One of Mozart’s most famous, or perhaps it is better to say infamous, opera arias is the Queen of the Night’s Der Holle Rache from The Magic Flute.This aria, sometimes nicknamed the “vengeance aria”, requires that the soprano sing four F6s (Fs above high C). As if that isn’t bad enough, she also has to sing eight high Ds and thirty high Cs! There are only two ways of avoiding all these high notes: either transpose the aria or just don’t sing it!
Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to be a coloratura soprano and not sing it. The Magic Flute is one of the most popular operas in the world. Consequently, sopranos that can sing the Queen of the Night are constantly in demand. There have been very few sopranos in the entire history of the role that have actually liked singing it. Sopranos Beverly Sills and Sumi Jo, reportedly, absolutely hated it. In fact, Jo said that she would only sing it if she had taken a lot of ginseng! Even the great Dame Joan Sutherland gave up the role as quickly as possible. During the few performances that she did sing, she had to take Der Holle Rache down a half a step. In recent years, the most successful Queen of the Night has been German soprano Diana Damrau. However, although her voice soars up to a G6, she gave up the role in 2008.
Many sopranos agree that Der Holle Rache is harder to sing than Strauss’ Grossmachtige Prinzessin and even the colossal Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor. However, a soprano should not feel any shame if she struggles with or simply cannot sing Der Holle Rache. The reason why this aria is so difficult is because it was written for a flawed voice.
The Queen of the Night was written for Josepha Weber-Hofer, the older sister of Mozart’s wife Constanze. Mozart specially designed the role to fit her unusually high tessitura. Weber-Hofer sang the role, to great acclaim, for a total of ten years. However, music historians unanimously agree that, although Weber-Hofer had very good high notes, her voice in general was quite terrible.
In more recent history, there have been several other sopranos who, although successful Queens of the Night, continually struggled with their voices. One of these women was Slovak soprano Edita Gruberova. Gruberova made her operatic breakthrough singing the Queen of the Night in 1970. She was one of the few sopranos who routinely sang all the high notes in Der Holle Rache on key. However, Gruberova had a tendency to get rather shrill on sustained high notes and her overall vocal capabilities have been debated for years.
Another famous 20th century Queen of the Night was American soprano June Anderson. Her rendition of Der Holle Rache can be heard on the 1984 film Amadeus. Like Weber-Hofer and Gruberova, Anderson almost always sang the high notes perfectly on key. However, although Anderson could very likely sing high Fs in her sleep, she continually struggled with tremolos on the notes below high C.
Sources: Naxos’ “The A to Z of Opera”
San Francisco Opera’s Teacher’s Guide and Resource Book for The Magic Flute