Notes on 26 Years as Official Nonentity

<i> Reprinted with permission from the Saturday edition of Salzburger Nachrichten. Transcribed by Times staff writer Jan Herman, translated from the German by Mike Wiessner</i>

‘Strictly speaking, until yesterday I did not exist officially.’

--Anna Lelkes on Feb. 28, 1997, the day after she was admitted to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra


Harpist Anna Lelkes is the first woman to be given full membership in the Vienna Philharmonic in its 155-year history. Though she was admitted Thursday, her first chance to play as a full member will be tonight, when the orchestra performs Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life) at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.


Lelkes, 57, was born in Budapest, Hungary, and became an Austrian citizen in 1974. In 1971, she entered the Vienna State Opera orchestra, from which the philharmonic draws its members. She has played with the philharmonic since 1974, but until last week full membership had been denied her.

Shortly before leaving on the international tour that brings the orchestra to Costa Mesa this week, Lelkes gave an exclusive interview to Heinz Roegle of the Salzburger Nachrichten, which, with circulation of about 100,000, is the largest of the three general-interest newspapers published in Salzburg, Austria.

Question: Ms. Lelkes, we congratulate you. How did you find out about your admission to the orchestra?

Answer: I’ve been attending [its] meetings for a long time.


Q: You’ve always been at the meetings?

A: I was hired Jan. 1, 1971, by the state opera, and three years later, in 1974, I was admitted informally into the philharmonic as a regular without full membership. I didn’t exist officially until yesterday. My name was never mentioned in any program . . . and they always claimed, even in my presence, right under my own nose, that they didn’t have a woman [in the orchestra].


Q: Did you have financial equality with the men?

A: I did since 1974. I just couldn’t call myself a member of the philharmonic. My name wasn’t allowed to appear anywhere. I couldn’t vote. Originally, I shouldn’t even have been allowed to attend the meetings.

But it’s at these meetings that we discuss the work schedule and general planning for the orchestra. I’ve often worked a lot more than my male colleague (the orchestra’s male harpist is Harald Kautzky). So they said, “All right, you can come [to the meetings].” As time went by, I was allowed to attend everything because otherwise I would not have found out if and when I would have to play and what the contracts would say. . . . I really couldn’t say that I was treated badly. [But] it was the younger generation, especially, that fought it out for me. At the last meeting [when they took the vote to admit women], it really wasn’t nice. What I had to listen to there really hurt me. Someone said: “There are no women in the Vienna Choir Boys and no pigs at the Lippizaners [the Spanish Riding School in Vienna’s famous dressage team of white horses].”

Everything was blocked at the meeting the week before [when the vote had been scheduled but was postponed]. They had mobilized all those pensioners [retired members of the philharmonic]. Quite a few [younger players] got together and even got organized and said this can’t go on any longer. The younger generation stood up for me at the [second] meeting.


Q: Is there a conflict among the men in the orchestra that we’ve been hearing about?

A: Yes. I was not admitted unanimously, but with a big majority, as I heard. I had to leave the room before the vote. They were terribly frightened by the possibility of demonstrations by American women’s rights activists. I believe that this pressure was decisive. And that’s why they said, “OK, we have to give some proof that we are not that bad. We must stand up for ‘equal employment opportunity for both genders,’ ” as they formulated it officially for the press.


Q: Did you yourself ever express the desire to be admitted as a full member of the orchestra?

A: Again and again, almost every year. I’ve waited for this for 26 years. I also stated in writing that I wanted to be admitted at least as an “extra” or “special member.” But it was bogged down regularly by some commission or by the executive committee.