Inge Borkh, a soprano who inhabited with thrilling intensity some of the most hair-raising and daunting roles in the operatic repertoire, died on Aug. 26 at her home in Stuttgart, Germany. She was 97.
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Her death was confirmed by Thomas Voigt, a friend and her collaborator on a 2006 book of interviews, Not Only Salome and Elektra.
Those two fiendishly difficult characters, in operas of the same names by Richard Strauss, were the ones for which Ms. Borkh was most renowned. "I can honestly say that I have never been so shaken by an individual performance in my entire operatic life,” Ken Benson, a long-time manager of singers, wrote on Facebook of her star turn in Elektra at the Metropolitan Opera in 1961.
Her passionate portrayals emerged through solid technique and secure, if fiery, tone. Howard Taubman, reviewing her in concert as Elektra at Carnegie Hall in 1958, wrote in The New York Times that she sang "with unremitting authority,” adding, “The word ‘sang’ is not used by courtesy, as it often has to be with Elektras.” (The role is so arduous that many sopranos practically scream through much of it.)
Ingeborg Simon was born on May 26, 1921, in Mannheim, Germany. Her father was Jewish, and the family fled Germany in 1935, after the rise of the Nazis, settling first in Geneva and then in Vienna.
Although her mother’s side of the family was dotted with singers, she began her education as an actor. After the Anschluss in 1938, she returned to Switzerland, where she encountered the bass Fritz Ollendorff, who recommended she develop her singing voice. She studied in Milan, and made her debut in 1940 in Lucerne, Switzerland, adopting Inge Borkh as her stage name.
Spending the 1940s in Switzerland, she swiftly moved from lighter lyrical roles to heavier ones in operas by Wagner (Senta in Die fliegende Hollander), Puccini (Tosca and Turandot) and Verdi (Leonora in Il Trovatore and La forza del destino), as well as the formidable Strauss anti-heroines who became her calling cards.
In 1951, Ms. Borkh caused a sensation when she appeared in Berlin as Magda Sorel in Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera The Consul, just a year after its debut. She “not only emerged with top honours for a brilliant performance,” Kathleen McLaughlin wrote in The New York Times, “but also experienced that rarest of tributes for an actress by ‘stopping the show.’”
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“The reaction of the audience,” Ms. McLaughlin added, “was an ovation of shouts, stamping and hand-clapping that lasted for several minutes.”
That success put Ms. Borkh on the international map, leading to debuts as far afield as London, New York and San Francisco, although her career remained focused on Continental Europe. She made few commercial recordings, but when her live performances were captured on disc, they frequently became cult favourites – none more so than a delirious 1957 Elektra at the Salzburg Festival in Austria led by Dimitri Mitropoulos, who also conducted her Met debut, as Salome, the next year. She went on to appear at the Met as Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walkure, the Dyer’s Wife in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten and Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio.
Ms. Borkh was married to the bass-baritone Alexander Welitsch, who died in 1991. According to Mr. Voigt, she leaves a stepson.
She retired from opera after a run of Elektra in Palermo, Italy, in 1973, but continued to appear onstage as a monologuist and as a suave, witty cabaret artist; a memorable recording was made of her cabaret show, Inge Borkh Sings Her Memoirs.
In 1996, she published an autobiography, Ich Komm vom Theater nicht los … (“I Can’t Shake the Theatre … “). Mr. Voigt said that her final trip, earlier this month, was to the Salzburg Festival – to see a much-discussed new production of Salome.