About a year ago, I wrote a review of a joint reissue album including recordings by both Ljuba Welitsch and Inge Borkh. The title I gave it was, “Welitsch Was a Spitfire, But Borkh Was a Blowtorch!” One of the few people I know who saw her on stage at the Metropolitan Opera sent me an e-mail agreeing with me.
But alas, too few people remember this magnificent singing actress.
The reason was that, like so many German and Austrian opera singers, the timing of her career was terrible, starting as it did during the Nazi era when even some of the most ambitious singers weren’t too happy to be promoted by the swastika flag. Like so many other female singers of her time, among them Licia Albanese, Magda Olivero, Dorothy Kirsten and Jennie Tourel, Borkh shaved a few years off her birthdate to try to jumpstart her career after the War. Wikipedia says she was born on May 26 of either 1917 or 1921 as Ingeborg Simon. I opt for 1917 because she was already singing operetta professionally in 1936, and 15 years old seems a little dicey to me.
But of course operetta isn’t what Borkh was cut out for. Like her contemporary Martha Mödl, she was a stage animal who considered herself an actor first, a singer second. She chose the meatiest roles her voice could handle; unlike Mödl, she wisely avoided most of the Wagnerian repertoire. But they shared some roles in common, particularly Antigonae and Leonore in Fidelio. Yet Borkh was the more fortunate in terms of her early Met career, as she arrived in New York during the early 1950s and dominated the stage until…
…the arrival of Birgit Nilsson.
That was her Waterloo in America. The steel-voiced Swede, who captured America by storm, sang not only all of the Wagnerian repertoire that Borkh had avoided but nearly every role in Borkh’s repertoire: Leonore, Elektra, Turandot, Lady Macbeth, Salome. Check and mate. Borkh left the Met in 1961, when Nilsson-mania was at its height, and did not return until exactly a decade later, and then only to sing Dyer’s Wife in a production of Die Frau Ohne Schatten conducted by Karl Böhm. During the summer of 1971, she also sang three Fidelios at the Met opera-in-the-park performances. That was the end of Borkh’s association with the Met.
She continued to sing in Europe for another two years, but then started doing speaking roles. Then she retired, virtually forgotten by British and American audiences who still couldn’t get over Birgit Nilsson. But although Nilsson was a magnificent vocalist and generally exciting, she never quite got inside the characters as well as Borkh did. And Borkh could always deliver the kind of performance that brought you to the edge of your seat. She was, truly, one of the greats.
So this is my brief tribute to her. I recommend her complete recordings of Turandot (with del Monaco and Tebaldi) and Die Frau ohne Schatten (with an all-star cast of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, James King and Martha Mödl), her highlights from Salome and Elektra conducted by Fritz Reiner (her complete Elektra with Böhm is good but not as great, in this one instance, as Nilsson’s studio recording), and any and all individual aria and duet recordings you can find. There’s a lot on YouTube for you to explore, including a terrific early recording of the “Abscheulischer!” from Fidelio and Magda Sorel’s aria from Menotti’s The Consul (in German) and a powerful live performance of “Vicino a te” from Andrea Chenier with the great tenor Richard Tucker. And to Inge herself, wherever she is art this time, a very heartfelt Happy 100th Birthday. To which she might answer, as she did to my cousin Diane in 1971,
“T’ank you, young lady!”
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley