Nurse in Die Frau ohne Schatten became as incisive an impersonation as her giddy Clairon in Capriccio. The two addled mothers in Salome and Elektra also became largely Höngen's property in Vienna and they both figured in her single season at the Metropolitan Opera in 1952. In addition to Herodias and Clitemnestre, Höngen sang her fervent Waltraute. Ten performances in all represented her entire Met career.
As disappointing as her short-lived American incursion was to her, the loyalty of the Vienna public was great comfort. She had been made a Kämmersängerin in 1947 and was equally celebrated at Salzburg (where her Orfeo was revered). During her long career, she performed with nearly every one of the great conductors (save for Toscanini). She participated with Furtwängler in his La Scala Ring in 1950 and was one of a handful of veteran artists invited to reopen the Bayreuth Festival in 1951.