Karajan’s British star is 90 today

Josephine Veasey was an excellent British soprano from Peckham, virtually unknown in mid-career beyond the UK circuit, when a summons came from Herbert von Karajan to sing Fricka in his Ring cycle at Salzburg, La Scala and the New York Met.

It made her name but never made her happy. As Rochard Osborne relates in his Karajan biography, she hated working with Karajan and had hardly a good word to say for him. Jo was a formidable presence on the Covent Garden and Coliseum stages.

She turns 90 today and is in poor health.

Give her a wave.

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  • lillianastanescu says:

    Amazing how sometimes great artists dislike each other whilst producing some notable collaborations.

  • M McAlpine says:

    I think as usual Norman you are allowing your own hatred of Karajan to influence your reading of Osborn’s biography. Yes there were things she hated but also she said that working with him was ‘very stimulating to a singer.’ And although she was caught in the crossfire between the Karajan and Solti camps yet Osborn says, “Yet Karajan was kindness itself when it came to re-scheduling rehearsals in New York to fit in with holiday arrangements for Veasay’s children.” That is not to make a saint out of Karajan (he wasn’t) but to add a little balance with the hatred.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      I have no hatred for Karajan. Criticism, yes, but no hatred.

    • Yes Addison says:

      Good note, M McAlpine. With Karajan and singers, it could often be summed up as “it’s complicated.” We’re always hearing about the friction between him and Nilsson, which was undeniably there, but less often reproduced is her comment that making music with him could be a great pleasure (“when he concentrated on the music,” I think she added, although I’m paraphrasing). She didn’t overlook his remarkable qualities, and she was not someone who looked for good things to say about conductors when there really were none.

      On the topic, Veasey’s Fricka both on the studio recording and the live ones is marvelous. I also love her Adalgisa with Caballé and Vickers in the famous performance from Orange (not with Karajan).

      • Tristan says:

        You are right about Nilsson and Karajan – she like so many disliked his minor skills in direction on stage but admitted that when he was conducting it was glorious! Solti was definitely a fabulous conductor also but Karajan one of the greatest and definitely more striking and exciting plus more emotional! Only Carlos Kleiber was above him in all pieces they both conducted

        • M McAlpine says:

          I think however much some artists did not like Karajan as a person they rarely failed to acknowledge his genius as a musician. Kleiber and Karajan had a mutual admiration society.

  • Paul Brownsey says:

    *Last* British star? What about Harwood and Barstow?

    • Tom Phillips says:

      Or Thomas Allen, Simon Keenlyside etc. Or are we only talking about sopranos?

    • Tom Phillips says:

      Sorry I missed the crucial qualifier “to work with Karajan”. I don’t know that Allen ever did and certainly not Keenlyside.

      • Yes Addison says:

        Allen has talked about turning down two roles for which Karajan wanted him in 1977: Count di Luna and Golaud. He thought Di Luna was just too heavy, and Pelléas in Debussy’s opera a better fit for his voice.

        It’s possible no further offers came. No collaborations are coming to my mind. Karajan did not take refusal well, although there are some examples of his working again with singers who turned down an offer (Domingo, Leontyne Price).

  • Dominic Fyfe says:

    Last British star? Josephine Barstow sang Amelia on Karajan’s final studio opera recording of Un ballo in maschera in 1989. She recalled: “Yes, it was frightening at times, but the seriousness and concentration of it all was something that nowadays is rare. I had been in the profession a long time, but it was worth the wait. Music-making on this level was what I had come into the profession for”.

  • Nick2 says:

    I’m not sure when Ms. Veasey last sang with HvK but was she really the last British ‘star’ to work with him? Surely that was Elizabeth Harwood whom he adored and who sang the Figaro Countess with him at Salzburg for 5 consecutive years until 1976. Peter Glossop also sang Iago at Salzburg under him from 1970 to 1972.

    I wish Ms. Beasley a speedy return to better health.

  • Sean says:

    What a wonderful artist, I wish her all the very best! She may not have liked him, but Herbert knew a fine singer when he heard one.

  • Nick2 says:

    Forgot to add that Elizabeth Harwood also recorded Musetta and Merry Widow with HvK.

  • Hermann the German says:

    I remember seeing Ms. Veasey twice in 1971; first in February in the RFH in Cosi fan tutte under Klemperer, and then in July at RO Coventry Garden in the farewell Performance of Sir George Solti conducting Tristan und Isolde.
    My best wishes to Ms. Veasey.

  • fred says:

    what about joan carlysle?

  • operacentric says:

    Memory of meeting Josephine Veasey after the Bernstein Verdi Requiem performance at the Royal Albert Hall, in which she was stunning. Happy 90th birthday!

  • Luca says:

    It was Solti who really made her, giving her a great deal of work in important roles. Besides having a fine voice she also had great dramatic sense.

    • You are right, Luca – and she was thrilled to be asked to join the all-star surprise concert ‘line-up’ of some of Solti’s artistic friends (Nilsson, Hotter, Domingo, Te Kanawa, Nucci, Lipovsek, Heather Harper, Philip Langridge, Tony Rolfe-Johnson et al) for the memorable Falstaff ‘Tutto nel mondo e burla’, which I put together for his 80th birthday at Buckingham Palace.

      Happy Birthday, dear Jo………… and thank you for giving us all so many happy musical memories

      Charles

  • F. P. Walter says:

    She’s normally classified as a mezzo rather than a soprano as stated.

  • Christopher Smith says:

    Remember a lovely Dorabella at Covent Garden in 1968

  • MSC says:

    She was a great singer who seems to have not had the career she should. All her recordings I know show both a very good technique and great interpretative ability.

    I thank her for giving me a great deal of joy.

  • E. says:

    Happy Birthday, Madame Veasey! It was a privilege to have heard you sing in New York.

  • Pedro says:

    Se was was quite good but Karajan’s British star was Miss Ferrier and for some time Mrs. Legge, until he got tired of her mannerism. VLL in Salzburg 64 was their last work together. Then came some fresh air with Fr. Janowitz.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Happy Birthday, Ms. Veasey!
    You may not have liked working with Karajan, but that doesn’t show in his Ring cycle; you are brilliant in it.
    I hope your health improves and that you live a long(-er) and happy life!

  • Una says:

    Josephine Veasey was my singing teacher for 18 years until she became too ill teach. I then moved to the recent deceased Neil Howlett, another great British teacher. Sadly with the wretched virus, this will be the first year I can’t get to see her as no one is allowed inside a Brirish care home. I saw her last September and as always, sent her a birthday present and a card for her 90th. Jo never forgot where she came from – Peckham in south London. She had no airs and graces, and said she only took the CBE from the Queen as a way to say thanks to her lovely dad who encouraged her from the humblest and poorest of backgrounds who loved the likes of Frank Sinatra and dance music of the time. Her mum was the carer of Jo’s two small children when she found herself a single mother and then confined her travelling as a result. Like Heather Harper, was put forward to be made a Dame but declined the whole possible lifestyle and title. Jo had no formal voice training and also taught herself to play the piano. She tried a couple of teachers she told me, and not making any sense couldn’t make sense to her, went home and found the best note in her voice and matched up the rest to the resonance of that. As a 19 year old in Covent Garden Chorus, she stood in the wings and watched and learned from the best, as well as working with the best conductors and coaches before later coming back as a major soloist, particularly with Colin Davis and his Berlioz. One thing for sure, regardless of the Karajans and the Soltis of this world and what they were like or not like, she was endlessly grateful for the opportunities she had been given, and she absolutely loved teaching, and always generous. Hard to believe she is now 90 when her 60th had just been celebrated when I had had that first lesson.

  • Stuart Kale says:

    I had the great joy and privilege of voice lessons with Jo while I was still a contract singer at ENO. She was an inspiring teacher and benefited me greatly. My own memories of her at Covent Garden include Dido, Cherubino and a wonderful Eboli.
    My belated best wishes to you dear Jo, and I hope your health improves.

  • Brad says:

    I recall being at her (surprise) farewell perfomance as Herodias at Covent Garden on 1982 I think. A very classy and deeply moving singer.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Talk of “Pelleas” reminds me there is a live recording of it by Karajan from La Scala with Schwarzkopf and I think Hughes Cuenod.

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