Hilde Zadek

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Hilde Zadek

Jewish operatic soprano who triumphed in post-war Vienna

HILDE Zadek, who has died aged 101, was thought to have been the first Jewish singer to perform at the Vienna State Opera after World War II, stepping in at short notice to sing the title role in Verdi’s opera Aida to an audience she once described as a “nest of Nazis”.

The result was a triumph. “At the end, even they applauded and were my fans,” she recalled 65 years later.

She went on to make her home in Vienna, signing a contract with the state opera company and making guest appearances around Europe and America.

Her most famous part was probably the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, a role she sang on more than 100 occasions and for which she received warm reviews from the European critics who praised her opulent voice and purity of style.

Hilde Zadek was born on December 15, 1917, in Poznan, then part of Prussia, to Jewish parents who owned a four-storey shoe shop. She told how, by her teens, anti-Semitism was rife and at school she was taught that Jews “had deformed brains”.

On one occasion there was an outing to see the Fuhrer. “I had the privilege of seeing Herr Hitler, the joy of breathing in his aura,” she said with sarcasm.

Matters came to a head when a fellow pupil complained that “it stinks of Jews here” and Hilde Zadek took revenge by knocking a few front teeth out of the speaker’s mouth. Facing prosecution, she fled to Berlin and, in 1934, to Palestine, where she worked in an orphanage before training as a paediatric nurse.

During Kristallnacht in November 1938, her father’s store was destroyed and he was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. At that stage Jewish prisoners could still leave if they had somewhere to go. Hilde Zadek secured visas for the family to join her in Palestine, where her father opened a new shoe store and she left nursing to work for him. At night she studied singing, although the prospects for opera singers in British Mandate Palestine were limited.

After the war, Hilde Zadek was accepted to study with Ria Ginster at the Zurich Conservatoire, paying her passage on a British troop ship by singing for the soldiers. In Switzerland she supported herself by working as an au pair.

After her debut in Aida, which was conducted by Josef Krips, she sang Eurydice in the premiere of Carl Orff’s Antigonae at the 1949 Salzburg Festival and that year made her first recording, Mozart’s Coronation Mass, under Joseph Messner.

Her first appearance in Britain was with the Glyndebourne opera company at the Edinburgh Festival in 1950 as Ariadne in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, conducted by Thomas Beecham.

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She returned to the company in 1951 as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni under Fritz Busch at both Glyndebourne and Edinburgh. Meanwhile, in November 1950, she made her Covent Garden debut as Aida, one critic noting: “She is at once an intelligent and an imaginative singer.”

She appeared regularly in this role, as well as in Tosca and The Queen of Spades, until 1953.

Her career at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, where she also sang Wagner, was similarly confined to a brief but busy period in the early 1950s.

Thereafter, music lovers had largely either to travel to Vienna to hear her perform or be content with enjoying her voice on record.

In 1967 she performed with Leonard Bernstein and the violinist Isaac Stern in Israel at the rededication of the amphitheatre at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Hilde Zadek retired in 1971 and devoted herself to teaching, becoming head of the voice department at the Vienna Conservatory and founding a vocal competition.

Hilda Zadek, who died on February 21, is survived by her partner, the American soprano Maria Venuti.

© Telegraph

Sunday Independent


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