The soprano Hilde Zadek “was not only a great singer but also a woman of remarkable courage and moral authority” said Patrick Bade during an interview in front of an audience at the London Jewish Cultural Centre in 1997. At the end of the evening, Zadek was challenged by a potentially hostile question about the political situation in the Middle East. She brought the largely Jewish audience to its feet by declaring that she longed for the day when Jews and Arabs would live together as brothers.
Hilde Zadek was born into the Jewish bourgeoisie in the then German city of Bromberg (present day Bydgoszcz) shortly before it became part of the newly independent Polish state. She spent her childhood in Stettin, then still part of Germany, where her family ran a shoe store. In 1934, the year after Hitler became chancellor, Hilde happened to overhear a schoolmate remark, “Es stinkt nach Juden” — “It reeks of Jews”. The sixteen-year-old Hilde punched the girl’s front teeth out and she was expelled from school. At risk of arrest, she and her family immigrated to Palestine that year. In Jerusalem she supported herself by working as a nurse in a hospital while she pursued her vocal training under the great dramatic soprano Rose Pauly. Madame Zadek described Rose Pauly as a “wild beast in anguish” – perfect casting as Elektra, the role in which she thrilled audiences around the world in the 1930s.
When the war was over, Zadek took the first opportunity to return to Europe and to complete her training in Switzerland under a soprano of a very different stamp – Ria Ginster. At her best Hilde Zadek could be said to have combined the visceral passion of Pauly with the vocal poise of Ginster. The raw passion can be heard in her recording of Chrysothemis’ lament, and the poise can be heard in her rendition of the Libera me from Verdi’s Requiem in a performance under Herbert von Karajan at the Salzburg Festival.
Zadek auditioned for the Vienna Staatsoper in 1947, when the city was still under allied occupation. Two days later she was thrown onto the stage as Aida without so much as a proper rehearsal. The result was a triumph, and she soon established herself as a favourite with the Viennese public. It was not long before she was awarded the coveted title of Kammersȁngerin. She availed herself of the privilege accorded to Kammersȁngerinnen of taking five years off her official age, a decision she regretted when it came to drawing her pension.
Asked what it was like to be a prominent Jew in post war Vienna, she said that she never allowed the latent antisemitism of the Viennese to bother her. One evening when she left the Staatsoper after a performance, she found that someone had scratched the message “We do not want Sarah as Sieglinde” on the side of her car. She responded that she was proud to appear on stage as a Sieglinde who was tall, beautiful and Jewish.
Hilde Zadek’s career took her to Berlin, Salzburg, London, Glyndebourne, Edinburgh, New York and many other operatic centres. She had to compete with an exceptionally talented generation of Germanic sopranos that included Elisabeth Grümmer, Lisa Della Casa, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Sena Jurinac and Irmgard Seefried. She was generous and objective in her assessment of all these rival sopranos. In her later years she basked in the devoted companionship of another very fine soprano, the Italo-American Maria Venuti. Her voice could be described as “jugendlich dramatisch” and amongst the roles that suited her best were Strauss’ Ariadne, the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and Mozart’s Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. In 1967 she was appointed professor at the Vienna Music Academy. The Hilde Zadek Voice Competition has been held bi-annually since 2003. She died in Karlsruhe on 21 February 2019 at the age of 101.
By Patrick Bade