In memoriam: legendary opera singer Soňa Červená dies at 97

Soňa Červená

The Czech opera singer and actress Soňa Červená, who gained worldwide fame for her rendition of Carmen in the world’s leading opera houses, has died at the age of 97. Červená started her career in the early 1950s but had to flee the country due to communist persecution, only returning to her home stage after the fall of communism.

Soňa Červená | Photo: Czech Television

Soňa Červená was born in 1925 and started her career in the interwar avant-garde Liberated Theatre, where she starred alongside the legendary actors Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich. She went on to perform with famous actors such as the comic Vlasta Burian before becoming an opera singer first in Brno and then at the National Theatre in Prague.

However, her promising career was cut short by the communist takeover in February 1948. Her husband, the owner of a chocolate factory, was forced to flee the country, while her mother died under unclear circumstances after police questioning.

Album - Soňa Červená (1991)

In 1962, when she was performing as a guest singer in the Soviet-controlled part of the German capital, Soňa Červená emigrated to West Berlin through the last opened crossing in the newly built Berlin Wall.

This is how she described the circumstances of her escape to Czech Radio:

Soňa Červená | Photo: Adam Kebrt,  Czech Radio

 “First of all, I wanted to leave, and secondly, I just had to. I wanted to because I couldn't live and sing in a country that wasn’t free, that is simply impossible. But I was also afraid here, because my mother died in a communist prison and when I came under police surveillance, I feared for my life.”

After emigrating from Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, Soňa Červená was based at the Frankfurt Opera, but she also gained recognition for her guest performances in numerous opera houses in Europe and in the United States, including Vienna, Milan, Paris, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Soňa Červená,  The Macropulos Case | Photo: Aerofilms

The singer, known for her rich mezzosoprano, has worked with world-known directors and conductors, such as Rafael Kubelík and Herbert von Karajan. She starred in over 110 roles, the most famous of which was Bizet’s Carmen, which she performed more than 100 times on the world's leading stages.

After she retired from opera, Soňa Červená moved to the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg where she worked with American director Robert Wilson as an actress. After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, she returned to her home country and starred in Wilson’s productions at the National Theatre, including Karel Čapek’s The Macropulos Case.

Soňa Červená | Photo: Czech Radio

Červená, who last performed in September 2022 in the Saint Ludmila oratorio in Rome to mark the Czech presidency of the European Union, said she owed her success and longevity to her undying optimism.

“Of course there have been crises and falls and horrors. But I have always been such an optimist. I have always looked ahead with anticipation and never dwelled on the past.”

Soňa Červená - 'Je crains de lui parler la nuit' - Tchaikovsky - Pique dame