16 May 2024

P.R. Jenkins

Karajan artists: Helga Dernesch – Brünnhilde, Isolde, Leonore

Helga Dernesch was the most important female singer for Karajan’s great Wagner projects in the period between 1969 and 1973. She appeared as Isolde in “Tristan und Isolde” and as Brünnhilde in “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” both on stage at the Salzburg Easter Festival and in the studio. The fourth production was the 1971 Salzburg “Fidelio” with Dernesch as Leonore. She was born in Vienna in 1939 and had already performed in Berne, Wiesbaden, Cologne and Bayreuth. She joined Karajan for the first time for “Siegfried” in March 1969 (the usual recording sessions were only a month before). Dieter David Scholz talked to Helga Dernesch in 1999.

HD: For me working with Karajan was the big step up the ladder, that was definitely the way it was. Of course, people warned me not to sing these highly dramatic parts too early and ruin my voice. “And now she is a mezzo”, Frau Seefried wrote about me in her book. But I wouldn’t be a mezzo without Herbert von Karajan. It’s just that he didn’t need me after 1972 [in fact 1973] and that was it. […] That’s the way it is.

DDS: Did you learn anything from Karajan?

HD: Concerning interpretation almost nothing. We just matched. […] He didn’t interfere in my singing anyway but he did give me good advice about what to sing and what not.

DDS: And his way of conducting?

HD: That was heaven! He looked at me with his beautiful blue eyes and I knew immediately what to do. […] You know, the greater and more important an artist is, the friendlier and more uncomplicated he is. That was the thing with Karajan. He had an aura – of course! There were stories and rumours about his behaviour. All I can say is that to me he was natural, polite and simple.

Karajan and Dernesch also performed Wagner in concert, 3rd act “Götterdämmerung” and 1 act “The Valkyrie” in Berlin. Dernesch said: “I liked that. I don’t need to be on the opera stage. A concert hall is just as fine for me.” Obviously, Karajan was very pleased with her Brünnhilde in “Götterdämmerung”, as he wrote in this telegram sent on Christmas Eve(!) 1969:

“Today, I listened to the ‘Götterdämmerung’ tapes – Stop – I’m enthusiastic about your deeply-felt artistic interpretation – Stop – Please get enough rest in the days between Christmas and New Year so the necessary retakes will achieve the same intensity – Best Christmas greetings – Yours, Herbert von Karajan”



We’ve prepared playlists with Karajan and Helga Dernesch. Listen to them here.

Dieter David Scholz: “Mythos Primadonna/25 Diven widerlegen ein Klischee.” Parthas-Verlag, 1999

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