As a child Welitsch (actual name Velichkova) demonstrated musical talent through singing and playing the violin. She studied singing from 1932 at the Sofia Conservatory with Gyorgy Zlater- Cherkin; during this period she sang in the chorus of the Sofia Opera and appeared in small roles in Louise and Boris Godunov. After undertaking further study from 1935 with Theo Lierhammer at the Vienna Music Academy she graduated in 1937 and joined the Graz Municipal Opera, making her debut there as Helmwige / Die Walküre.
Graz’s ten-month season enabled Welitsch to develop her operatic skills and repertoire considerably: roles she sang there included Desdemona / Otello, Fiordiligi / Così fan tutte, Mimì / La Bohème, Sophie / Der Rosenkavalier and the title parts of Madama Butterfly and Manon Lescaut. In 1941 she left Graz for Hamburg, but at the same time was active in Dresden, where she sang Saffi / Der Zigeunerbaron, Esmeralda / Notre Dame and Marie / The Bartered Bride during 1941 and 1942. She also appeared as a guest in Sofia, Graz and in Munich with the Bavarian State Opera, where she made her debut in 1942 as Butterfly. She moved from Hamburg to Munich in 1943, remaining there until 1946.
Having made her debut at the Vienna Volksoper for a single performance as Butterfly at the end of 1940, Welitsch began to sing there regularly from 1942, adding the Goose Girl / Königskinder and Rosalinde / Die Fledermaus to her repertoire. Here too she made her first appearance in the title role of Richard Strauss’s Salome in 1944, later singing the same role in a performance to celebrate the composer’s eightieth birthday. Having substituted for Irmgard Seefried as the Composer / Ariadne auf Naxos in 1944 at the Vienna State Opera, Welitsch joined this company in 1946; here her roles included Giulietta / Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Nedda / Pagliacci, Lisa / The Queen of Spades, Tatyana / Eugene Onegin, Donna Anna / Don Giovanni, the title roles of Aida and Jenůfa, and Nadja in Salmhofer’s Ivan Tarassenko.
Welitsch sang Donna Anna at the 1946 Salzburg Festival (returning for the same role in 1950 under Wilhelm Furtwängler) but her international breakthrough took place in 1947. As a member of the Vienna State Opera Company visiting the Royal Opera House, London she sang Salome, with Clemens Krauss conducting, and Donna Anna under Josef Krips. Shortly afterwards she sang Chrysothemis in an historic BBC radio broadcast of Elektra with Beecham conducting.
Between 1948 and 1953 Welitsch sang regularly with the young Covent Garden Opera: in the title role of Aida and as Musetta / La Bohème (both 1948), Salome (1949, director Peter Brook), the title part in Tosca (1951) and Lisa (1953). In Europe during this post-war period she appeared in Milan, Paris, Rome, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Munich as well as in Vienna. She sang with the Glyndebourne Festival Opera at the Edinburgh Festival as Donna Anna in 1948 and as Amelia / Un ballo in maschera in 1949.
Earlier in 1949 Welitsch had made a sensational debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York as Salome. Although the audience had come primarily to hear Fritz Reiner’s debut at the Met, it was Welitsch whom they cheered for fifteen minutes at the conclusion. The following day Olin Downes described her in the New York Times as ‘a musician and interpreter of flaming temperament’. Salome was followed by Aida and during 1950 by Donna Anna, Tosca, and Rosalinde. At the beginning of 1952 a single performance as Musetta was deemed by the critics to be dramatically excessive. By this time Welitsch’s voice was beginning to show signs of wear, and after a final Salome in February 1952 she did not return to the Met for twenty years, in 1972 taking the non-singing part of the Duchess of Krakenthorp / La Fille du Régiment.
In the USA Welitsch also sang with the Chicago and San Francisco opera companies and undertook concert tours. At the Vienna State Opera new roles included Leonore / Il trovatore (1951), Minnie / La fanciulla del West (1952) and the Countess / Le nozze di Figaro (1954). After 1955 she reverted to smaller character parts and appeared frequently at the Vienna Volksoper, where she was extremely popular and remained active until 1981. She also appeared in several films.
In 1956 Welitsch, who had first married the actor and stage director Fred Schroer in 1940, caused quite a stir by marrying a twenty-nine-year-old traffic policeman who had assisted her following an accident; they were divorced in 1969.
As her recordings demonstrate, Welitsch’s voice combined power, accuracy, musicality and sensuality, all placed at the service of the dramatic moment. Her studio recording of the final scene from Salome remains one of the finest accounts of this testing part.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).