My Relationship With Richard Strauss’s Music Through Elektra


Inaugural Ceremony Speech at the Hungarian Academy of Arts (MMA)

11 April 2014, 10:00 a.m.


Dear Chairwoman!

Ladies and Gentlemen!

Dear Colleagues and Friends!

During my career I could get acquainted with the works of baroque composers, Mozart, Beethoven, Puccini, Verdi, Wagner and the Verismo and later I could reach the magnificent world of Richard Strauss. One of the most important chapters of my career is the great Richard Strauss’s roles and now, on the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth I remember it pleasantly. This is why I chose this subject for my academic inaugural ceremony speech.

A young Hungarian singer, who studied in the beginning of The Sixties at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, couldn’t meet with Richard Strauss and his music. The communist cultural policy treated Richard Strauss suspiciously, sometimes adversely, because the composer collaborated with the Nazi leadership for a short time and during her seclusion he allowed his celebration. On the other hand some significant Hungarian composers of the 20th century endeavored to liberate the Hungarian music from the exaggerated German influence. Mainly the prestigious Zoltán Kodály and his followers, students had this standpoint. But it’s an understood thing that Béla Bartók was intensely influenced by both the music of Wagner and R. Strauss. On the whole the most significant and most popular opera composer of the 20th century was out of the Hungarian musical canon. The first, short R. Strauss-monograph was published only in 1962 by Imre Fábián, who settled down in the Federal Republic of Germany a little later and he became the general editor of the Opernwelt. But in the end of The Sixties there were a certain remission, when Ariadne auf Naxos and Der Rosenkavalier was premiered thanks for János Ferencsik. But numerous operas of R. Strauss remained unknown for the Hungarian audience. As a student of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music I couldn’t meet with the operas of R. Strauss because of the length and the difficulty of these works. I would like to quote Prof. Dr. András Batta: “and after all, Eva Marton has become maybe the most significant R. Strauss-soprano of the last third of the 20th century. Using a twist of a R. Strauss’s opera-title, she is not only the woman without shadow, but the woman, who has won a shadow.”

As a singer, I really did a long shadow with Die Frau ohne Schatten. This magnificent work and Elektra saw my career through: I sang Die Kaisein (The Empress) and Die Färberin altogether 82 times in Die Frau ohne Schatten. In Elektra I sang Elektra and her sister, Chrysothemis and finally I portrayed – according to the role – my own mother Klytämnestra altogether – with the studio recording – 90 times. I think I am the only soprano, who performed all three roles on stage. The title roles of Ariadne auf Naxos (I sang 32 times) and Salome (I sang 20 times) are among my favorite roles, too. The most difficult is the title role of Die ägyptische Helena. This is the reason why this opera is performed so rarely. I sang it in only two festival performances in the Bayerische Staatsoper in München. I sang the songs of R. Strauss with pleasure, too. In my orchestral concerts I often performed Vier letzte Lieder. I


mention as a curiosity that I sang the world premiere of the song entitled Malven, which was found in the composer’s inheritance. In this concert in Toronto in 1985 the piano accompanist was the conductor Andrew Davis. The date of my first R. Strauss-role was in 1974: Die Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten in the Frakfurt Oper. The last was Klytämnestra in Elektra in 2010 in the Grand Théâtre de Genève. 36 years: a chapter in the history of opera playing.

For the first time, one of my mentors, the recently died director of Teatro Real of Madrid, Dr. Gérard Mortier – God rest his soul – sensed that I am suitable for the great R. Strauss-heroines. He was the artistic director of Frankfurt Oper as the third member of the famous triumvirate beside Christoph von Dohnányi and Peter Mario Katona, when he asked me to sing Die Kaiserin of Die Frau ohne Schatten in the autumn of 1973. After carefully studying to score I gave it back to him with the words that “this was not for me”. But Mortier did not give up, he kept to coming our home and would even taste my “really” hot Hungarian goulash, only to make me change my mind and accept the fact that the part of Die Kaiserin indeed was for me. At the end I became convinced that the role is for me by Karl Böhm’s recording. So I debuted in my first R. Strauss-role in August 1974 under the direction of the Hungarian László Halász.

Statistically my most popular R. Strauss-role was Elektra and it’s also interesting in the history of opera playing that I sang Chrysothemis at the MET in 1979 in the rising period of my career and at its end I sang Klytämnestra, too. But the real great challenge was Elektra. It’s role which arcs over the complete, monumental 104 minutes long one-act opera except few minutes. You must be present on the stage both vocally and in dramatic expression. All this demands unusual power and staying power.

R. Strauss saw Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Elektra in the same theater in Berlin, where he previously saw Oscar Wilde’s Salome, both directed by Max Reinhardt and starred with Getrud Eysoldt in the title roles. This Elektra was different than the ancient Greek tragedies (both the tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides have survived). This Elektra is laid in the back courtyard of the Mycenaean palace. The characters are psychically injured persons and resemble the case-works of the young Siegmund Freud and Joseph Breuer, which was published few years before Hofmannsthal’s Elektra. This isn’t the Greek ideal of Winckelmann and Goethe, but it’s a modern nightmare: cries, whispers, repressions, frustrations, blood and blood everywhere. The Hungarian poet and prose-writer, Dezső Kosztolányi drew it relevantly in 1910: “The blood gutters and pelts, we bath, riot and slither over head. Everything is sloppy and dirty, even the stairs, too, where bloody bed-sheets are screwed, whisperly and secretly. The new human feels the original horror in this way. Blood and blood, for the blood itself. Blood, with the every comfort of the modern technique. It streams from the conduits and from the showers, it flows from the taps. The tubs become full and the human is only a blood-vat on tap, a white jar for breaking to cause falling blood. I don’t negate this is a sly and a clever art. It isn’t relation with the elementary art of Sophocles by no manner of means. But I need it to understand the Greeks. Hofmannsthal translated the antique horror not to German, but the universal language of the 20th century.” (There was an orgiastic blood smearing scene in the Royal Opera of Covent Garden in London in 1990 without the knowledge of Kosztolányí!)

In the spring of 1906 R. Strauss got to know Hofmannsthal, who became his librettist of the following operas (except one) to his death in 1929. R. Strauss asked some change and abridgement in the text of Elektra from Hofmannsthal. But the text kept the drama’s basis,


like in Salome, where R. Strauss barely changed Oscar Wilde’s original text. The composer finished the score on 22 September 1908. Dresden was chosen for the place of the world premier. I would like to mention few things, what you have reason in the case of Elektra. According to R. Strauss, Elektra demands “the highest and the most dramatic soprano”. The complete team of the premier: 16 solo singers, chorus, 111 orchestral musician, who played more in 140 instruments: octave-flutes, heckelphon-(baritone oboe), 2 bass clarinet, A, B and E-flat clarinets, tubae, bass trombone, 8 kettledrums, gigantic percussion section with carillon, triangle, tambourine, tenor-drum, cymbal, bass-drum and tamtam, celesta, 2 harps, string sections with 63 members devided into 10 sections. Later this polyphony has become more and more plastic and clear during the years. In those days the critics appreciated the technical perfection of the work, but they found fault with the too many noises and the turbulence.

The first word, what I saw about Elektra: alone. The role starts with this word: „Allein! Weh, ganz allein.” („Alone! Ah, completely alone.”). Not only Elektra is alone under the weight of the spirit of his murdered father, Agamemnon, but the singer, who impersonates her, too. In effect, I was alone, alone on the stage, alone over against the audience and over against the huge orchestra. There is only a few absolute protagonist such Elektra in the history of opera. I sang this role at first on 10 June 1989 in the Wiener Staatsoper in the live broadcast and telecast of ORF. Later it was published in a commercial DVD, too. (The first highlight – with the Wiener Philharmoniker under the baton of Claudio Abbado, director: Harry Kupfer -  „Allein…”)  At first the word “alone” means the sense of liberty, then the sad reality, the suffering from loneliness. Elektra calls her father, – Agamemnon: la-mi-do-la – whom she still loves childishly, almost she is in love with him. Agamamnon’s military coat impliedly evokes his tragedy, his murder. At the end the almost 10-minute long monologue changes an ecstatic dance. It’s interesting that with the motif of the Ride of the Valkyries R. Strauss refers to Brünnhilde, who also almost is in love with her father, Wotan. I would like to mention that I arrived from Brünnhilde to Elektra, because previously I portrayed the favourite daughter of Wotan so many times. But the role of Elektra led me to such depth, which was totally new for me. I think, this is the most tragic opera, in which I have very played. An ancient Greek story, which could have happened even today, even tomorrow – and it happanes, because there are a lot of family tragedies, psychical pains and incurable wounds. The text of Hofmannsthal’s Elektra is very intense is emotions and images. The whole bulk of the story is black, grey and white, but the composition is very colourful. The words start up new and new feelings – and R. Strauss translated it into the sounding of his genially monumental orchestra and into the inexhaustively colourful and exciting turns of harmony. In his music there are a naturalist pictorialness, for example barking, jingle of Klütaimnesztra’s jewels, clatter of hoofs of sacrificial horses, crashes of lashing. But there are a lot of cathartic phases: in the recognition scene of Elektra and Orest, in the victorious dance of Elekra and an the end, when Elektra and Chrysothemis euphorically praise the victory of their revenger brother, Orest.

The music is special, modern and brave – in the beginning of the 20th century it was one of the most modern music in Europe, it was the final limits of the tonality. It was thought by good many people that Richar Strauss will take the lead of the modern generation of the new century. But it was not to be: after the Elektra R. Strauss compose not a dodecaphonic work (his younger coeval, Arnold Schoenberg did it instead of him), but the postmodern Der Rosenkavalier, but it would be the subject of another lecture.

The all keynote of Elektra is in contrasty major-minor pairs. For example the opening D minor establish the first scene’s horror and later Chrysothemis cries out in this keynote:


„Orest ist tot” (Orest is died), then it serves as Orest’s announcement and it appears at the finale’s development. These returning keynotes are the characteristics of Richard Wagner’s music, too. According to me – I think I am not alone in my viewpoint – the most beautiful highlights of the work, Elektra’s monologue, Chrysothemis’s hymn about the motherhood, the recognition scene and the final duet are so many irresistibly powerful expressions of emotional states. At the end of the work R. Strauss stays Elektra’s valse in 6/5 and it changes into a triumphant C-major, which is a triumphant keynote: the mission of Elektra has been realized and at long last she can calm down – in the death.

Elektra makes extraordinary difficulties for the performer, but it’s always so wonderful, so fascinating for me, that under the spell of the work and the role I almost forgot the difficulties. The great jumps, the hardly intonable intervals are only instruments for the portrayal of the complete person. I have been always interested in the faith and true portrayal of the complete person in a dramatic sense.

At first in the revival of Elektra I met the music drama at the Metropolitan Opera in December 1978 and January 1979 under the specially appreciative and inspired musical direction of Erich Leinsdorf. At the time the role of Chrysothemis was suited me. Elektra was sung by the Serbian soprano, Danica Mastilovic. In the beginning of the eighties the DECCA planned an Elektra, in which I ought have been sung Chrysothemis. On the second day of the recording session the famous conductor, Klaus Tennstedt, whom I sang Fidelio in 1983 at the Metropolitan Opera, interrupted the conducting telling that Marton is the authentic Elektra and he wasn’t willing to record the work. So we finished the recording. For the first time Seiji Ozawa asked me to sing the title role in the opening premiere in 1987 in La Scala di Milano. I decidedly refused it, because I didn’t undertake the role before the title role of Salome (at first I sang it in Paris in 1987) and Brünnhilde of Die Walküre (I sang it also in 1987 in Genève). Elektra could come after Salome and Brünnhilde in the memorable premier of Wiener Staatsoper in 1989 under the baton of Claudio Abbado, directed by Harry Kupfer. The Greek heroine has lined up behind Tosca, Turandot and Gioconda in my theatrical pantheon. Good many people worried that I’m too young to this role. But by any means I wished to change. After many lyrical heroines I had a desire for a dure and an implacable role.

This was the hardest preparation of my life and the excellent director, Harry Kupfer played a very important part in it. The most difficult period was the learning of the role. I spent many days together with the score. I searched the key to the music of Richard Strauss, the unusual consonances, the strange intervals and motives. When I felt at home in the music, with my vocal master I became more and more immersed in the work, in the text and in the characters, too. Then I went up to the stage with Harry Kupfer and I forgot everything. We went through only two pages in an afternoon. With Harry Kupfer You worked 8 hours daily through 5 weeks, searching the every secret of the role and the story.

I had never had such a hard work previously. My husband attended the rehearsals with a little worry. Once he asked me: “What was happened with you? My Eva, you have changed. You play a role all day long!” I became so workaholic that I didn’t care for my hairdressing and the clothing, I was negligent of my make-up. And I didn’t know it. I didn’t perceive this changing. It was so very difficult to return to myself after the Elektra–performances also later: the next day I couldn’t do anything, on the second day I started to return to reality, on the third I could train and on the fourth I sang.  It wasn’t easy.


In Wien the stage-setting was enthralling with the trunk of Agamemnon’s grandiose statue, in which there were ropes on every hand: fibres, which attached his living relatives, especially Elektra to him. Kupfer took the plot in the beginning of 20th century, when Hofmannstahl and R. Strauss wrote the work. But Kupfer didn’t appoint exactly the time and the place. It was interesting that good many people associated Stalin with Agamemnon’s damaged statue. It wasn’t chance, because the premier in Wien was in 1989, at the final moment of the Eastern-European communist regimes, at the time of fall of statues and walls. But the fibres had a much more important massage: I played hand over hand in it almost all over, partly hanging on it, partly jumbling in it. Under the carpet there were placed hard metals, so I always had blue and green spots on my skin. I suffered, in the strict sense of the word.

Kupfer is a very dynamic, creative artist, whom I have learnt a lot during the long and extremely intensive rehearsal session. The most important thing, what he told me, was the following: “Before you do anything, you have to decide, what kind of character you have to form. There isn’t any possibility to show the complete person. You have to decide: you become a woman, who suffers a lot or a beast, who offends others. Then each night you have to go along in this way.” But in his conception he emphasized and he required that Elektra is like an animal, she hasn’t a human character – she is a living being: she isn’t a woman and she isn’t a man. I needed time to accept this viewpoint. I managed to do it only in the performance session of the Salzburg Festival in August. I feel that I could successfully cope with this extraordinarily demanding role. In the acting it was very difficult for me for a long time that according to my role I had to hate my own mother. It’s difficult to play it genuinely for a kind-hearted woman. Then Ayatollah Khomeini came to my mind. Once I read about his exile in Paris. He always had a photo of the shah, whom he hated passionately. He didn’t have other things than a bed, a chair, a table and this picture. He hung up facing his bed to see the shah from morning till night. So he always remembered his ardent hate. This feeling is very far from me. When you hate somebody, you use up your every energy. This is an immense loss! I recognized the parallel between the ayatollah’s story and the Elektra’s life, which is led by the hate. So it was enough for me to recall the character of Khomeini. (The second highlight: the final part of the duet of Elektra and Klytamnestra with Brigitte Fassbaender.) Between 1989 and 2007 – with the recording – I sang Elektra in twenty cities, in the most important opera houses and concert halls. The maturation of the role was neither straight, nor broken into as numerous parts as I performance did. After the Salzburg Festival in November 1989 Kupfer’s production was performed in Stuttgart, too. The conductor was Garcia Navarro. At the time I heard the fall of the Berlin Wall from the radio. In the streets and in the roads there was an impenetrable crowd. The people rejoiced joyously, we felt that the time of oppression ended for good and all. And we played a similar story on the stage.                                                                              

For EMI I recorded the title role in München in January 1990, under the baton of Wolfgang Sawallisch, who perceived the smallest errors, too. I battled with him, with this genial artist and with his metronome. He absolutely comprehended the characters and the music and he compelled me to connect ideally to the orchestra. It doesn’t mean that I diminish the significance of Abbado, Navarro, Solti, Maazel of Thielemann – each of them are great conductors and approaches this work in different individual manners. But I was enthralled that Sawallisch gave other interpretation and other significance to certain phases than Abbado.                          

I am not that type of the singers, who arrive to a premier or a revival with an unchangeable conception. I profess its opposite: I would like new experiences every time, because the music becomes really alive for me in this way.


In my portrayal of Elektra the base was given by the performances of Wien, Salzburg and Stuttgart, with which musically Wolfgang Sawallisch set up an absolute standard with the recording. (The third highlight: the second duet of Elektra and Chrysothemis with Cheryl Studer, who sang this role in the recording, too.)

In the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona there was a performance session with enormous success, which improved my acting in this role. I could work with the excellent actress and director, Núria Espert, who mellowed my stage acting and my relation with Elektra after Kupfer’s hard conception. She made clear in our first talking that she would like to see a feminine Elektra on the stage, with the most natural look, with own hair, almost without makeup, barefoot and in a simple white dress. The stage-setting evoked the time of the Second World War: Elektra lived in an old timer car, which was apportioned to her in the backside of a ravaged Italian castle. (I would like to notice that after the performance session instead of my fee I asked the old timer, but I didn’t receive it.) So my move was restricted and through her softer personality Elektra became more pitied, more commiserated. I didn’t have to play a Greek heroine. So the modest, clear gestures gave the possibility to sing in a more colourful and more differentiate way. I was myself on the stage. It was an memorable, fine work.   

After this the summit, the completion could come: in the Royal Opera of Covent Garden in London, under the baton of Sir Georg Solti, in the direction of Götz Friedrich!

The Times of London greeted the premiere in March 1990 with the headline entitled „Double Hungarian Triumphs”. I would like to quote from the critique of Paul Griffiths for avoiding praising myself:

„Royal Opera’s new production of Richard Strauss’s Elekrta boasts clear design and first-class musicianship. Double Hungarian Triumph.” - on the front page.  

“The last Royal Opera production of Elektra went out two years ago… its replacement arrived on Saturday night at a similar level of intensity, but with the thrill differently placed, in a diamond-bright, ferociously resolved and yet also astonishingly lyrical central performance by Eva Marton, and at the same time in the quite spectacular orchestral sounds spurred from the pit (and from two side boxes packed with brasses, harps and percussion) under Sir Georg Solti. If the evening is essentially a Marton-Solti, double Hungarian triumph, it is helped in the right direction by Götz Friedrich’s production.” Later he wrote the following about my portrayal: “her conversational detail and variety of tone show an intelligent command of vocal resources that is as remarkable as her sheer stamina.” I could heighten the quotes and too much of a good thing can make you sick, but I must say, I could inure it and it was harmless for me! In a proper sense I could have presented the stages of a role in some degree.

For my acting I was nominated for Laurence Olivier Prize, what finally I didn’t receive. The winner was the company of the Royal Welsh Opera for a production, which gibed at English royal dynasty. This is the characteristic of the English democracy. Sir Peter Ustinov, when gave the prize, couldn’t stay and he noticed: “I could give this prize to the “Greek woman””. I remember the following day of the premier, when Maestro Sir Georg Solti gladly sprang in, waving The Times saying: “Look: “Double Hungarian Triumph”!”

On 3 March 1991 I sang Elekta in a concert performance in the Carnegie Hall. Perhaps you think a great performance couldn’t be better. But it can happen. This concert performance was


the part of Wiener Philharmoniker’s American tour and if you can believe to them – why not? –, they keeps count of this night as a summit. This Elektra was an outstanding production of centennial season of the Carnegie Hall, under the baton of Lorin Maazel. Briefly about the antecedents: Claudio Abbado didn’t take on the performance and Lorin Maazel substituted him. At the time Lorin Maazel wasn’t on good terms with the Viennese ensemble and he planned another programme, but the directorate of the Carnegie Hall insisted on Elektra, with Marton. I hadn’t sung in New York for two years, because there was a conflict with the Metropolitan Opera. Finally, in 1989 after a Salome-performance I terminated my contract. After that there were rumours and gossips. But there weren’t any ticket for Carnegie Hall-Elektra even in the black market. The concert performance started at 2 p.m. My husband’s psychological preparation was extremely simple: one hour and a half before the concert we ardently played „back gammon” at home. After a long time I could win the game and the not a little sum with 3:2 from a loser position of 0:2. I happily went to the performance. I could narrate about the circumstances of such a performance, but now I emphasize only the final moments: after the extraordinary fine performance the almost half hour long standing ovation was led by my dear colleague, Luciano Pavarotti. (The fourth highlight is the recognition scene /„Orest…Orest…”/ with Franz Grundheber.)

After a shorter break I returned to Elektra in September 1992 in Lyric Opera of Chicago. Then I sang in Royal Opera House of Covent Garden in 1994, under the baton of the excellent German conductor, Christian Thielemann. I remember a concert production in Valencia in 1995, too. I was touched very deeply by the performance, in which Leonie Rysanek portrayed my mother, Klytämnestra. We had an exciting fight and she played so realistically that at the end of our scene I almost strangled her. I got to know after the performance that it was her last appearance, because she had cancer. At first I met with her in Lohengrin in the Metropolitan Opera: I sang Elsa and she was Ortrud. I came to know her as a real, devoted artist and as a pleasant person. She is one of my unforgettable colleagues. But my Elektra-experiences continued further. Plácido Domingo, as the artistic director of Washington Opera invited me to the American capital to perform Elektra. This performance session also had a significant success, under the baton of Heinz Fricke. My conductors were Jiří Kout in Paris and in Prague, García Navarro in Madrid, Marc Albrecht in Berlin and Kent Nagano in the Lyon Festival. It is a large number: I sang Elektra in 72 times and my farewell performance in this role was in May 2007, in Düsseldorf. The conductor was John Fiore, my former piano accompanist in rehearsals of the Metropolitan Opera. The young boy has become a mature, excellent conductor. (The fifth highlight: scene fragment with Aegisth. My partner is James King.)

As a clause of Elekta in brief I would like to touch on the mother, Klytämnestra, who murdered her husband. This hysteric, long-tongued woman is an extremely impressive dramatic character. In spite of that she doesn’t have none of singable, croonable melody. Her musical texture is near to the modern „Sprechgesang” of the beginning of the 20th century.

I felt nostalgia after the farewell from the role of Elektra, but I was woken by a new, great challenge: in February 2008 in Barcelona I could portray this terrible mother, singing her unusual part. I was very glad, last but not least after the scalp of Elektra and Chrysothemis. This production of Guy Joosten, conducted by Sebastian Weigle, also has a great success with Deborah Polaski in the title role. In November 2010 I could sang again this role under the baton of the Hungarian-descended conductor, Stefan Soltész, directed by Christof Nel. Elektra was the American (despite her name!) soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet.


Three protagonist roles, Chrysothemis, Klytämnestra and Elektra – not in the same period, but in a same work: I think it’s a rarity in the history of opera. I would like to share the difficulties, the passion and the joy of my work. Thank you very much for listening and for order’s sake I would like to leave with the finale.

(The sixth highlight: the finale of Elektra from the Wiener Staatsoper in 1989. Chrysothemis: Cheryl Studer, Orest: Franz Grundheber, Elektra: Eva Marton. The Wiener Philharmoniker is conducted by Claudio Abbado. The stage director is Harry Kupfer. The live opera film of ORF was directed and led by the best and the most wanted television opera director.)

Budapest, 11 April 2014

                                                                                          Prof.emerita, KS Eva Marton



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