Auger was born in South Gate, California and lived for many years in Europe in Vienna and Frankfurt, finally returning to the U.S. to Hartsdale, New York. She learned piano and violin as a child. She received a BA in Education from California State University at Long Beach in 1963, and her first job was as a kindergarten and first grade teacher.
Between 1965 and 1967, she studied voice with tenor Ralph Errolle in South Pasadena, California, supporting herself by teaching first grade and church and synagogue singing jobs on the weekends. Miss Auger began her professional singing career after winning the I. Viktor Fuchs Vocal Competition in Los Angeles in 1967, which brought her some singing engagements and airfare to Vienna; she also appeared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at this time. She was signed by the Vienna Staatsoper soon after her arrival there—despite her lack of knowledge of the German language—after impressing Josef Krips, remaining with the company for seven years. Her debut was in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte under Krips. She made her American debut with the same opera in 1969, with the New York City Opera. Her Metropolitan Opera debut was as Marzelline in Fidelio, under Karl Böhm.
Given her background in education, Auger was a natural vocal teacher. Miss Auger left the State Opera in 1974 to pursue her burgeoning concert career and to devote more time to teaching at the Salzburg Mozarteum, where she held a full professorship for a time in the early 70's. Among her pupils was soprano Renée Fleming, who studied with her in Germany during her year there as a Fulbright scholar. In the mid 70's, she traveled to Japan with Helmuth Rilling, serving at the last minute as a soloist in Bach's St. Matthew Passion. (She learned the part on the plane.) It was the beginning of a long and fruitful association with the German conductor, one that has yielded over 40 recordings Her debut at La Scala was in 1975 in L'enfant et les sortilèges. From this time, she turned to lyrical roles in opera, preferring to focus on her career as a concert singer, in early music as well as lieder, often accompanied in the latter by pianist Irwin Gage. She performed most of the soprano parts in Helmuth Rilling's Bach cantata cycle of the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, appearing several times at Rilling's Oregon Bach Festival. At the other end of the spectrum, she commissioned new song cycles by Libby Larsen (Sonnets from the Portuguese) and Judith Lang Zaimont. Her association with Mr. Rilling led to Miss Auger's first break in the United States, in 1980, when Blanche Moyse, the director of the New England Bach Festival, heard her sing with Mr. Rilling at the Oregon Bach Festival and signed her for a series of concerts the following season.
One reason she sang more concerts and recitals than she did opera was her determination to control her own destiny. I've signed opera contracts where I had been told I'd be working with a certain conductor and a certain stage director. But by the time I've gotten there, I've found a completely different group of people. I may not have agreed with their interpretation, their method of working, or their musical tastes. But I've been stuck, with no choice but to go and do what's required or make problems. And I don't like to make problems. I don't like to rant and rave.
Although still not a household name, Miss Auger briefly came to the attention of hundreds of millions of television viewers (around 700 million) on July 23, 1986, when she sang Mozart's Exsultate, Jubilate at the royal wedding of Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew.
Among her biggest supporters were the British conductor Simon Rattle, with whom she performed a good deal of Mozart and recorded Mahler's Second Symphony and the Berg Lulu Suite for EMI. She is an enormously rounded artist, he said. But for me, she is really the greatest Mozart soprano around now. She's as near to the ideal as one could possibly get. People don't know her enough. One wishes America had caught on sooner.
She later recorded the Exsultate, Jubilate along with the Great Mass in C minor under Leonard Bernstein, in 1990. On December 5, 1991, the bicentenary of Mozart's death, she sang his Requiem with Cecilia Bartoli, Vinson Cole, René Pape, and the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Georg Solti in St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna. By this time Auger was already developing a malignant brain tumor without her knowledge. Suffering from recurrent headaches, her strict diet routine (she used to not eat anything from the night before her performance, save for water) in part made her oblivious to her own sickness.
She retired in February 1992, after being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour, a mass in the right parietal lobe of her brain which turned out to be a giant cell glioblastoma. She underwent three brain surgeries, flying back to the U.S. to receive medical attention at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. After the last surgery, Miss Auger returned to stay in Leusden, the Netherlands where she fell into deep coma and finally died at the hospital on June 10, 1993 at the age of 53. A memorial service in her honour was held at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel where works by Bach, Mozart, Fauré and others were performed by several well-known musicians, including Renée Fleming and Karen Holvik. Married and divorced twice, she was survived by her parents and brother. She was entombed on a hilltop plot at Ferncliff Cemetery in her town of residence, Hartsdale.
Auger won a Grammy for Best Classical Vocal Performance in 1994 for her performances on the 1993 "The Art of Arleen Auger" (Koch International Classics 3-7248-2H1). The release was also notable for its recording debut of "Sonnets from the Portuguese" by American composer Libby Larsen. Auger also recorded for Delos International. Stereophile's Jason Serinus wrote that her "exquisite album of Love Songs remains one of the finest compendiums of classical song ever issued."
Music critic Tim Page wrote that she was "the sort of artist whose work not only provided pleasure for her audience but also instruction for her colleagues [...] by any standards, hers was an exemplary career [...] She sang beautifully for more than a quarter century, she sang great music, and she never bowed or pandered to public taste. She was an artist, steady and serious to the end."
Arleen Auger's discography of more than 150 recordings, on a variety of European and American labels, includes an appealing recent effort in the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss, recorded with Andre Previn and the Vienna Philharmonic (Telarc CD-80180; CD only). Also persuasive is her portrayal of the Countess in Mozart's opera Le Nozze di Figaro, with the Drottningholm Court Theater Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Arnold Oestman
Released on London later in 1990 was a disk of Haydn arias with Christopher Hogwood and the Handel & Haydn Society; Mozart's C minor Mass, with Mr. Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, and, in the role of Donna Anna, Don Giovanni with the Oestman-Drottningholm forces.
In March 1990, Miss Auger recorded Haydn's Creation for EMI, with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. She also registered an EMI album with Mr. Rattle and his orchestra of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 (EMI CDCB 47962; CD only) and Berg's Lulu Suite (EMI CDC 49857; CD only). Miss Auger sang the lead role in a Virgin Classics recording of Monteverdi's work L'Incoronazione di Poppea, also Schubert's songs for the label with the fortepianist Lambert Orkis. Current issues on Virgin include Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne, with Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting the English Chamber Orchestra (VC 7 90714-2; CD and cassette).
For Deutsche Grammophon, Miss Auger recorded Handel's Messiah with Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert (Archiv 423 630-2 AH; all three formats), the Dixit Dominus of Handel with Simon Preston and the Westminster Abbey Chorus and Orchestra (Archiv 423 594-2 AH; CD only) and Mozart's Exsultate, Jubilate, Coronation Mass and Vespers, with Leonard Bernstein leading the Munich Radio Orchestra.Almost always I have been unafraid to say no if I have not been ready to take on a role,
she said once to Peter Schaaff. I don't regret it.