17 March 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Karajan artists: Walter Berry – from Bach to Pizzetti

Walter Berry was one of the best bass-baritones of his time. He was a highly acclaimed Mozart singer in lighter roles such as Papageno, Figaro and Leporello but he also performed almost a hundred times with Karajan in “Fidelio”, “Parsifal”, “Tristan”, “Die Fledermaus”, Pizzetti’s “Murder in the Cathedral” and sacred works by Bach, Haydn and Beethoven.

Berry was not only appreciated for his singing but for his refreshing sense of humour. During the “Tristan” production in 1972, Karajan measured the heartbeat of the singers for medical research. Although Berry – as Kurwenal – seemed calm while he was singing, his heartbeat climbed up to 180 so the doctors were thinking of giving him an injection. Karajan was impressed. His own frequency was far lower. Berry grinned and said: “I always told you that you have the easier job!”

Berry in his star role as Barak in Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten” in 1964


Walter Berry and Christa Ludwig met at the Vienna State Opera where they were engaged as singers. In 1957 they married and from then on, they were very popular as a couple on stage and in the studio. Karajan made use of that popularity when he was managing director of the Vienna State Opera. He also appreciated them individually and continued to work with both of them after they got divorced in 1970. Once when Karajan was talking to Berry because he had a problem, someone came in and reminded him that the rehearsal would begin soon. Karajan snapped: “Don’t you see I’m talking to Berry right now?!”

In 1966, Karajan called Walter Berry: “We’re going to do Wotan in Salzburg.” Berry: “Who?” Karajan: “Wotan. In ‘The Valkyrie’.” Berry shocked: “But Herr von Karajan, I’m not a Wotan!” Karajan: “If I tell you that you’re a Wotan then you’re a Wotan.” And so, on 27 March 1967, in the third performance of the brand-new Salzburg Easter Festival, the couple Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry as Fricka and Wotan appeared in “The Valkyrie” for the first time. Eight months later, the production was transferred to New York (Karajan’s Met debut!) and Berry performed again successfully (although Karajan was angry because Berry and Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde ignored his lighting concept). But his second Wotan performance in New York had to be discontinued after Act 2 for voice reasons.

Walter Berry and Christa Ludwig appeared in so many projects together (not only with Karajan) that we have created couple playlists for you. Click here.


Elisabeth Birnbaum: Walter Berry, die Biografie. Henschel Verlag. 2001.

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