Erna Berger, Germany's most well-known coloratura soprano of the last few decades, indeed proved to have extraordinary musical talent even at a very early age. At five, she could happily render "Leise, leise, fromme Weise" - the prayer from Weber's Freischütz - quite faultlessly, and think up and perform her own dances. In short, she was completely enthralled by anything to do with music. At a later stage, she turned her attention to the piano with great enthusiasm and rapid success.
Erna Bergerís father was a railway engineer, an adventurous man who loved to trvel. He constructed a network of railway lines in Africa, leaving his young daughter in the care of her aunts in Dresden. At the age of 17, Erna happened to have the chance, through a friend of the family, to sing to Elisabeth Rethberg, the famous soprano, who immediately recognized her exceptional gift and advised her to join the Dresden Opera Chorus, where she would receive a thorough training with no extra costs involved. The young Erna was ecstatic at the suggestion. But, unfortunately, fate stepped in - her father decided to emigrate to Paraguay. The young singer's hopes of going on the stage were dashed.
After the family had finally succeeded in building up a new existence for themselves in Paraguay, after a long, hard struggle, the fater fell ill and died. Erna Berger was forced to find a job. She ended up as a governess on a farm owned by a French family. In her spare time, she began to take up her music again, eventually meeting up with a pianist in Montevideo who practised her arias with her. By the age of 23 she had saved up enough money to enable her to return to Europe.
It was on the long voyage back that Erna Berger made her debut as a singer. She relates: "I was travelling thrid class. But, naturally, during the long voyage I was drawn towards the music salon on the first-class deck. There were five German ladies who often used to sit there, and I sang songs by Schubert, Schumann, and Johannes Brahms to them. Apparently they must have enjoyed my singing very much for they promptly paid for me to go first class. The steward had, after a few days, refused to allow me to enter the music salon, as I only had a third-class ticket. So this was, as it were, my first fee!"
On returning to Dresden, Erna Berger took on an office job. In her free time she studied singing with the wife of the tenor Max Hirzel. In 1925 she could finally reap her reward: Fritz Busch engaged her as a soubrette at the Dresden State Opera House. Her first role was that of First Genie in Die Zauberflöte, then came the part of the Young Shepherd in Tannhäuser - which she was later to sing under Arturo Toscanini at the Bayreuth Festival.
Erna Berger did not have an easy start, but she knew how to get on - as is clear from her following anecdote: "One day, the soprano who was to sing Olympia in Les Contes d'Hoffmann suddenly fell ill. They were on the point of ringing up Leipzig for a substitute, when I intervened with: 'Why do you always have to send for guest artists? I don't cost as much and I can sing it!' After some debate, I was finally told: 'Alright, go ahead and sing it, if you can.'" That evening, Erna was rewarded with a standing ovation. She was equally successful in the next parts they let her sing - the page Oscar in Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, Ännchen in von Weber's Der Freischütz, and Blondchen in Entführung aus dem Serail. Soon, Erna had acquired for herself a considerable repertoire of roles.
Fritz Busch took Erna Berger with him to the Salzburg Festival, where she had great success with her portrayal of Blondchen. Subsequently, she went to Berlin, at first singing with the Charlottenburg Municipal Opera. In 1934, Wilhelm Furtwängler engaged her to sing at the Berlin State Opera. Here Erna had her greatest triumphs: as Violetta, as Martha, Gilda, Constance, Mimi, and as Madame Butterfly. On numerous occasions she sang the part of Gilda beside the great Beniamino Gigli who, it is reported, always sent her to acknowledge the thunderous applause on her own, so greatly did he admire her.
Erna Berger sang over 30 different roles at the Berlin State Opera House, including the Queen of the Night, Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, and Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos, and her fame was now spreading abroad. The following years brought her guest appearances in London at Covent Garden, in Amsterdam, Brussels, Barcelona, Salzburg, Vienna, Rome, Paris, and Budapest. She partnered some of the most famous singers of the day - Richard Tauber, Helge Rosvaenge, Peter Anders, Kolomon von Patacki, Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender, Heinrich Schlusnus, and many others.
Although Erna Berger could claim Norwegian citizenship - she married a Norwegian engineer in 1934 - and therefore could easily have left Germany, Erna remained faithful to the Berlin State Opera all during the war. After the final collapse, she was one of those, too, who strove so hard to revive music in the ruined city.
The war over, Erna Berger started out on a new international career. She was a guest artist at the Met for several years running, and undertood extensive concert tours in America, Australia, and Japan as a recitalist, singing Lieder. She soon became known at home as the "singing ambassadress". All over the world her clear soprano voice, capable of sustaining a soft lyrical legato even on ther highest of notes, was admired and acclaimed. But it was not just a voice; with each phrase the listener was aware of the deeply sensitive personality behind the voice. In the words of Wilhelm Furtwängler, with whom she worked over a period of nearly 20 years, she was simply "the best".