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Sari Barabas (14 March 1919 - 16 April 2010)

Sari Barabas - Coloratura soprano and 1950s Glyndebourne star who excelled in Mozart, Strauss and Rossini before even greater success in operetta

Sari Barabas possessed an exceptional voice. Her gleaming coloratura soprano could easily sustain F above high C, and in opera she generally sang light, florid repertoire. Her sound, however, was also capable of greater sensuality and passion than that of any of the other celebrated high sopranos in postwar Europe. The voice had a kind of "flame" about it, suiting the flamboyant ladies Barabas portrayed in operetta, notably in the works of Franz Lehár and Emmerich Kálmán. This glamorous artist brought to opera and especially to operetta a unique charisma and a ravishing personal beauty that memorably complemented her singing, making her an idol of audiences throughout the German-speaking world where her career was based. A Budapest native and the child of music-loving parents, Barabas in her youth was a talented dancer, already performing at the age of 7. After an injury she concentrated instead on singing.

Several years of study preceded her debut at the National Opera in Budapest in 1939 as Gilda in Rigoletto.

The young soprano had to wait until after the war to make further professional progress. Leaving Hungary with her family (by horse and buggy) in 1947, Barabas gradually established herself with major companies, arriving at Zürich's Stadttheater in 1948 and the Vienna Volksoper in 1949. She appeared in numerous showy coloratura parts at the Vienna Staatsoper (1949-61), and during the mid-1950s she also starred at Berlin's Städtische Oper. Her closest associations were in Munich: with the Staatsoper (where she first appeared in 1949) and, above all, with Munich's Gärtnerplatztheater, which considered itself Barabas's artistic home. From 1954 to 1960 she was a member there - a house giving much attention to operetta and musical theatre as well as opera - and after 1960 she returned for guest appearances.

Barabas was heard in America as early as 1950, when she toured in concert and made her US operatic debut at San Francisco Opera as the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte. Her appearances in Britain began with two important coloratura roles, the Queen of the Night and Gilda, at Covent Garden in 1952. More significant in her career were her five seasons with Glyndebourne Festival Opera. She appeared there as Mozart's Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail in 1953 and as Strauss's Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos in 1957, but it was a Rossini work then quite unknown in Britain that did most to endear her to the audience.

Glyndebourne's artistic directors, Carl Ebert and Vittorio Gui, hoped to continue the festival's successes in Rossini with Le Comte Ory, for which they chose Barabas as leading lady. The role of Countess Adèle (which she had sung in this opera's 1952 Florence staging) gave full rein to her technical prowess, graceful musicality, immense charm, and utterly entrancing appearance. With the incomparable Gui conducting, Barabas gave the premiere of Ebert's storybook production in 1954 during Glyndebourne's guest engagement at Edinburgh. The soprano reprised her Adèle at Glyndebourne itself in 1955, 1957, and 1958. Her portrayal was preserved in EMI's 1956 recording, led by Gui with most of the same principals.

Barabas continued to appear in opera, but eventually attained even greater celebrity in operetta. Gifted with both the voice and the vibrant personality to portray Hanna in The Merry Widow, she scored one of her greatest successes in the role at Theater des Westens in Berlin (opposite Johannes Heesters (obituary, December 27, 2011), celebrated as that work's Count Danilo). Barabas's ease in popular repertoire, demonstrated in appearances on German television, did much to help her reach a wide public. Her performances in English included a return to London in 1969 to star in the operetta about Johann Strauss II, The Great Waltz, a long-running triumph for her at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

The singer officially retired from opera in 1973, but she performed for years thereafter - for example, in 1991 at Carnegie Hall, New York, where she sang a number by Robert Stolz for a gala celebration commemorating the 100th birthday of the tenor Richard Tauber. Her heart continued to belong to Munich's Gärtnerplatz, where one of her late-career successes was Hello, Dolly! in 1978. In 1985 she returned there in the speaking role of Princess Anhilte in Kálmán's Die Csárdásfürstin, the role that marked her final stage appearance in 2007.

In addition to Le Comte Ory, Barabas's operatic recordings include Die Entführung aus dem Serail (an impressive Konstanze, with Ferenc Fricsay conducting) and numerous excellent performances of "standard" coloratura arias, many accessible via YouTube. She also recorded much music from her operetta repertoire (most memorably Zigeunerliebe and Gräfin Mariza) and dubbed the title character's singing voice in the 1955 Powell and Pressburger film Oh... Rosalinda!!, an adaptation of Die Fledermaus.

Barabas was married in 1956 to another longtime favourite of Munich audiences, the tenor Franz Klarwein, who died in 1991. She is survived by a daughter.

Sari Barabas, soprano, was born on March 14, 1914. She died on April 16, 2012, aged 98

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