Julia Varady: He is the Sweetest Man in the World
On a winter's day a little girl sat in a movie theater in Grosswardein in Siebenbürgen. It was 13-year-old Julia Varady, today wife of Kammersänger Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and a world-class singer herself. At that time little Julia saw a film that would change her life, a movie version of Verdi's opera "Aida" with legendary soprano Maria Callas in the title role. From that day on Julia Varady was motivated by one thought: "Some day I want to be able to sing like Callas-and I'll succeed, too!" Twenty-eight years later, on March 22, 1982, she accomplished her goal. She sang the role of Aida at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. A critic wrote the following day: "The greatest and most pleasant surprise of the evening was Julia Varady. A new chapter in operatic history begins with her Aida . . . ." The "new Callas" opened the door of her villa on the Starnbergersee to me; I pressed a bouquet of flowers into her hand, and she received them with a radiant smile. Her good humor is as infectious as her vivacity. Through the living room door I can hear the fine tones of a piano and Fischer-Dieskau's powerful baritone. He is practicing. Julia makes coffee, her petite and dainty figure clad in a blue-checked trouser suit that doesn't conceal its Paris origins. Q. "Frau Varady, what does music and singing mean to you?" A. "Everything. Music is balm to my soul. It is an indescribable pleasure to sing and to make music come alive. I can express everything that way: laughter, tears, love, and hatred. But at the same time it is a continual balancing act between feeling and calculation. If you don't watch out, you can burst into tears yourself." Q. "And your profession? How would you describe your career?" A. "I had the rare good fortune to be able to make my passion my life's work. I'm very grateful for that. You can compare a singer most closely with a top athlete. One's course is paved with hard work, with daily training, with the sacrifice of a so-called normal life, with anxiety about one's voice, with sleepless nights before premieres, and much more. The reward is the enthusaism and appreciation of the audience-and that makes life worthwhile." Julia Varady's refreshingly spirited diction betrays the Hungarian blood that flows in her veins. She comes from Transylvania, where Count Dracula lived, which is today a part of Romania. Her Huuun-gaaar-ian accent shows through often in her speech. She is an enthusiast-a woman who is excited about what she does and who considers it enormously important to make others enthusiastic about it, as well. When she talks about opera, or her roles, or Maria Callas, or her husband, she does it with heart and soul. It's interesting to hear what she says about her opera roles: " You can't just regard opera roles as characters; you have to understand them as people." By this time, the artist, who has an enormous talent with languages (German, Romanian, Hungarian, French, Russian, Italian, English), has mastered more than 50 roles. The second great event in Julia Varady's life took the stage (in the truest sense of the word) in 1973. During the Munich Opera Festival she met Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who once was listed by the "Times" as one of the ten most famous men in the world. Four years later the six-foot-three-inch Kammersänger and dainty Julia (5'3") were quietly married at the registry office in Berg. And the way Fischer-Dieskau asked for her hand seems equally ripe for the stage: "It was in Munich. We were both performing in Pucci's "Il Tabarro." He was playing the bargeowner Marcel and I was his wife, who was betraying him with another man. Right before the end of the opera, in the scene where he slowly strangles me, he slipped a note into my hand that read: 'Will you marry me?' When I read that I was so astonished that I nearly missed my cue." Since then, Julia Varady is seldom alone, whether she is performing Arabella or Alceste in Salzburg or Berlin, Paris, London, or New York. In the past nine years the major opera houses have discovered that the Fischer-Dieskaus prefer to be engaged together-two world-class singers at one blow. Julia: "From the very beginning we have arranged to be separated from one another as little as possible. And that's very important! I can't think of a colleague who has really made it-- that is, carries on a successful career-without a happy relationship with his or her partner. You can really only cope with such a stressful, wearing life in common with someone else." The Fischer-Dieskaus find peace between the upheavals of their profession either in their city home in Berlin's Westend or in their villa on the Starnbergersee. For this house they "sold their last bean." Here they continue to share the occupational "trembling-for-each-other" and "profiting-from-one-another" in the greatest quiet and calmness. They read together (philosophy at the moment), listen to music (Fischer-Dieskau has a collection of more than 3000 recordings), work in the garden, and create new decors for their home-"all together with the sweetest and shyest man in the world," according to Julia. In addition, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is an enthusiastic painter. There is hardly a wall in the entire house that doesn't have one of his pictures on it. Fifty paintings hang in his spcaious studio in the basement level of their villa, among which are many portraits of Julia, because Fischer-Dieskau's favorite model is his wife. Q. "Two such great singer-personalities in one house: how do you work together? Do you help one another or does each go his own artistic way?" A. "To be honest, I go to him like a pupil who needs advice. He is both model and teacher at once. Even when I first started singing he was a model for me. One day my teacher gave me tapes with Fischer-Dieskau and said: 'Listen to these day and night. Then you'll know what singing is all about.'" I ask Frau Varady if she corresponds to the image of the super-sensitive singer who spends the better part of her day trying to protect her voice. "It used to be like that, but we have both decided to give it up. Now we happily go out in good weather without having to wrap a scarf around our neck." Q. "And how about stagefright before a premiere? Do you each feel anxiety on behalf of the other?" A. "Oh God, yes!" She pauses in embarrassment. "I mean, it's bad enough when I have a premiere myself, but when he stands up there alone and I'm down below in the audience, it's just awful! I can barely stand it!" He appears at that moment, and Julia says: "Now the sun appears!" And she beams, too. Fischer-Dieskau looks somewhat pale, tired out by the strenuous practicing. He has wrapped a scarf around his neck and immediately points out that they have to leave in half an hour. I ask him where they're going. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau looks at me with a smile: "To a concert, of course."
Florian Fischer-Fabian. Bild + Funk 42 (1982). Translation: © Celia A. Sgroi 2001