Inge Borkh, one of the finest Strauss and Wagner singers, whose repertoire also encompassed Turandot and the heavier verismo roles, has died in Stuttgart at the age of 101. A visceral stage animal, her legendary performances as Salome and Elektra thrilled audiences in the 1950s and 60s, and while for some she was eclipsed by the rise of Birgit Nilsson, many would consider her dramatic interpretations to have been second to none, with the possible exception of her fellow countrywoman Martha Mödl.
Inge Borkh, in later years a noted juror at vocal competitions
Born in Mannheim on May 26, 1917 to a Jewish diplomat father, the rise of Nazism forced Ingeborg Borkh’s family to leave Germany for Austria and then Switzerland in 1933. Trained initially as an actress and dancer in Vienna, Borkh was performing in Linz at the age of 19 and then in Basel at 20. Later, she would claim to have been born in 1921, but like many singers post-WWII, she most likely found it prudent to shave a few years off of her actual age in order to restart an interrupted career.
Traveling to Milan in order to study voice with Vittorio Moratti, and later to Salzburg to study at the Mozarteum, she made her operatic debut in 1940 in Lucerne as Czipra in Johann Strauss’s Der Zigeunerbaron. The dangers of the Second World War meant that she was forced to confine her early career exclusively to Switzerland, and she would go on to make that country her home for the next four decades.
Switzerland suited her, and it was there that she first gained international attention in 1951 when she landed the theatrically demanding role of Magda in the first German-language performance of Menotti’s The Consul. The following year she was singing Sieglinde (and Freia!) under Keilberth at Bayreuth. Debuts across Germany as well as in Vienna, London and San Francisco followed, with Borkh demonstrating early on a linguistic flexibility that would allow her to sing Tosca and Aida alongside Leonore and Euryanthe. Perhaps surprisingly, her Metropolitan Opera career was confined to three years, debuting as Salome in 1958 and not returning after 1961, except for a handful of performances as the Dyer’s Wife a decade later.
With Dimitri Mitropoulos, Elektra, Salzburg 1957
Although a noted exponent of roles such as Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, Puccini’s Turandot and Cherubini’s Medea, it was in the German repertoire that she really stood out. As well as Sieglinde, she sang Wagner’s Elsa and Senta (though oddly neither Isolde nor Brünnhilde). On the other hand, she encompassed most of Richard Strauss’s heavyweight heroines, most famously Salome and Elektra, but also as Helena in Die Ägyptische Helena, and both the Empress and the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau Ohne Schatten.
Highly sought after for her dramatic intelligence and a willingness to immerse herself in contemporary opera, she can be heard as a thrilling Antigone in Carl Orff’s opera of the same name, and as Cathleen in Werner Egk’s Irische Legende. An avowed enemy of routine, her first commitment was to the drama and the importance of keeping things fresh. “I thought it was horrible when singers would tell the director that they always came onstage from the right side at this point,” she said in one interview.
Like her compatriot Martha Mödl, the top of Borkh’s voice became unreliable in the 1960s, but unlike Mödl and other Wagnerian sopranos like Astrid Varnay who would gravitate to mezzo in order to sing on into their twilight years, Borkh quit as an opera singer relatively early. In 1973, following a run of unsatisfactory Elektras in Italy, she took the uncommonly honest step of admitting to vocal problems and gave up the operatic stage. That year she was honoured with Switzerland’s highest theatrical honour, the Hans-Reinhart-Ring.
Although her substantial voice wasn’t always the most easily caught in the studio, she can be heard on some fine recordings across her finest decade, most notably in scenes from Elektra and Salome conducted by Fritz Reiner in the 1950s, as well as on a 1960 studio Elektra under Böhm (though even better is her live Elektra with Mitropoulos). A studio Die Frau ohne Schatten with Keilberth was originally held back but is now available and is essential, as is her Turandot with del Monaco and Tebaldi on Decca.
In the later 70s, Borkh would briefly go on to act and perform in cabaret, but after that she essentially retired, moving to a modest apartment in Stuttgart with her husband, the bass baritone Alexander Welitsch who died in 1991. There she wrote her autobiography, I Can’t Shake Off The Theatre and published a book of interviews, Not Just Salome and Elektra.
An avid opera goer, sought-after juror and lucid conversationalist, in old age, Borkh would often travel hundreds of miles to see an interesting production or hear a particular singer – Christian Gerhaher was known to be a favourite – and was well-known for being entirely up to date on the latest operatic singers and directors. Although frustrating problems with her eyesight had curtailed her activities in recent years, according to friends she remained a force of nature until the end.