The 20th century produced many fine singers, but with her rich, plangent tone and keen ear for text, few are as instantly recognisable as Brigitte Fassbaender. Not only that, following a long and fruitful career, the Berlin-born mezzo pulled off the rare feat of quitting while she was ahead, leaving a varied and refreshingly flawless discography. This July she turns 80, and thanks to a subsequent career as an opera director she’s as busy as ever. But as the daughter of baritone Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender and film actress Sabine Peters, she might easily have followed in her mother’s footsteps.

Brigitte Fassbaender Brigitte Fassbaender. Photo © Siegfried Lauterwasser/Deutsche Grammophon

“I wanted to become an actress but then, still in childhood, I discovered something like a voice and I felt there was something special, something strange going on,” she explains over the phone from her home in Munich. “I always was torn between acting and singing, so I thought on the opera stage one could combine it.”

Moving to Nuremburg after the war, her father proved invaluable, becoming her one and only teacher. “We worked on technique and he prepared my recitals and my opera parts,” she...