Her life, career and recordings

Ljuba Welitsch in a pensive moment in Salome

A studio portrait of Ljuba Welitsch

Mention of the legendary Bulgarian soprano Ljuba Welitsch usually is associated with the role of Salome, and rightfully so. She first sang it June 11, 1943 with the composer conducting at the Vienna State Opera. He had heard her as the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos and selected her to star in a special production of Salomeat the Vienna State Opera to mark his 80th birthday. So, Mme Welitsch studied the role with the composer, and he conducted her first performance. How unfortunate there is no video or audio recording of that memorable event! At the time, Welitsch was a guest singer at the Vienna State Opera. She became a member of the company in 1946. During her first official season, Welitsch sang Salome as well as Butterfly, Mimi, Musetta and Marie (Bartered Bride). Vienna was her home base for some years during which she also sang Lisa (Queen of Spades), Aida, Desdemona, Donna Anna, Giulietta(Tales of Hoffman), First Lady (Magic Flute), Jenufa, Nadja (Salmhofer’s Ivan Tsarevitch), Massenet’s Manon, Tosca, Leonora (Trovatore), Tatiana (Eugene Onegin), Lehar’s Giuditta, and Minnie (Girl of the Golden West). The exciting sopranio starred in a wude variety of roles and doubtless many were broadcast—but they have yet to be found, unfortunately.

Ljuba Welitsch with a photo of Richard Strauss

Ljuiba Welitsch as Aïda

Her name originally was Welitschkova Born July 10, 1913 near VaWhen. Bulgaria. as a child she played the violih. Her first singing lessons were at Sofia Conservatory with professor Georgi Zlatev-Cherkin . Her operatic debut was at the Sofia Opera in 1936, a minor role (a seamstress) in Louise, but the following year she joined the Graz Oper where she made her debut as Nedda. Soon she ventured into other major roles including Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Mimi, Musetta, Hansel and Gretel, Humperdinck’s Königskinder, Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, as well as three Mozart operas. She had great affection for Graz and continued to perform there until 1943.

Ljuba Welitsch as Tosca

Welitsch in the Brooks/Dali Salome

In 1941 Welitsch sang in Hamburg and Berlin, a variety of roles adding Marie in The Bartered Bride. From 1943 to 1946 her biggest success was Butterfly. She found the role taxing (odd for her!) and her doctor suggested she gain some weight to better be able to handle the demanding role – which she did. How unfortunate no recording exists. In 1946 she became a member of the Vienna State Opera, where she had triumphed three years earlier as Salome, and sang a variety of roles, as mentioned above. How fortunate were those Viennese audiences! In 1948 at Covent Garden she sang Aida, Musetta, Tosca and a controversial Peter Brooks production of Salome with sets and costumes by Salvadore Dali highly criticized except for Welitsch’s singing. By today’s production standards this really was rather tame. You can see many images of it on the internet. In 1948 she sang Edinburgh, and in 1949 sang Amelia in A Masked Ball (available on CD).



A scene from the Met production of Salome

The Dance of the Seven Veils

Karajan was a great admirer of Welitsch and in 1948 recorded the Salome final scene with her and the Vienna Philharmonic. In those days, recordings were made on 78 rpm masters, and it took four sides. En route to London from Vienna – side 3 was brtoken (there is a rumour that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sat on it!!) The surviving three sides have been issued on CD, is included in the big 10-CD Warner Classics Karajan set (REVIEW) Apparently at the same sessions they also recorded Musetta's Waltz Song, and it is issued in this set for the first time, a fine little treasure. It has been said that Karajan stated he would not conduct Salome again unless he had someone of the caliber of Welitsch, which he found in a very young Hildegard Behrens.. Karajan presented Salome at the 1977 Salzburg Festival and a recording was made for EMI—see our Salome FEATURE


Ljuba Welitsch as Cio-Cio-san

A studio portrait

Sony Classical has a 2-disk set called Ljuba Welitsch - Complete Columbia recordings (62866). It really isn’t complete as it does not include the complete Die Fledermaus twin-LP set.It is a hoot, sung in an English translation with lyrics by Howard Dietz and text by Carson Kanin. It was a great hit at the Met, and famusing to hear the fractured English of Welitsch (Rosalinde) and Lily Pons (Adele). This delightful version of Strauss's masterpiece has been issued on PRISTINE. Program notes give details of the manifold problems, the feud between Reiner and Ortmandy, cast substitutions etc. This is essential for Welitsch fans.

The Sony set does offer the famous Salome finale with Reiner (how stupid Columbia was not to record the entire opera!!), as well as excerpts from Tosca, La Boheme, Don Giovanni. Fledermaus (not from the complete recording), and The Gypsy Baron. Also included is perhaps Welitsch’s least successful recording, Strauss’s Four Last Songs. I have heard this was an unplanned tryout in preparation for a recording that never materialized. Paul Ulanowski was her accompanist in this and a wide selection of lieder: Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, Marx, Dargomyshky, and Mussorgky’s Where art thou, little star. I was fortunate to attend a concert Welitsch gave in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall April 9, 1950. The hall was packed and I remember she began with a dynamic Dich teure Halle that was a owerhouse burst of vocal energy. She continued with a group of lieder and Viennese favorites. The program included the Mussorgsky song mentioned above. I went backstage and was fortunate to meet her. She was totally gracious, but didn’t understand my praise for the Mussorgsky song – when she signed my program, she wrote “ Mussorgsky / Ljuba Welitsch.” I still have that signature page.

A scene from Salmhofer's Ivan Tsarovich


As Minnie in Girl of the Golden West

I met her one more time. It was a Saturday broadcast at the Met in 1982, a performance of Salome with Leonie Rysanek making her debut in that role. Before the performance in the lobby I saw Welitsch talking with a gentleman and rudely went over, interrupted and said, “Pardon me but aren’t you Ljuba Weliutsch?” She smiled, and shook my hand – she was very pleasant. I asked her if she knew of any other live recordings of Salome, and mentioned the incredible 1943 broadcast of the final scene. She said, “Oh, the one with Von Mataciuc? Eet ees is VERY good!" By that time others were aware of her and she soon was surrounded with fans. Inside the Metl, before the house lights dimmed, she made an entrance down the center aisle, someone saw her and shouted out,“ Braa Ljuba.” Most of the audience applauded and many stood up. They had not forgotten over three decades! Incidentally, in that 1943 radio broadcst Welitsch made a change in the final pages. The key is F# minor (7 sharps). As she sings the four syllables of the word “Jochanaan,” the written notes for each are C – E – C – G. However, this last note has an option – a D, and Welitsch sings it in this performance. If you really are familiar with this music, you will be rather surprised, as I was.

Welitsch brought excitement to everything she sang. After her Musetta in England, a critic said she was miscast. When she sang it at the Met in 1952 Virgil Thomson wrote in the New York Times that, “Miss Welitsch’s singing was lovely… but one has not seen such a piece of female impersonation since the days of Bert Savoy and that it was rather like Marie Dressler’s travesty on La traviata.” But the audience was with Ljuba all the way, frequently applauding her stage action. Thomson found her a disturbing element in the fine cast, as she “created so much excitement.” You can read the review in the Met Opera Archives. When Robert Merrill interviewed Welitsch he suggested that she perhaps was lacking some necessary clothing that showed more than should be seen in an opera hoiuse—she just laughed it off.

Welitsch was a dynamic figure on stage, uninhibited, usually over the top, sometimes upstaging her colleagues. In a Met production of Tosca, Lawrence Tibbett was Scarpia. She took a personal dislike to the great baritone (apparentlhy he was tipsy) and after stabbing him at the end of Act II, repeatedly kicked his "dead” body. Never shy about her nterpretations, when asked why she declined the role of Senta in The Flying Dutchman she said: "I am not a German peasant girl. I am a sexy Bulgarian."

Wikipedia describes Welitsch's voice as "neither creamy nor shrill, possessing a small beat. This voice was very capable of riding the Straussian orchestra. Welitsch was a unique singer and her uniqueness was quickly established. A great artist, she was also capable of extraordinary over-the-top exhibitions." Her voice was strong throughout the entiure range, with rich lower notes that elude many sopranos. Welitsch was at her peak of performance up until about 1952: there is no question that her 1952 Met Salome is not as controlled as the 1949 performance. My friend Charles Gerhardt spent some time with Fritz Reiner who conducted those Met Salomes. They were recording Brahms Symphony No. 4 for Reader's Digest and Gerhardt spent much time with the famed condctor. During their onversations, Reiner mentioned Welitsch was the most "undisciplined" singer he had ever worked with. On You Tube you can see a brief 1986 Beverly Sills Vienna interview with Welitsch (she called Sills "a good American girl"). Sills asked Welittsch how she was able to follow Reiner's minima visual directions. Luba replied she had sung Salome with all of the famous conductosr incouding Karajan, Böhm, Knappertsbusch and Krauss, suggesting she didn't need the conductor! Perhaps so, but the result was as good as it gets.

Ljuba Welitsch as Tosca


Welitsch as Cio-Cio-san

Welitsch made a triumphant return to the Met Feb. 17, 1972 in a non-singing role in Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment as the Duchess of Krakenthorp (others in the cast included Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti). Welitsch had an ovation at each of the 19 performances. Again, the audience had not forgotten. Welitsch was a dynamic figure on stage, uninhibited, sometimes over the top, sometimes uipsetting her colleagues. In a Met production of Tosca, Lawrence Tibbett was Scarpia. She took a personal dislike to the great baritone (apparentlhy he was tipsy) and after stabbing him at the end of Act II, repeatedly kicked his "dead” body. Never shy about her interpretations, when asked why she declined the role of Senta in The Flying Dutchman she said: "I am not a German peasant girl. I am a sexy Bulgarian."

Welitsch lived and entertained on a grand scale, often giving parties in her home where the food – and wiune – flowed. She enjoyed many friends, was married and divorced twice, and had no children. She can be seen and heard briefly in the movie The Man Between, where the stars, James Mason and Claire Bloom, attend a performance of Salome. Welitsch is shown in brief excerpts from the final scene. The scene is posted on YouTube. Doubtless much of the performance was filmed—does it exist anywhere? Hope so! She also can be seen in a 1953 German TV production of Menotti's The Consul (REVIEW) . We are fortunate also to have a delightful video of her performance in Johann Strauss's A Night in Venice filmed in Munich in 1973. She dominates each scene in which she appears, and is in fine vocal form.

Premiere Oopera has an important CD called Ljuba Welitsch Live that offers some treasures. There is an exquisite duet with Anton Dermota from The Gypsy Baron, the ending of the Salome finale apparently from a performance with Clemens Krauss and the Vienna Philharmonic (it can be heard on YouTube; during the performance we see various photos of Welitsch. We hope eventually the complete performance will be issued). The CD includes exciting excerpts from Tosca and Il trovatore, both from the Vienna State Opera. Don’t miss these stunning snippets (Premiere Opera 3368). Many years ago there was a Melodram 2-LP set of La Rondine, but this has not, to my knowledge, been issued on CD. The same label also issued two 2-LP Welitsch sets. These included excerpts from her 1952 Met Salome, Don Giovanni, and Aida, the Beecham Elektra, the broadcast of Don Giovanni. She made a few recordings for EMI all worth seeking out, particularly an exquisite Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, and Dvorák's Song to the Moon. DeCapo has a fascinating hour-long interview with August Everding taped July 11, 1987 She is in jolly form as she discusses her career and there are some video excerpts. Music includes her first recording of Vissi d'arte, her scene from The Consul, and the conclusion of the 1943 broadcast of Salome mentioned above (no video, but effective photos). It is fascinating to observe her accompanied by her pet poodle. Her radiant personality, flaming red hair, and high-spirited conversation with the host, August Everding, show her high-spirited. personality. However, unfortunately, it is in German with no subtitles. This DaCapo video can be seen in its entirety on YouTube.

Ljuba Welitsch is buried in Vienna's Zentralfriedhof. On her tombstone is this phrase from Salome:
" … Das Gehimnis der libe ist grösser als dasGehimnis des Todes..("the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.")


Welitsch when she first arrived at Halsman's studio

Welitsch with a particularly gaudy cape for The Dance

After her sensational Met debut as Salome in 1949, Ljuba Welitsch went to famed photographer
Philippe Halsman for a series of publicity photos. On the left above is a picture taken when she first arrived in the studio, doubtlessthe only photo of Salome in a fur coat and cap holding the head of John the Baptist. The photo on the right shows Welitsch wearing an elaborate cape that she probably never wore in performance. It would have been fascinating to be at those photo sessions. Halsman had a great sense of humor, had worked with Salvador Dali, and doubtless his name came up as Welitsch had starred in the British production of Salome Deli had designed. Halsman's sense of humor also can be experienced by viewing his famous 1959 Jump Book in which he photographed many celebrities (including then President Richard Nixon and Carol Channing) jumping. A great book by a master photographer!

Ljuba Welitsch died Sep. 1, 1996 in Vienna and her grave is in that city's Zentralfriedhof. On her tombstone a line from Salome is quoted
''...:und das Geheimnis der liebe ist gosser als das Gehimnis des Todes: ("the mystery of love is greter than the mystery of death...:

Ljuba Welitsch loved to party and usually was the
center of attraction - note Callas in back.

If you have comments, additions or photos, please contact the author: trebor3636@verizon.net


R.E.B. (April 2016)