Born: February 3, 1939
The career of Helga Dernesch has unfolded in four distinct segments: mezzo soprano, lyric soprano, dramatic soprano, and, once again, mezzo. During the middle two phases, the comely soprano was encouraged by Herbert von Karajan to undertake the heaviest Wagner soprano roles, assignments really beyond the means of a singer whose vocal weight was well below that of a Nilsson or Varnay. Eventually, she was forced to agonize over a return to the mezzo range. Once the transition was made, she was able to employ her still handsome voice and extend her career into her mid-sixties. Following studies at the Vienna Conservatory, Dernesch made her debut at Berne in 1961 singing Marina in Boris Godunov. Engagements in Wiesbaden and Cologne led to a contract at Bayreuth, where she appeared for the first time in 1965. After her initial experience at Bayreuth, she began a transition to major soprano roles, first Sieglinde (which served as her Covent Garden calling card); later Brünnhilde, Isolde, and Beethoven's Leonore. Under Karajan's ministrations, she became a regular artist at the Salzburg Easter Festivals beginning in 1969. During those appearances, she prepared and sang the aforementioned heroic ladies, always with great warmth and womanliness, if with a voice several decibels short of the ideal. During this time, she also created a much-praised study of Strauss' Marschallin, singing the role with lovely tone and finding the right measure of pathos. Dernesch's return to mezzo roles was welcomed by the conductors with whom she had collaborated, and she was chosen to sing Goneril in the premiere of Aribert Reimann's Lear in 1978. Sounding vocally refreshed, she began to assemble a repertory of Wagner and Strauss mezzo roles and made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1985 as a glamorous, firm-voiced Marina. Her Herodias for the Los Angeles Opera in 1998 was greeted with enthusiasm and her portrayal of the title role in Reimann's Bernarda Albas Haus in Munich was acclaimed as another gripping theatrical achievement. Dernesch recorded Leonore, the Siegfried, Götterdämmerung's Brünnhilde, and Isolde with Karajan. Her compelling Goneril is also preserved on commercial disc.