Ljuba Welitsch

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Ljuba Welitsch, May 1934. Source: Bulgarian Archives State Agency

Ljuba Welitsch (Bulgarian: Люба Величкова, born 10 July 1913, Borissovo, Bulgaria - died 2 September 1996, Vienna, Austria) was a celebrated Bulgarian, later Austrian, operatic soprano.

She studied singing at Sofia Conservatory with professor Georgi Zlatev-Cherkin. After specializing in Vienna, she first appeared in Sofia in 1936. Engagements followed in Graz, Hamburg, Munich and finally at the Vienna State Opera.

Known for her red hair and exuberant vivacity, her most famous role was that of Salome, which she performed under the composer, Richard Strauss, himself in 1944 on his 80th birthday. She sang the same role for her London debut in 1947 and her first performance at the Metropolitan Opera, New York on 4 February 1949. She also sang the title roles of Tosca and Aida, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, Minnie in La fanciulla del West and Musetta in La bohème.

Her voice was neither creamy nor shrill, possessing a small beat, to which the microphone is kind. This voice was very capable of riding the Straussian orchestra. Welitsch was a unique singer and her uniqueness was quickly established. Where others linger and milk the moment, she presses ahead, testing the ability of conductors to follow her. It is usually at the moment a doubt has formed that Welitsch confounds the listener by some sudden conversational intimacy that breaks through convention utterly. Even more astonishing is the way she achieves these moments without breaking the line for dramatic effect.*

Welitsch in the 1930s

A great artist, she was also capable of extraordinary over-the-top exhibitions and her exploits at the Metropolitan in New York were legendary, including a raunchy Musetta that struck fear into her colleagues, and a Tosca performance when she repeatedly kicked the supposedly dead body of the Scarpia, Lawrence Tibbett, to whom she had taken a personal dislike.

Welitsch starring in the role of Rosalind in the operetta "Die Fledermaus" by J. Strauss

Her international career, already interrupted by the war, did not last long, although she actually continued singing until 1981. Appearances included those at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in the 1950s in a highly controversial production of Salome by Peter Brook with sets by Salvador Dalí. However when her voice deteriorated she started a second career in films (in America and Austria) and on Austrian television. In 1982 she was among a number of artists on stage at Covent Garden who congratulated Dame Eva Turner at a gala for Turner's 90th birthday.

She was married twice and divorced twice, with no children. She is buried in Vienna's Zentralfriedhof.

Grave of Ljuba Welitsch in Section 40 (reserved for honorary Austrians) in the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna

Recordings[edit]

She did not make many recordings but her account of the final scene of Salome sets a standard by which every aspiring performer in the role is still judged. The Metropolitan performance of Salome from 1949 is available on CD (Gebhardt Records JGCD 0013).

Her live performance as Donna Anna under Wilhelm Furtwängler, opposite Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Tito Gobbi, and Josef Greindl, from Salzburg, 1950, is also available.

Although Welitsch did not record for the studio often, her art can be appreciated in a collection entitled Ljuba Welitsch: The Radio Years RY102 in which she can be heard in arias by Weber, Verdi, Smetana, Dvořák, Puccini and Strauss and lieder by Schubert.

She can be seen and heard briefly in the movie "The Man Between", where the protagonists, James Mason and Claire Bloom attend a performance of "Salome". Welitsch is shown with the head of John the Baptist in the final moments of the opera. The scene is posted on YouTube.

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