[Note: Much of this interview originally appeared in Wagner News in July of 1985.  Thirty years later, it was slightly re-edited and the rest of the conversation was added for this website presentation.  The photos and links were also added at that time.]

Helga Dernesch — Secure in Her New Repertoire

By Bruce Duffie


Helga Dernesch is that rarest of rare singers who made a wonderful career in the heavy and dramatic roles of Wagner, and then, as she told me, on the "lucky advice of Christoph von Dohnanyi" reshaped both her voice and career so that now she sings dramatic mezzo-soprano roles.  Such a complete change is not often attempted by an artist in mid-career, and when it does happen, mostly it is from lower and smaller roles to higher and larger ones.  So Miss Dernesch's courageous (but very correct) step shows both her ability to make decisions, and the desire to be the very best in the register most suited to her.

Before shifting repertoire early in 1979, Dernesch had an international career going, and was well-known for many roles 
among them the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier (both in German and in English!), Leonora in Fidelio, and, of course, the big Wagnerian roles including Brünnhilde and Isolde.  But she always has done a lot of roles  Waltraute will be her sixth part in Götterdämmerung alone!  Her self-confessed favorites in the Ring are Sieglinde and the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde.  Now she is moving into the lower register where she is more comfortable, and roles like Klytemnestra, Herodias, and Fricka occupy her time these days.  Occasionally, she does concerts, as was the case in November of 1982, when I had the chance to meet her between performances [and recording] of the Mahler 3rd Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti.  [See my Interviews with Sir Georg Solti.]  Her English was excellent, and she gave every indication of being quite content with everything going on around her.  A bit introspective, but with a twinkle in her eye, Miss Dernesch chatted with me for about 45 minutes, and here is what was said . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    When you're preparing these roles of Wagner, do the prose writings influence your portrayals?

Helga Dernesch:    I saw my first Wagner opera when I was 12 years old and it's all so clear for me personally.  Of course, I read about them and always look around for new impressions.  I read all the new books that come out about Wagner, but I'm quite clear on what I'm going to do.

dernesch BD:    Do any of the stage directors with whom you work try to change your ideas?

HD:    Yes.  Just last evening, I was talking with Maestro Solti about our unlucky experience in Paris.  It was supposed to be a full Ring, but it stopped after Walküre because it was so unlucky all in all.  We were both involved and we suffered quite a lot of disappointment.  Both of the producers are very famous for producing plays 
especially Peter Stein who does wonderful things in West Berlin.  I looked so very much forward to working with him, but it was very unfortunate all the way around.

BD:    Didn't you even learn what not to do?

HD:    No, I didn't learn anything from that.  It was just gorgeous to have Solti conducting, but he only conducted a few of the performances, and then he left and we still had to go through many other performances without him.  But the music is so gorgeous and the parts are so gorgeous that you try to go on.

BD:    Just try to blot out all that is going on and give a concert?

HD:    Well, it ended like that.

BD:    How much can you as a singer blot out the extraneous things going on about you?

HD:    Well, you get used to it.

BD:    Do you use a prompter?

HD:    Yes, of course, but until now I've been quite lucky, and I'm quite secure in what I'm doing.  [Reaches over to touch the table which was made of wood]  Just recently I had a marvelous experience in San Francisco.  The man in the prompter's box has a television monitor, and he gives cues and prompts, and he's marvelous.  Karajan specially asks for him in the Salzburg festivals.  He's a fantastic man and his name is Philip Eisenberg.  He's absolutely reliable every second.
  [For more about Eisenberg, see the box (!) at the bottom of this webpage.]

BD:    You've done some productions where there's a scrim.  Does it bother you at all?

HD:    No, not at all.  But I did find that when I have to wear a headpiece which is tight around my skull, it affects me very much.  I find it takes away the vibration of the bones in the head which is very important.  I warm up before the performance and I feel good, then when I get the thing on my head I feel as though I've lost my voice.  Even when my ears are not covered, I can't hear and I can't feel my voice.  It's a completely different feeling for me.

BD:    How much does the costume and makeup affect your personality onstage?

HD:    Very much.  I nearly always do my own makeup.

BD:    Some people feel that stage directors and designers go too far away from the intentions of the composers.

HD:    Yes, you are right, but I think we have to experiment 
up to a certain limit.  But I like that.  I prefer it to an ordinary production.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Would you want Fricka entering in a chariot drawn by rams?

HD:    [Laughing]  Well, let's see how it works.

BD:    You are now singing mezzo roles 
are you more comfortable with them?

HD:    Yes, much more.  I've already studied 17 or 18 new parts, and not just for pleasure.  I'm performing them all.  I'm lucky that way.

BD:    Do you prefer staged operas to concerts?

HD:    It's easier and I enjoy it more.  Here, for instance, I sit during the first three movements of the symphony, and it's nice to listen and watch the maestro, but you cannot move at all.  It's easier to come onto a stage dressed up and made up as a completely different person.  Then you can act and move about when you sing.  You don't find characters very much in concert 
you just have to be yourself.

dernesch BD:    Does opera work in concert form?

HD:    Why not?  I think it works.  I did the third act of
Götterdämmerung here when I was still Brünnhilde!  But it's much better to have sung the role onstage before doing it in concert.  It's the same with recording.  I prefer to do the recording of an opera I've sung onstage, but with Karajan it was always the other way around.

BD:    Did you ever want to go back and re-record it later?

HD:    [Emphatically]  Yes!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Is it different working with Karajan because he is both conductor and producer?

HD:    In my experience, the best producers are the ones who come with their ideas from the music, which leads us to Karajan.

BD:    So his concept is much more unified?

HD:    I wouldn't say so.  I've found a lot of producers who work just out of the music, and that is always the right thing to do.

BD:    Do you miss the big, heavy parts now, or are you glad to be away from them?

HD:    I don't miss them, no.  I find it very beautiful to do Brangäne beside an Isolde who appreciates how much I know of that part myself.  A lot of colleagues have told me that it's wonderful because I react to everything because I know it so well.

BD:    Let's stay with that one for a moment 
tell me about Brangäne.  What kind of woman is she, and how strong is she?

HD:    She is very strong in her devotion and love to Isolde, and tries very hard to do the best for her.  That's why she gives them the wrong drink.  
In that moment she thinks that it's best.

BD:    Does she understand the ramifications of what will happen because of it?

HD:    No, I don't think so.  She just wants to avoid the poison which would mean instant death.

BD:    Even though that is what Isolde has demanded?

HD:    Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let's talk about Brünnhilde a bit.  Is the development from Walküre through Siegfried to
Götterdämmerung a logical one?

HD:    Yes.  With a man coming in her life, it's always a development.

dernesch BD:    Is the Prologue duet completely different from the one which ends Siegfried?

HD:    Yes, it's after their first night and she has changed completely.  She's a woman now, not a Walküre.

BD:    Is it a change for the better?

HD:    Yes, I would say so.

BD:    If the
Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde is more womanly, is she trying to get her God-hood back in Act II?

HD:    No, she's just playing as strong a woman as she can.

BD:    Is the immolation scene the culmination of just the opera, or of the Ring cycle, or is it truly something for all mankind?

HD:    [Laughs]  Whooo, you have such beautiful questions!  The immolation is very beautiful, but I wouldn't go so far as to say it was a message for all mankind.  It's her feelings, and it's the end of an enormous piece of art.  There is much more in it than I ever thought of, but for her, it's the end.

BD:    So it's an ending, and not a "dawning of a new era" as Wagner's stage directions say?

HD:    It's an ending, yes.

BD:    Tell me about Waltraute.

HD:    She just tries to help.  I think she feels that Brünnhilde is on the wrong path.

BD:    Should Brünnhilde have given the ring back to the Rheinmaidens?

HD:    No, I don't think so.  She got it from her husband and she never would give it up.

BD:    She would rather destroy the whole world?

HD:    Yes.

BD:    Continuing with the other parts in that opera, is there any malice in Gutrune?

HD:    No, but her surroundings are so incredible and she is forced into all that she does.  She cannot be all good with Gunther and Hagen around.  She is so influenced by them.

BD:    Could she and Siegfried have been happy if there had been no Brünnhilde in the picture?

HD:    I think so.

BD:    He wouldn't have been too strong for her?

HD:    I believe she's a very strong woman.  As I said, it's her surroundings which are terrible, and she's influenced by it all.

BD:    In a Ring cycle, is it right for the same singer to do both Fricka and Waltraute?

HD:    Yes.

BD:    There's no breaking up of continuity because it is the same artist?

HD:    I don't think so.  I also do the second Norn
to warm me up!  But it's always done like that.  Fricka also usually sings one of the Walküres in Act III.

BD:    But that's different since she's just one of the crowd.

dernesch HD:    Yes, more anonymous, but it is an interesting question.  But it never occurred to me not to.  I always did Sieglinde and Gutrune.  Because of some schedule shuffling, I'll be doing Erda in Siegfried in San Francisco, which I'm looking forward to.

BD:    You have the low G?

HD:    Yes.  Do you know the opera Penthesilea?

BD:    By Othmar Schoeck?

HD:    Yes, that's the one.  We just did it in Austria, a recording and a concert performance.  You asked me about the low G, but my part in the Schoeck opera needs F#, which is a half-step lower!  It's an enormous part.  The opera is about one hour and 40 minutes without a break, and my character is on for about one hour and 20!

BD:    Doing Erda in Siegfried, how would you decide which role to sing 
in Rheingold Fricka or Erda?

HD:    Well, of course I'm more interested in Fricka.

BD:    Would you do both on a recording?

HD:    I don't image anyone would ask me to do it, but I don't think it would be a good idea to do it.

BD:    Does Fricka know she is going to win the argument with Wotan before she starts?

HD:    Yes, I'm sure.

BD:    Is there anything she would not do to win that one?

HD:    [Laughing]  I think we can say no.  I think she would do everything.

BD:    Is Fricka in love with Wotan?

HD:    [Hesitates]  Ja . . .

BD:    Even though he philanders a lot, there's a genuine love-bond?

HD:    Yes.  They're real to life.

BD:    Are these characters human or are they Gods?

HD:    For me they are very human.

BD:    Even Brünnhilde in Walküre?

HD:    Yes, even in Walküre.  How else would she ever change her mind about Siegmund?

BD:    Then how do we differentiate between the Gods and the Wälsungs?

HD:    There is not such a big difference.  What is more human than the big narration of Wotan?

BD:    He's reminiscing and thinking all at the same time.

HD:    That's right.

BD:    Does Brüunnhilde help to shape his thinking at all?

BD:    No, she just agrees a little bit but doesn't shape it at all.  She's really a child in that scene.

BD:    One more of your roles in the Ring 

HD:    I did that one hundreds of times.  It's a gorgeous part.  It is
the best part in Walküre I would say.


BD:    The best part in the Ring?

HD:    No, the best in the Ring is Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung.  I can't speak of the men's roles, but of the female roles, even though the Fricka scene in Walküre is just gorgeous, all in all I would say that Sieglinde and the last Brünnhilde are just fantastic.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let's move away from the Ring and talk about other Wagner.  You're done Elisabeth in Tannhäuser [shown at right], but have you done Venus?

dernesch HD:    No.  It's too high.  I also studied (and had contracts for) Ortrud, but I decided not to do it.  I'm very sorry about that, but it's just not the right part for me.  It would be ideal from the standpoint of personality and acting, and I would love to do it 
and of course I could do it  but it's not a part I can do always, and when do you feel in perfect form at the time of a performance?  Then the trouble starts, so I decided not to do it.  The same just happened recently with Kundry.  I had a contract to do it with Ponnelle and Pritchard, but I decided again not to do it.  [See my Interviews with Sir John Pritchard, the second of which centered on the works of Wagner.] 

BD:    [Wistfully]  I guess I miss all these things you say you will never do...

HD:    I would love to, but it's not the right thing.

BD:    If you did sing both Venus and Elisabeth, would you do them in a single evening?

HD:    I don't think so.  It's a very good show for the soprano who can do it, and I admire it.

BD:    Is it more than just a gimmick?

HD:    For me, no.  It's just a very good show, but when I have heard it done that way, I always felt that neither one nor the other was perfect 
as it could have been if the lady had done only one part.  They are different.

BD:    So it's not really two sides of the same woman?

HD:    I don't really see it like that.  Did Wagner ever in his time have one lady sing both?

BD:    Not that I know of.

HD:    We would find some note from him if he had thought of it.

BD:    When you do these long roles . . .

HD:    [Interrupting]  I don't do long roles any more! 
My longest now is the Nurse in Die Frau ohne Schatten.

BD:    When you did, how did you handle the intermissions?  Did you need to re-vocalize, especially when the time is long?

HD:    I'm always vocalizing.  I'm great at it!  I've sung the role of the Marschallin hundreds of times, and between and end of Act I and my entrance in Act III is always more than two hours.

BD:    What do you do during that time?

HD:    Crosswords.  [Both laugh]  It's impossible for me to concentrate on reading during a performance.  I cannot read a book because it brings me too far away from the business at hand.

BD:    Do you listen to the performance on the monitor in your dressing room?

HD:    Yes, always, but not too closely.  I know it too well.

BD:    Are there any parts that you do too often?

HD:    No.  They can never be done too often.

BD:    There is always something new to learn?

HD:    Yes.  There is always a new production or a new maestro.  I have done the Nurse in several different opera houses
including Vienna, Munich, Hamburg, and with the Hamburg Opera in Moscow at the Bolshoi theater, which is gorgeous.  It was the first time that Russian audiences had heard a live performance of Frau ohne Schatten, and they loved it. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    In this new phase of your career, you seem to play an awful lot of nasty characters.  Do you like doing them?

HD:    My new American agent has come to my dressing room many times when I'm heavily made up
as the Nurse, or Herodias, or the Witch in Russalka, or Klytemnestra, and here in Chicago he came backstage after the Mahler concert and said it was the first time he's seen me normal!  [Both laugh]  But yes, I do enjoy very much doing these parts.  I've always been very interested in acting.  I go to many plays and I admire very much the actors, and I try to be one of the operatic stage.

BD:    How much do you become the character and separate it from Helga Dernesch?

HD:    Completely. 

BD:    Does opera work in translation?

HD:    Yes, it does.  And when it helps the public it is all right.  A few days ago I spoke with Scottish Opera in Glasgow and Edinburgh where I appeared quite a lot.  The company started in '62, and they did Così fan tutte in English.  Then two or three years later they brought it back in Italian.  So the interested public knows what it's about and understands the jokes, and now they come back to the original language, which is a good idea.  I did the Rosenkavalier there in English. 

BD:    Did you enjoy learning that huge part again in English?

HD:    [Matter of factly]  No.  [Both laugh]  And I did (Cassandra in) Les Troyens in English and later on in French.  I'm used to that, too. 

BD:    Will you be doing Octavian now?

HD:    No, I'm too old for that. 

BD:    Are there other parts you are being asked to do that you simply say no?

HD:    Not really, no.

BD:    Do you enjoy making records?

HD:    Yes.  I love it. 

BD:    You don't find it too sterile, too cut-and-piece?

HD:    No.  That helps enormously.  Why shouldn't we?

BD:    Are records, then, too perfect?

HD:    No.  It's always sung by human beings.  When you listen carefully, you find little mistakes in every one. 

dernesch BD:    Coming back to Richard Strauss, how evil is Klytemnestra [photos at left and right]?

dernesch HD:    She's a very disappointed woman.  She heard that her husband had other women during the war, so she decided to have another man.  That's the story.

BD:    [Gently protesting]  But she didn't have to go so far as to knock him off!

HD:    [Smiling] Well...  She's a very proud and very beautiful woman who is not old.  I must be very careful because I'm one of the younger singers who sings her.  Normally it's sung by elderly ladies.  It's the same as Herodias, but she is evil!  But Klytemnestra, being the sister of Helena cannot be old.  She cannot have had her children at forty!  Elektra is about 25 or 26, so that makes Klytemnestra about 45.

BD:    So if a stage director tried to make her an old hag...

HD:    [Interrupting]  No, I won't do that!  She's very ill from all her 'bad nights' as she says, which you can show in her behavior and her movements.  But she mustn't be ugly. 

BD:    So she's a wreck rather than ugly?

HD:    Yes.  She is also nervous.

BD:    Is she paranoid?

HD:    I think so, a little bit.  It's all in the music, so you can bring it all out. 

BD:    Has this all rubbed off on Elektra?

HD:    She's been brought up in the environment, but I don't think they spent a lot of time together. 

BD:    Is there any love between those two?

HD:    No.  Maybe when she was a child, but Agamemnon was away for ten years. 

BD:    Did you ever sing Elektra?

HD:    No, never.  I did Chrysothemis. 

BD:    She always seems to be the bearer of old news!

HD:    [Amused]  Yes. 

BD:    Is Chrysothemis simple-minded?

HD:    No, she is innocent.  She says she just wants to marry and have children.  That's her whole idea of life.  She is quite normal.

BD:    How could she grow up and be normal in that strange atmosphere?

HD:    She has a healthy psyche!  [Both laugh] 

BD:    Now you say Herodias is evil?

HD:    Yes...

BD:    As evil, say, as Hagen?

HD:    She did all a woman can do.  Herod and Herodias must have killed a lot of people together.  That's the only thing that keeps them together
  — all their secrets and the fear of what they have done together.  There is no love between them.  There is sex but no love.  That is how I see it. 

BD:    Is that why she goads Salome on to demand the head of Jochanaan?

HD:    Yes, she hates Jochanaan because all the time he is down there in the cistern, he is talking bad about her.  She wants rid of him.

dernesch BD:    Let's turn to the other side and speak of the Marschallin.  Did you like playing her?

HD:    I did like it, yes.  I did my first performances of her when I was 27 or 28.

BD:    Was that too young to do her?

HD:    No, it was not too young, but the feeling is quite different from what it would be now.

BD:    How old is the Marschallin?

HD:    Around 35.

BD:    Is she happy with the Field Marshall at all?

HD:    No...  She came out of the convent and was married just like that. 

BD:    Wouldn't she have tried to fall in love with him?

HD:    I don't know.  Perhaps there is a kind of relationship I'm sure, but she doesn't love him. 

BD:    Does she love Octavian?

HD:    [Amused]  Yes, well... I don't think she really loves him.  What she loves is the feeling she gives her, to be attractive and to be loved.  It's very dangerous in our lives to think you love somebody, but you just love what he is doing to you and giving you.  [Laughs]  It makes you feel good and comfortable and young and beautiful and all that. 

BD:    Is Octavian either the first or the last for the Marschallin?

HD:    No.  Never the last and certainly not the first. 

BD:    Do you think Sophie and Octavian are happy in the "fourth act"?

HD:    Yes, I think so, but not for a long time.  [Turning the tables to ask a question]  Do you think they marry?

BD:    They go off together, and one would assume Octavian would do the honorable thing.  But I'm just wondering if he would be satisfied with her?

HD:    I don't think so. 

BD:    Does the Marschallin see a lot of herself in Sophie?

HD:    Coming from the convent and being married, but I think the Marschallin is much more clever.  Sophie is very nice, but she's a little naïve. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you sing any early music - Monteverdi or Cavalli?

HD:    No.  I don't know why. 

dernesch BD:    Does the music of that time speak to us today?

HD:    Yes.  I Europe they do a lot of recordings and productions.  Oh yes, it's gorgeous, which leads us to contemporary music!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Do you like the direction music is going today?

HD:    Yes, and I'm very lucky.  You probably heard about our production of Lear by Reimann in Munich and San Francisco [recording and program shown in box below].  It was such an enormous success that we're going to have it again.  I had to re-study the whole part in English.  We just had the world premiere of his Requiem which he wrote for Fischer-Dieskau, Julia Varady and myself, and we will perform it in Berlin in January and we will record it.  It's an enormous piece and it's incredible.  It was very successful. 

BD:    It's quite different from, say, Lulu.

HD:    Do you consider Lulu to be contemporary music?  I grew up in Vienna with Lulu and Wozzeck.

BD:    Will you sing Countess Geschwitz?

HD:    I would love to.  It's a gorgeous part. 

BD:    What are some of the other new parts coming up for you?

HD:    I will do Marfa in Khovanshchina in Russian!  I will learn it phonetically.  Many years ago, when I was a contract singer in Cologne
 that must have been in 1966 I sang the very little part in the beginning, the screaming girl which takes about five minutes.  Back then I wasn't so interested in it, so I never saw the whole opera.  It's a shame, I know, but I didn't even look at a rehearsal.  I just did my part and went off.  Horrible isn't it?  Marfa is finished after Act II, but now, of course, I will stay until the end of the premiere because everyone has to take the curtain call when it is over.  But I'm not sure I will stay until the end each night for the entire series.  But now I know what is going on in Act III. 

BD:    You mention doing a scream.  How do you prepare for the scream of Klytemnestra?

HD:    I never scream myself.  You're not going to risk ruining your voice by doing a scream.  I can do it, but when I did my first performance in Berlin, I was so used to doing it everywhere
 in Munich and Vienna I never had to scream and nobody argued about it.  There was always somebody there to do the scream, and then it suddenly occurred to me that there was no one there to do it.  So I went to the co-producer and asked about it and he said, "No.  Our Klytamnestras always scream themselves."  So I had to do it and it went very well. 

BD:    Thank you so very much for spending this time with me today.

HD:    It was a pleasure.


To read my Interview with Jon Vickers, click HERE.

To read my Interview with José van Dam, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Helen Donath, click HERE.







To read my Interview with Aribert Reimann, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Ragnar Ulfung, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Jacque Trussel, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Anja Silja, click HERE.

To read my Intervieew with Sheri Greenawald, click HERE.



To read my Interview with Anne Howells, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Michael Langdon, click HERE.






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Bruce Duffie will soon complete a decade of service with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.  In addition to his on-air work, he selects and annotates the regular Sunday Evening Opera.  His interviews with leading singers, conductors, directors, and composers have appeared on WNIB, as well as in OPERA SCENE (of which he was the editor), the Massenet Newsletter, which is published by the American Branch of the Massenet Society, Nit & Wit Magazine, as well as many previous issues of WAGNER NEWS.  Several of his interviews have also been placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.

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© 1982 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at her hotel in Chicago on November 6, 1982.  The transcription of the Wagner sections was made and published in Wagner News in July of 1985.  Portions were broadcast (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1989, 1992, 1994, 1998, and 1999.  The transcription was slightly re-edited and completed in 2015, photos and links were added, and it was posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.