Salome, by Richard Strauss, is a difficult opera to cast. The singer of the title role has to be a dramatic soprano with a huge voice that will carry over a full-power 110-piece orchestra, which usually means a Brunnhilde-type in her fifties. On the other hand, the character of Salome is supposed to be a spoiled teen-aged princess who is incredibly beautiful and can dance the Dance of the Seven Veils so enticingly that by the end all seven veils are strewn on the floor and her lecherous step-father is reduced to a heap of gibbering aboulia.
Singers who can do all of this are rare, but they do exist, and one of them used to be a member of the opera ensemble in Heidelberg. She was scheduled to sing the role of Salome there on March 16, 1997, so my hopes were up really high when I went down there on the train to see her.
Three and a half months earlier I had seen her perform this difficult role in Schwerin, a city in northern Germany where I happened to be on business. Her name was Zehra Yildiz, and the production in Schwerin seemed to have been created with her particular talents in mind. Her singing and acting were superb, and besides that she seemed to be dancing all the way through the opera, not just the Dance of the Seven Veils. During a stormy orchestral interlude as Jochanan descended into his cistern, she did a wild dance which among other things involved rolling down a broad staircase in time to the music.
So I was totally disappointed when I arrived at the theater in Heidelberg and found that there was a different name on the playbill. No announcement, no explanation, just another name, and nobody I asked seemed to know why. Maybe she was sick (shrug), maybe she had to go to Istanbul to sing Tosca (shrug), it was no big deal evidently.
Her replacement sang all the notes, but that was about it. The stage set looked like a mock-up of a modern American prison, and I didn’t like the production either. All in all it was the worst Salome performance I’ve seen yet, or maybe I was just in a bad mood.
Ten months later when the German opera magazine Das Opernglas appeared in my letter box, I opened to the news section and found a short notice which read:
ZEHRA YILDEZ stood at the beginning of a very promising career when she suddenly and unexpectedly died in a Heidelberg clinic on December 12th of last year. The young Turkish singer was an ensemble member of the State Opera in Istanbul, where she was acclaimed for such roles as Butterfly, Aida, Senta, Salome and most recently as Tosca at the premiere on November 29th. In 1966 she was honored by the Turkish Minister of Culture as Turkey’s most successful female singer.
In Germany Zehra Yildez debuted in January 1996 as Senta at the Heidelberg Theater. Here she also sang Leonore in “Fidelio” and Salome, a role with which she also caused a sensation in Schwerin and in Denmark. In the spring of 1998 she was planning debuts in Düsseldorf and Chemnitz as Salome, and in Darmstadt as Chrysothemis (“Elektra”).
(Das Opernglas 2/98, page 48, my translation)
For several years after that, no singer of Salome had much of a chance with me, even though I saw some good ones in Frankfurt, Munich and Darmstadt. None of them could compete with my memory of Zehra Yildiz.
This wasn’t just me being sentimental because she was beautiful and died young. Or was it? I looked up some old reviews and found that she was consistently praised by the critics, so this wasn’t all just my imagination. After her Heidelberg premiere as Salome a reviewer in Das Opernglas wrote:
She seems to possess undreamed-of physical and vocal reserves, which she was able to mobilize astutely on this evening. Seemingly without effort she spirals up in ecstasy to a high B and simultaneously projects a convincing Salome torn between childish defiance and insatiable desire. […] it should not remained unmentioned that Ms. Yildiz has excellent diction and language accuracy at her command.
(Das Opernglas 3/97, reviewing the premiere on January 15, 1997; my translation.)
She was 41 when she died of a stroke in Heidelberg in December 1997. There is now a Zehra Yildiz Science and Art Foundation which supports young Turkish singers through prizes and scholarships.
My photos in this post are from 2004. I revised the text in 2023.