Hilde Zadek (1917-2019) had one of the most interesting lives of the past century. Interesting has its downside. For example, in medicine about the worst that can happen to you is to be an interesting case. Born in Bromberg when it was in Prussia (today it’s in Poland), she grew up in Stettin which like Bromberg was German, but is now is also Polish. Being Jewish, she fled Germany to Palestine in 1934. There she studied voice while working as a shoe salesman and as a nurse. In 1945 she moved to Switzerland to study voice at the Zurich Conservatory. While she stayed in Europe, her parents and sisters moved to the US.
She made her operatic debut at the Vienna State Opera in the title role of Aida. Despite appearing in front of an audience containing a large number of unrepentant Nazis predisposed to detest a Jewish soprano, she scored a big success. Though she sang at most of the world’s major opera houses, Vienna was her artistic home for her entire career. She appeared with the company in 786 performances of 39 roles between 1947 to 1971.
Her Met appearances were limited to 8 performances of four operas, all in the 1952-53 season. She got mixed reviews and never returned – whether the choice was hers or the Met’s is unknown to me.
She sang the more lyric Wagner roles. Chrysothemis in Elektra was in her repertoire as was Fidelio. In addition to Aida she appeared in Tosca and the Verdi Requiem. Her voice was that of a solid spinto that as far as I can tell from recordings was not overwhelming in amplitude. For a fine appreciation of her life and career read Jay Nordlinger’s recent article about her. She received numerous honors from her adopted city. They are listed below.
- 1951 Kammersängerin
- 1965 Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art
- 1977 Honorary member of the Vienna State Opera
- 1978 Honorary Medal of Vienna in gold
- 2007 Honorary doctorate from the University of Music Karlsruhe (on her 90th birthday)
- 2012 Grand Decoration of Honour for Services to the Republic of Austria
Here are eight examples of her singing. First, a few examples of her approach to Verdi. Ritorna vincitor is from her debut role, Aida. The sound is not very good, but you can still get an idea of her voice. The final scene from the same opera is sung with the great Danish tenor Helge Rosvaenge. Both selections are sung in German. The Recodare from the Verdi Requiem is sung with mezzo Margarete Klose.
Dich, teure Halle is from Act 2 of Tannhäuser. Zadek give the aria a reading that is both strong and sensitive.
Strauss was at the center of Zadek’s stage persona. Ich kann nicht sitzen und ins Dunkel starren (I can not sit and stare into the darkness) is from Elektra. Chrysothemis (Elektra’s sane sister) does not wish to go on living a half-death in her own house: she wants to leave, marry, and raise children.
The Marshallin’s Monologue occurs towards the end of Act 1 of Der Rosenkavalier.The Marschallin ponders her waning youth and the unhappiness of her forced marriage.
In Ariadne auf Naxos, Ariadne welcomes death, thinking that in the land of death she will find everything that she has been denied in life. Ein Schönes war… Es gibt ein Reich
Finally, the first act duet (Glück das mir verblieb) from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt is sung by Zadek with Anton Dermota. The composer conducts.
Zadek was a fine soprano whose presence is still palpable in Vienna even after her death. Devotee’s of her art have sponsored an event for the promotion of young musicians. The Hildegard Zadek Foundation has held the biennial International Hilde Zadek Voice Competition since 2003.