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by Luca
Czech soprano Maria Müller (1898 – 1958) was among the most prominent and beloved lyric/dramatic sopranos singing the German repertory in the interwar years. With an attractive instrument and a warm and instantly appealing stage manner, she proved herself an important member of the Metropolitan Opera, Berlin Staatsoper, and Bayreuth Festival during the 1930s. She was also sufficiently versatile to manage the Italian repertory with some distinction, making herself a viable alternative to Elisabeth Rethberg, if without Rethberg’s particular measure of vocal gold. Müller’s was not an especially long prime; by the time WWII was over, her voice was showing advanced signs of the unsteadiness that was incipient, but well concealed in her best years. After studying with the Wagnerian tenor Erik Schmedes in Vienna, Müller made her debut in Linz as Elsa, a role which would become a central one in her future. She was engaged in Prague from 1921 to 1923 and sang in Munich in 1923 and 1924. Müller’s Metropolitan Opera debut took place on January 21, 1925, as Sieglinde, another of her signature roles. She was greeted with good reviews, such as one from veteran W.J. Henderson deeming her Sieglinde “one of the most satisfying the Metropolitan has known.” A lovely face and a slender figure were no liabilities in her presentation, nor was there hesitation about her fresh, lyrically oriented voice. Müller was offered in a variety of roles, several of them not quite so well-suited as her Wagner calling card. Late January brought a role ideally suited to Müller’s strengths; as Marie in Smetana’s Bartered Bride, she joined bass-baritone Michael Bohnen and an exemplary cast to offer audiences a revelatory production of an unfamiliar, but wonderful work. In February, Müller was the company’s choice for the role of Maria in Montemezzi’s 1905 Giovanni Gallurese. This failed attempt to achieve a success from the composer’s pre-L’Amore dei Tre Re days was not heard again after three more performances. Also in February, Müller performed the eponymous heroine in Aida and won respect, but little conviction that she was the most appropriate choice for the role. Müller’s subsequent career at the Metropolitan moved between German roles, many of them done beautifully, and Italian parts such as Puccini’s Butterfly which was found “still in the chrysalis state.” In New York, Müller continued her vocal studies with Paul Altglass and in 11 seasons was presented in a total of 167 performances covering 19 roles. In addition to the aforementioned roles, she sang a lovely, knowing Eva, a superb Gutrune, a powerful Donna Elvira, and an Amelia in the first American production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. Her Elisabeth in Tannhäuser was another interpretation deemed by Henderson “among the best the Metropolitan stage has known.” At Berlin and Bayreuth, Müller’s years stretched from 1926 to 1943 and from 1930 to 1944, respectively. In Bayreuth, she was Toscanini’s choice for Elisabeth in his 1930 production of Tannhäuser preserved on disc, but with Karl Elmendorff rather than the Italian maestro conducting. Recorded on stage, but sans audience, Müller’s performance, particularly her last act “Allmächt’ge Jungfrau,” testifies to her disarming art. During the years of Heinz Tietjen’s leadership (he played a major role in Berlin as well), Müller was Bayreuth’s reigning Sieglinde and Elisabeth and was heard prominently as Senta and Eva as well. In London, her memorable Eva was praised for its youthful freshness, her Sieglinde for its impassioned lyricism.
Dramatic tenor Max Lorenz (1901 – 1975) usually made the most of a hard-edged and often intractable voice in singing the heroic roles of Wagner and the high-lying lyric/dramatic ones of Strauss. A riveting stage figure (trim and athletic in appearance), he was, in his prime, perhaps the most credible visual exponent of Siegmund and the two Siegfrieds. His musicianship, likewise, was more reliable than that of most other singers of the big German roles. Yet his voice was so unmalleable and his technique so unorthodox, that his performances required of the listener a considerable period of adjustment. Once the accommodation was made to a vocal mechanism that sounded as though its soft palate had been constructed of concrete, significant rewards awaited. Following study in Berlin, Lorenz was awarded a prize in a competition sponsored by a city newspaper. He was subsequently engaged by Fritz Busch for Dresden and made his debut there in 1927, singing the secondary role of Walter in Tannhäuser. His performance as Menelaus in Strauss’ Ägyptische Helena, premiered in Dresden in 1928, prompted the composer to recommend Lorenz to Berlin where they were seeking a tenor for the same role. Lorenz left Dresden, joining the Berlin Staatsoper in 1933. Meanwhile, he had made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1931. His Walter in Die Meistersinger was received as the work of a “serious artist and an intelligent musician,” though one afflicted with a “hard and unyielding tone quality” that changed little during the ensuing two decades of Metropolitan appearances. He was found a “credible” Siegmund and a positive Siegfried, albeit with the tonal liabilities cited at his debut. A Lohengrin opposite Maria Jeritza was described as disagreeable in sound and unimpressive in appearance, the judgment on Lorenz’s physical presence being at odds with contemporary accounts elsewhere. Reviews of Lorenz’s postwar Metropolitan performance brought such expressions as “strained” and “dry voiced,” although his Herodes in Salome was hailed as a brilliant realization. Perhaps the continued presence of Lauritz Melchior made it impossible for New York audiences to adjust to the much less beautiful sound produced by Lorenz. London heard Lorenz for the first time on-stage in 1934 when his Walter made a good impression. He returned to Covent Garden in 1937 for the title role in Siegfried and was found too lightweight for the arduous role, but an “eminently cultivated and musicianly singer” nonetheless. Bayreuth proved a more hospitable venue for Lorenz’s unique art. For a decade beginning in 1933, the tenor sang Siegfried and Tristan to considerable acclaim and gained a reputation as a singing actor of exceptional ability. Recordings from the theater preserve his Siegfried, sung with rare intensity and rhythmic spring. From 1937, he was a regular at the Vienna Staatsoper, as well as a frequent visitor to other European houses. In the post-WWII era, he sang in Italy, performing both Wagner and Verdi, and appeared in both Mexico City and Buenos Aires. Salzburg heard him frequently, as did other festivals such as those at Amsterdam, Florence, and Zürich. In addition to his dramatic leading roles, Lorenz took on contemporary parts in the premieres of Gottfried Von Einem’s Der Prozess in 1953, Rolf Liebermann’s Penelope in 1954, and as late as 1961, of Rudolf Wagner-Régeny’s Das Bergwerk zu Falun.
Thoroughly Viennese, bass-baritone Erich Kunz (1909 – 1995) excelled in serious roles (although he sang rather few), comic parts and in operetta characterizations. An indispensable participant in recording producer Walter Legge’s Champagne Operetta series in the early 1950s, Kunz, together with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, defined Viennese operetta style — its lightness, grace, and charm. With a rich, masculine voice, he was a definitive Figaro, Leporello, and Papageno in the tradition of Mozart performance that sprang from the Vienna Opera immediately after WWII. An incomparable Beckmesser, his interpretation was preserved on two live recordings, and he left a number of delightful recordings of Viennese café and university songs. Kunz studied in his native Vienna, primarily with Theodore Lierhammer at the Vienna Academy. His debut took place at Tropau in 1933 as Osmin (a part for deep bass) in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Following that, he sang with a number of smaller German theaters before being engaged by the Breslau Opera for three years. Kunz made his first acquaintance with England when he was offered an opportunity to understudy at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1936. He was soon thereafter assigned several smaller roles. In 1941, Kunz became a part of the company at the Vienna Staatsoper where he remained throughout his career; he was given the title of Kammersänger in 1948. During the war years, he sang throughout Austria and Germany, primarily in Mozart and Wagner. He made his debut at the Salzburg Festival in 1942 as Guglielmo in Così fan tutte and in 1943 became the youngest artist ever to have appeared in a major role at the Bayreuth Festival when he sang Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger. Once the hostilities ended, Kunz’s career assumed a still more international flavor. Opera performances took him to Florence, Rome, Naples, Paris, Brussels, Budapest, and Buenos Aires. His role at the Salzburg Festival grew and he was a part of the Vienna Staatsoper troupe touring England and France in 1947. The following year brought his debut at the Edinburgh Festival. A Metropolitan Opera debut waited until 1952, but Kunz’s appearance as Leporello on November 26 brought a warm response from the audience and positive reviews from the critics. Both local and national writers commented upon his handsome voice and subtle comic skills. Many could recall only a few comparable artists in a role frequently immersed in slapstick routine. The Metropolitan Opera enjoyed his presence for just two years. In addition to Leporello, Kunz appeared as Mozart’s Figaro, Beckmesser, and Faninal in Rosenkavalier. Chicago heard his treasurable Harlequin in Ariadne auf Naxos and Leporello, both in 1964 and, two seasons later, his wily, yet innocent Papageno in Die Zauberflöte. While musical tastes had moved from the elegant Mozart style of post-war Vienna to an earthier, more robust Italianate approach by the 1960s, Kunz’s inimitable stage persona lost nothing of its potency. Nor did his voice; he continued to sing well even in his sixties and continued to undertake small roles (unforgettable cameos, all) to the end of a long career. In addition to opera house appearances, Kunz graced the stage of the Vienna Volksoper from time to time, giving lessons to both audiences and fellow artists in operetta style and singing. Among the recordings of lasting value Kunz made during his prime years are, besides Meistersinger (two live from Bayreuth), Le Nozze di Figaro, Die Zauberflöte and each and every one of his operetta discs on Angel Records/EMI.
In the years between the prime of Ludwig Weber and the emergence of Kurt Moll, Gottlob Frick (1906 – 1994) reigned as the leading bass in the Austro-German repertory, wielding a powerful, compact black bass of unchallenged cutting power. A quick and steady vibrato set his voice apart from other bass instruments, which were softer in timbre, offering lumbering oscillations in place of spin. Sir Thomas Beecham, having long delayed recording his enchanting interpretation of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, found in Frick a deep bass capable of executing Osmin’s runs cleanly and managing handily the requisite trills. Frick’s recorded interpretations made his name a familiar one throughout the world, even though he confined most of his work to Europe. During the decade from the early ’50s onward, Frick was a peripatetic visitor to the recording studio, preserving some roles on multiple sets. After studies at the Musikhochschule in Stuttgart, Frick joined the Stuttgart Staatstheater as a member of the chorus from 1927 to 1931. In 1934, he was engaged by Coburg, making his debut as Daland in Wagner’s Fliegende Holländer. Following contracts with Freiburg and Königsberg, Frick became a member of the Dresden Staatsoper in 1938, remaining with that company until 1952 and steadily advancing through the Wagnerian bass roles and other specialties, such as Falstaff in Nicolai’s Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor and Prince Gremin. In 1942, he created the role of Caliban in Heinrich Sutermeister’s ill-fated Die Zauberinsel and, two years later, the Carpenter in Die Hochzeit des Jobs by Joseph Haas. In Dresden, Frick remained outside the centers of international activity found elsewhere in post-WWII Europe; it was not until he joined the Berlin Stadtische Oper in 1950 that his work began to attract widespread attention. In 1953, when he was engaged at both Munich and Vienna, he was already 46, but in prime voice. Covent Garden heard him for the first time in 1951, when his Hunding, Fafner, and Hagen were hailed as “somber and magnificent-voiced.” London’s determination to grow a home-theater crop of singers limited further appearances in the short term, but Frick was to return between 1957 and 1967 and again in 1971, even after his official retirement, to sing a memorable Gurnemanz. Scheduling and contract difficulties kept Frick from the Metropolitan Opera until 1961. In his solitary season there, he appeared first as Fafner in Das Rheingold, then sang Hunding, the Siegfried Fafner, and Hagen. Meanwhile, he had made his Salzburg debut in 1955 (as Sarastro and in the premiere of Werner Egk’s Irische Legende) and had appeared at Bayreuth as Pogner in 1957, returning there for Ring performances from 1960 to 1964. Officially, Frick retired from the stage in 1970, but he continued to undertake occasional guest appearances in Vienna and Munich (aside from his 1971 London Gurnemanz). To celebrate his 70th birthday, Stuttgart mounted Die Lustigen Weiber for him in 1976. Frick’s recorded legacy is substantial enough to assure his continuing reputation. In addition to Osmin and Rocco, his Commendatore in Giulini’s Don Giovanni, his Hunding, and Hagen in the Solti Ring were all captured in good form and sound. His Sarastro for Klemperer and Keèal for Kempe find him in rougher voice, although his Gurnemanz for Solti, recorded when he was 66, is a remarkable performance.
One of the most important European lyric tenors of the post-WWII era, Anton Dermota (1910 – 1989) was the ranking singer of Mozart tenor roles in that period between the prime of Julius Patzak and the emergence of Fritz Wunderlich. Although he was not a prepossessing actor, his attractive voice was guided by intuitive musicianship and a serious approach to his art. Dermota’s legacy includes a substantial number of recordings, many of them for major labels, others preserving live performances from Salzburg and Vienna, all performed with the most esteemed conductors of his time. He also performed often in the concert repertory and in recital; many recordings were made of this music as well. Dermota studied under Marie Radó in Vienna. After having made his stage debut in Cluj at the age of 24, he joined the Vienna Staatsoper at Bruno Walter’s invitation, appearing there as the First Armed Man in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in 1936. Soon thereafter, he sang Alfredo in La traviata. That same year, he made his initial appearance at the Salzburg Festival as Zorn in Die Meistersinger. By 1938, his performances at Salzburg included two of the Mozart roles which would become most closely associated with his name: Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni and Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. His reputation was, therefore, well established before WWII in the two venues which would remain the twin centers of activity for the remainder of his career. Dermota accompanied the Vienna Staatsoper to Covent Garden in 1947 where his fine voice and dignified manner made a positive impression, even measured against the great Richard Tauber who made his final opera appearances as a company guest. Dermota’s performances in Vienna continued to endear him to the loyal audiences there and he proved central to that extraordinary group of Mozart specialists destined to dominate the performances of that composer’s music throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and into the 1960s. His Don Ottavio and Tamino became world standard; both were recorded in both studio and live performance. In 1955, Dermota was awarded the honor of reopening the Vienna Staatsoper in its restored home theatre. The opera was Fidelio and Martha Mödl sang Leonore to his Florestan. Not confining himself to Mozart and other Vienna-based composers, Dermota enjoyed success in such roles as Puccini’s Pinkerton and Rodolfo, Massenet’s Des Grieux, Jeník in Smetana’s Bartered Bride, Ernesto in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Offenbach’s Hoffmann, Flamand in Strauss’ Capriccio, Eisenstein in Johann Strauss II’s Fledermaus, Lensky in Yevgeny Onegin and, especially, the title role in Pfitzner’s Palestrina. In the last-named, he confronted memories of Julius Patzak’s indelible interpretation, but came to find his own distinction in that opera, beloved of Central European audiences. Dermota even undertook the role of David in Die Meistersinger, another interpretation preserved on recording. Dermota also made a reputation as a performer of concert music and as a recitalist. In the former category, he was particularly admired for his singing of the tenor parts in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. In recital, he concentrated on the music of the Austro-German composers and songs of his native Slovenia. At its best, Dermota’s strong lyric tenor had a singular timbre, at once slightly grainy, yet silvery in effect. It was a voice with ample spin, able to trace Mozartian lines with clarity and suppleness while displaying a thrilling thrust as it neared the top register.
In the 1940s and early 1950s, Irmgard Seefried (1919 – 1988) was a paragon among German lyric sopranos, her voice fresh and crystalline, her stage presence vital and attractive. Although she was an intelligent and well-prepared artist, the impression she made was one of considerable spontaneity. Her Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro and Pamina in Die Zauberflöte were very different creations, the first piquant and cunning, the latter direct and innocent, though never the pallid personality others have imposed upon her. Her Composer in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos was a defining interpretation, ardently sung and passionately acted. It was captured in live performance in 1944 and, again, in the studio a decade later when her voice was at its zenith. By the late 1950s, an early decline, which some have attributed to singing too late into pregnancy and returning to the stage too soon after childbirth, stole a good measure of freedom from her singing although she remained a strong artist dramatically. Seefried began her training with her father who had urged a degree in music in the event she had to make her own living. She studied at Augsburg University, first with Albert Meyer and, later, with Paola Novikova (with whom she continued to work long after her career was established). Her stage debut took place at Aachen in 1940 when she sang the Priestess in a production of Aida. After Nuri in d’Albert’s Tiefland, she was shocked to find that the theater’s music director, Herbert von Karajan, had scheduled her for Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. As she acknowledged later, she “got away” with the role due to the theater’s small size and a very lyric approach to the highly dramatic role. After three years in Aachen, Seefried moved to Vienna where she joined that theater’s ensemble of extraordinary Mozart singers. Her wartime performances were accomplished under circumstances of utter privation: little heat, little food, repeated trips to shelters during both rehearsals and performances. Seefried’s Eva under Karl Böhm established her as an artist with an unlimited future and she quickly became a favorite with the Vienna public. She was honored by being chosen to appear as the Composer in Ariadne to celebrate Richard Strauss’ 80th birthday and in 1946 made her first appearance at Salzburg where her Pamina became legendary. London heard her in 1947 when she performed Susanna and Fiordiligi with the visiting Vienna Opera. Susanna served for her debut role at La Scala in 1949. Although her Susanna was well-received at the Metropolitan Opera in November 1953, Seefried did not return to that theater, but did make memorable appearances with Chicago’s Lyric Opera beginning in 1961. Chicago heard her Zerlina and Marzelline in her debut year and her still-wonderful Composer in 1964. In addition to opera, Seefried was a first-rank interpreter of Lieder and a concert singer much in demand. In her prime years, her singing of the soprano solo portions of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and, above all, Haydn’s Creation was unsurpassed. She performed all three of these works with Wilhelm Furtwängler, an influential guide and mentor. Seefried’s recitals at Salzburg and elsewhere came to be treasured events. Many of her earlier Lieder recordings support the reputation she enjoyed among connoisseurs of beautiful and communicative singing.
Regarded as a sensational Queen of the Night beginning in the late ’40s, soprano Wilma Lipp (1925) won acclaim for that role in several major European venues. Studio recordings of Die Zauberflöte followed, with Karajan in 1950 and Böhm in 1955. By the 1960s, however, much of the focus and steadiness earlier evident had departed from her voice and adventures into the lyric repertory were less successful. In Vienna, Lipp studied with two famous singers: dramatic soprano Anna Bahr-Mildenburg (who achieved legendary status under Mahler’s regime at the Vienna Staatsoper) and bass-baritone Alfred Jerger (a powerful singer/actor whose vocal production was decidedly unorthodox). Lipp made her debut in her native city as Rosina; two years later, at the tender age of 20, she was invited to join the Staatsoper at a time when the company was struggling to recover from wartime conditions. Her Queen of the Night in Vienna in 1948 was deemed spectacular. She performed it under Klemperer at La Scala and with Furtwängler at Salzburg with equal success. Covent Garden heard her for the first time in 1951 when her Gilda was found physically and vocally attractive but lightweight (she was one of five sopranos sharing the role); her Queen of the Night was regarded as more accomplished. Her Violetta in 1955 was less successful, lacking sufficient vocal substance for the third and fourth acts. Lipp sang Konstanze under Swiss conductor Paul Sacher at the 1957 Glyndebourne Festival, with Ernst Haefliger as Tamino. Lipp’s American stage debut took place at San Francisco in 1962 when she undertook four roles, only one of which was comfortably within her fach. Unfortunately, her Sophie to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf‘s elegant Marschallin was wobbly in the higher reaches of the role. Alice in Falstaff (she had sung Nannetta in earlier years) proved only curious and both Nedda and Micaëla were unidiomatic interpretations that lacked the right vocal coloration. Among Lipp‘s recordings, the 1950 Karajan Die Zauberflöte captures her art and voice at their freshest. A live performance from Salzburg in 1951 with Furtwängler leading a similar cast is also memorable; by the time Lipp recorded the Queen with Böhm in 1955, her performance was somewhat less secure. Lipp was awarded the title Kammersängerin in Vienna and taught for some years at the Salzburg Mozarteum.
Fritz Wunderlich (1930 – 1966) could be considered the James Dean of the singing world — a young, charismatic performer who suffered a tragic death at the height of his career and abilities, and whose posthumous reputation has grown beyond that which he was able to enjoy during his short life. Considered among the finest Mozartean tenors of his day, Wunderlich embraced a wide repertory that expanded to included the works of Strauss, Schubert, Bach, and Mahler, and he left behind many excellent recordings that have been the primary source of his legacy. Wunderlich (Friedrich Karl Otto) was born in Kusel, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany. His life included music from the very beginning, since his father was the director of a local choir and his mother was a violinist. The young tenor gained mild local celebrity for his singing in Kusel, and in 1950 he departed for the Freiburg Musikhochschule with partial financing from the town; he met the remainder of his study-related expenses by directing a small dance band in Breisgau. Wunderlich’s first operatic appearance was, appropriately enough, as Tamino in a student production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte — a role with which he would remain associated for the rest of his career. In fact, he made his professional debut with the very same piece just a year later (1955) at the Stuttgart Opera. He remained with Stuttgart until he was hired by the Frankfurt Opera company, staying there from 1958 to 1960. He first appeared in the Salzburg Festival in 1959, where he sang the part of Henry in Richard Strauss’s Die schweigsame Frau. He became a member of the Munich Opera in 1960 and from 1962 also was a regular at the Vienna State Opera. Wunderlich quickly earned a reputation as the leading lyric tenor in Germany. His clear, strong voice easily filled an operatic hall, but he always retained a purity of sound and line that was equally well suited to more intimate settings. In international appearances he essayed mostly Mozart roles, for which he was especially celebrated and which did not tax the dramatic limits of his voice; however in the smaller houses of his native Germany he explored slightly more adventurous repertory, including Alfredo in La Traviata and Lensky in Eugene Onegin. All of his performances were marked by an unflappable lyricism and an associated control of phrasing and breath — both of which have remained his most lauded qualities. Wunderlich created the role of Tiresias in the first performance of Carl Orff’s Oedipus der Tyrann in Stuttgart in 1959, and sang the part of Christoph in Werner Egk’s Die Verlobung in San Domingo in Munich in 1962. He contemplated expanding further, into the lyrical Wagnerian roles. This was not to be, as he died in an accidental fall at a friend’s home.
By Erik Eiksson & Rovi Staff