09 November 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Karajan artists: Hildegard Behrens – Karajan’s Salome

Apart from a youthful attempt in Salzburg in 1929 and a single performance in Milan in 1956, Karajan only conducted Richard Strauss’ opera “Salome” complete in 1977. His Salome was Hildegard Behrens.

Like many other singers, Behrens achieved instant fame the first time Karajan cast her for a prominent part. She was 37 years old and by no means a beginner when he attended a “Wozzeck” rehearsal at the opera in Düsseldorf in 1974. Behrens didn’t know it, but backstage the singer of the Hauptmann told his colleagues: “Do you know who’s sitting in the audience? Herbert von.” “You’re kidding!” “I swear!” After the rehearsal “Herbert von” talked to her about his “Salome” project for the Salzburg Festival in 1977 – “Maybe I’ve just found my main singer…?” Behrens was greatly excited. She had been keen to sing Salome for quite a while and this prestigious opportunity was a gift of the gods.

“Salome”, Richard Strauss’ opera after Oscar Wilde’s play, was his first big success as an opera composer in 1905. The first Austrian performance in Graz in the following year under Strauss’ baton was attended by his colleagues Mahler, Puccini, Berg, Schönberg and Zemlinsky! During his lifetime, Karajan had been on the look-out for the ideal Salome, “a sixteen-year-old princess with the voice of an Isolde”, and finally opted for Hildegard Behrens.

In an interview for West German broadcasting Behrens recalled that there had been some conflicts during the rehearsals because she refused to do things on stage that she couldn’t relate to psychologically. “He was angry with me at that moment but I think he came to respect it later and from then on it was absolutely wonderful.” The only disappointment was that Karajan insisted on a professional dancer to stand in for the “Dance of the Seven Veils”. Unusually, Karajan recorded his only complete “Salome” not before the stage production but a year later. The enthusiastically acclaimed set featured the same main protagonists.

“The score has surely never sounded so sheerly beautiful on disc, or perhaps anywhere. […] This is a reading which no one from now on will be able to ignore.”
Gramophone on Karajan’s “Salome”

Apart from Behrens there were Agnes Baltsa, José van Dam and Karl-Walter Böhm. Peter Conrad wrote:

“The drama, thanks to Karajan’s control of musical dynamics, is virtually silenced. […] Salome sullenly hisses her refusal to eat or drink, and is reduced to toneless panting as she awaits the execution. The expression denied to the voices is claimed by Karajan’s orchestra, which is Salome’s thought-stream.”

And Richard Osborne: “Strauss had said that one should play Salome ‘as if it were Mendelssohn-fairy music’. Karajan took him at his word.”

In the same year as the recording, Behrens came to Salzburg for another four “Salome” performances and she appeared twice as Leonore in “Fidelio”. It was Karajan’s last-ever performance of Beethoven’s only opera.
About singing Hildegard Behrens once said: “It’s like driving a racing car. Just stay on the track!”
Karajan would have liked that.

“I can say only the best about him. In musical terms, we agreed perfectly. We acted in concert. The principal rule was: Transparency and beauty above all! Musically everything was harmonious. There were some disagreements concerning scenic aspects. Sometimes we had an argument. But generally, he let me do what I wanted. Occasionally, he snapped at me when he lost his temper. Well, I simply snapped back. […] In the second year, he pampered me. Alas, when things were at their best, intrigues started up in the background. I was used without knowing it. One day, Karajan read in the newspaper that I would be doing ‘Elektra’ with Solti in Salzburg in 1982. The maestro was very offended. But I wasn’t the one to blame so I didn’t approach him. One thing I knew from my law studies was that explaining yourself means accusing yourself.”

Richard Osborne: “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

WDR ZeitZeichen, 18.08.2014

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

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