[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.]
— 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
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.
BD: Do any of the stage directors with whom you
work try to change your ideas?
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
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
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
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] Would you want Fricka entering in a chariot drawn by rams?
Well, let's see how it works.
BD: You are now
singing mezzo roles — are you more comfortable
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.
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?
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
BD: Even though
that is what Isolde has demanded?
* * *
BD: Let's talk
about Brünnhilde a bit. Is the development from Walküre through Siegfried to Götterdämmerung a logical
With a man coming in her life, it's always a development.
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
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?
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,
BD: Tell me about
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?
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
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?
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.
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
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
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?
I think we can say no. I think she would do everything.
BD: Is Fricka in
love with Wotan?
Ja . . .
BD: Even though
he philanders a lot, there's a genuine love-bond?
They're real to life.
BD: Are these characters
human or are they Gods?
HD: For me they
are very human.
BD: Even Brünnhilde
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
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
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?
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.]
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
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
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
HD: We would find
some note from him if he had thought of it.
BD: When you do
these long roles . . .
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?
[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?
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?
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,
BD: Do you enjoy
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.
BD: Coming back to Richard Strauss, how evil is
Klytemnestra [photos at left and right]?
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...
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?
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
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
HD: No, never.
I did Chrysothemis.
BD: She always
seems to be the bearer of old news!
BD: Is Chrysothemis
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?
BD: As evil, say,
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.
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
HD: Around 35.
BD: Is she happy
with the Field Marshall at all?
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
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
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.
BD: Does the music of that time speak to us today?
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
BD: Will you sing
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.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
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.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
© 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
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
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.