Olga Maria Elisabeth Frederike Schwarzkopf was born on December 9, 1915, in Jarocin, Poland. She was the daughter of Friedrich Schwarzkopf and his wife, Elisabeth Fröhling. From the very beginning, Elisabeth showed an interest in persuing a career in music. She performed in her first opera in 1928, as Eurydice in a school production of Orfeo ed Euridice in Magdeburg, Germany. She was also in demand in concerts and local amateur performances.
In 1934, she applied for entrance to the Berlin Hochschule für Musik and was accepted. Elisabeth began studying with Lula Mysz-Gmeiner, who began training Elisabeth as a mezzo-soprano. Elisabeth's mother demanded that her daughter be transferred, and Elisabeth began studying with a Dr. Egonolf, who was convinced of Elisabeth's potential as a coloratura soprano.
Schwarzkopf trained with Dr. Egonolf for over a year before joining Berlin's Deutsche Oper as a junior soprano on April 13, 1938. Two days later, she made her professional stage debut as the Second Flower Maiden (First Group) in Act II of Wagner's Parsifal. Elisabeth sang at the Deutsche Oper for four years, during which she became a member of the German Nazi Party, leaving Berlin only to sing in one performance as Adele in Die Fledermaus at the Paris Opera when the Deutsche Oper went on tour in September 1941. She left the Deutsche Oper in 1946 and joined the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, where she enjoyed considerable success in roles like Mimi in La Bohème and Violetta in La Traviata. She left the company in 1950 to begin her international career.
Schwarzkopf is probably the only singer in history to sing under two names in a single performance. In Oct. 1941, she sang Adele for the first of a series of Die Fledermaus performances but was demoted to the role of Ida for the remainder of the performances. In retaliation, Elisabeth kicked off her shoe during a performance, damaging the huge canvas screen at the back of the set. Her punishment was that she couldn't always sing in productions using her own name. Therefore, in a performance of Parsifal, the role of the Second Flower Maiden (First Group) was sung by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and the role of the First Page is credited to Maria Helfer, Elisabeth's pseudonym for the month following the Fledermaus incident.
When the Vienna State Opera went on tour from 1947 to 1948, Elisabeth joined them and was able to travel to Europe's leading opera houses. With the Vienna State Opera, she made her debut at London's Royal Opera House on 16 September 1947 as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and her La Scala debut on 28 December 1948 as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. Her real debut at the Royal Opera House was as Pamina in Die Zauberföte on 16 January 1948 and her real La Scala debut was in a performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis on 29 Jun 1950. She didn't make her Metropolitan Opera debut until October 13, 1964, as the Marschallin.
In March 1946, Schwarzkopf was invited to audition for Walter Legge, one of the most respected names in the classical music recording business. She sang Wolf's Lied "Wer rief dich denn?" and Legge signed her to an exclusive contract with EMI. They began a close partnership and Legge became Schwarzkopf's manager and companion. They were married on October 19, 1953, in Epsom, England.
From 1960 to 1967, Schwarzkopf concentrated almost exclusively on 5 operatic roles. These are: Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, the Countess in Nozze di Figaro, the Marschallin (probably her most famous role) in Der Rosenkavalier, Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte, and Countess Madeleine in Capriccio. During this time, she also achieved great success as Alice Ford in Falstaff. During her career, Elisabeth performed in two world premieres. She appeared as Anne Trulove in the world premiere of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress on 11 September 1951, as well as the Second Page in the world premiere of Arthur Kusterer's Katarina on 14 May 1939.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's last operatic performance was as the Marschallin in Act I of Der Rosenkavalier on December 31, 1971 in Brussels. For the next 6 years, she sang Lieder recitals exclusively around the world. On March 17, 1979, Walter Legge suffered a severe heart attack. He disobeyed his doctor's orders to rest and attended Elisabeth's final recital on the 19th in Zürich, Switzerland. Three days later, Legge died.
After retiring, Schwarzkopf began teaching and giving masterclasses. On New Year's day 1992, she was created Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (DBE) by Queen Elizabeth II. Today, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf lives relatively quietly in her home in Zürich, visited by friends and a few pupils, but she still appears in public whenever she can.