Death of a major opera player

Death of a major opera player


norman lebrecht

October 01, 2019

Spanish media have reported the death of Helga Schmidt, long-standing artistic advisor at Covent Garden and founder of the contentious  Palau de les Arts in Valencia. She was 78 and was embroiled in an interminable legal struggle to clear her name in Spain.

Helga, who knew Wilhelm Furtwängler, Karl Böhm, Dimitri Mitropoulos and Clemens Krauss at her Austrian childhood home, formed close friendships with the conductors Lorin Maazel and Zubin Mehta and especially with the singer Placido Domingo, who spoke out for her when she faced politically motivated charges of corruption in Valencia.

She was the ultimate establishment figure at the heart of the opera business, one who placed the needs of artists above all other priorities and there were concerns in London that her influence contributed to Covent Garden’s stagnation in the 1980s.

But no-one could put together a star cast more effectively than Helga and her standards were never compromised. The orchestra she formed in Spain for Maazel was the best that country has ever heard.

Her last years were dogged by arrests, passport confications and legal expenses as Valencia’s mayor turned against the arts centre. She spent hours on the phone with Slipped Disc, producing documents that she was sure would clear her name. Now death has robber her of that chance.



  • Rodrigo says:

    Tragic. Gerard Mortier met a similar fate as the result of his experience in Spain. He was unceremoniously fired from Madrid’s Teatro Real and passed away shortly after. Helga was not only fired from Les Arts Opera in Valencia, but also hauled to court on charges of fraud, which is ridiculous. Her case was set to go to trial just one month from now. Les Arts is fraught with financial problems which have nothing to do with her. The Valencian politicians needed a scape goat. Her absence has solved absolutely nothing with their financial crises. Les Arts remains a mess.

    Spain wants so much to take its place in the international opera world, and twice now has imported world class opera intendentes – Mortier and Schmidt – and then completely destroyed them. They both ended up fired and dead shortly afterwards.

    Helga Schmidt’s case is particularly tragic. Mortier left this world kicking and screaming and defending himself like the fiesty character he always was, right up until his death.
    Helga just withered away, probably in large part from grief. The police and courts were unreasonably hard on her, at first not even allowing her to return to her native Austria to await trial. She was under house arrest in Valencia for about a year, if I recall correctly. A 78 year old woman, in failing health, not allowed to return to her home. I believe she had to prove medical necessity to return home to Austria.

    This is a woman who once managed the Royal Opera at Covent Garden. She was treated by Spanish police like a common criminal, simply because politicians believed she’d taken too many liberties with the public funds in the execution of her responsibilities as manager of Les Arts Opera House.

    This sad ending bodes poorly for Spain. Their politicians appear to be ignorant, naive and unfeeling.It’s unthinkable that any govt. or police system would treat an elderly, ill woman as they did Helga Schmidt. She was a person of great culture and was well regarded in the opera world. She brought Les Arts into the spotlight with outstanding productions and international talent. Spain threw her to the dogs.

    Let this be a lesson to any top international opera managers considering a career move to Spain. Remember Gerard Mortier. Remember Helga Schmidt. Never forget what happened to them. Rest in peace, dear Helga.

  • ASteven says:

    Helga Schmidt was a positive force at Covent garden. her operatic knowledge, casting wisdom were a tremendous asset.