• Singer In-Depth: Fritz Wunderlich

    Note: The information used to prepare this article was obtained from a variety of web sites. One of the most comprehensive and informative of these is Andreas Praefke’s, “Fritz Wunderlich: The Great German Tenor,” http://www.andreas-praefcke.de/wunderlich/
    And while I’m a great fan of opera (and of this tenor in particular), I’m certainly not an expert. So I hope our OL members with considerably more knowledge than I have will add their own assessments, insights, comments, etc., on Wunderlich to this thread.

    His cheerful, ebullient personality stood in sharp contrast to a brief life bookended by tragedy: Fritz Wunderlich, voted in a 2008 survey by BBC Magazine as the fourth greatest tenor of all time. Although he is particularly remembered as an outstanding Mozartean stylist, Wunderlich had a wide-ranging repertoire that encompassed lyric tenor roles in operas extending from the Baroque era to the 20th century and by composers from Italy, France, and the Slavic countries as well as Austria and his native Germany. His musical career also included operetta, Lied, oratorio and other sacred compositions, as well as what today might be considered “crossover” pieces – folksongs such as “Santa Lucia,” Granada,” and “Ännchen von Tharau.”
    Described by his colleague Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as “quite simply, in a class of his own,” Wunderlich was blessed with a voice of a distinctive, uncommonly beautiful timbre: warm, smooth, and vibrant, in many ways more similar to the rounded tones of Italian tenors than the drier, grainier sound of his fellow Germans. (During the 1950s, Giuseppe di Stefano once said, with reference to the Italianate character of Wunderlich’s singing, “He is one of us.”) The voice was easily produced, with a secure top, and matched with an innate musicality, superb breath control, and clear articulation. Already ranked during his lifetime as one of the world’s pre-eminent lyric tenors, after his death Wunderlich soon came to be revered, particularly in the German-speaking countries, and now holds practically iconic status. Several of today’s best-known tenors – Jonas Kaufmann, Juan Diego Florez, Rolando Villazon, and Piotr Beczala – claim him as a role model. Kaufmann has referred to him as “the last of a royal line,” and elaborated in an interview with Mansel Stimpson: “When you hear him, it is as though he was giving his whole heart to every note, and all his emotions, too. It almost feels as though he approached every note as though it might be his last. He gives all his energy and everything that he has to every single phrase, and all of that is apparent in his recordings – it’s what makes them so strong and so touching. “

    Wunderlich (full name, Friedrich Karl Otto) was born 26 September 1930 in the small Rhineland-Palatinate (Rheinpfalz) town of Kusel. His mother, Anna, was a violinist; his father, Karl, who had served as a military band director, lead a local choir. For a short time, the family also operated an inn, Emrichs Bräustüble. But, facing unemployment after area Nazis forced him to give up directorship of the choir so they could fill the position with a party loyalist, and suffering from a serious battlefield injury he’d sustained during World War I, the elder Wunderlich committed suicide shortly after Fritz’s fifth birthday. To support the family, his widow began giving music lessons . Fritz also contributed to the family income by playing accordion and French horn and singing at various locales around the Pfalz.

    While Wunderlich was employed at a bakery in Kusel, local residents who heard him singing at his work were impressed enough to prod town authorities to provide partial funding for his music studies. In addition, he received a scholarship to the Musikhochschule (music university) at Freiburg-im-Breisgau, where he enrolled in 1950. He augmented these monetary sources by conducting a small dance band that performed at weddings and other social events in the Breisgau.

    At Freiburg, he initially studied French horn as well as voice (and later credited his experience as an instrumentalist as the basis for his outstanding breath control). But when he sang Tamino in a student performance of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, it became clear which direction his musical career would take. Upon completion of his studies at Freiburg, he was engaged by the Württemberg State Theater in Stuttgart, and made his first professional appearance as Ulrich Eisslinger in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. During the following year, he was called upon to replace an ailing Josef Traxel as Tamino, and was such a sensation that he became Stuttgart’s new leading lyric tenor.

    After three years at Stuttgart, he sang with the Frankfurt Opera during the 1958 and 1959 seasons. In 1959, he was engaged by Munich’s Bavarian State Opera, and in 1962, began appearing regularly at the Vienna State Opera, where he made his debut as Tamino in a performance conducted by Karl Böhm. He never completely severed ties with Stuttgart, however.

    In 1959, he made his Salzburg Festival debut as Henry Morosus in Richard Strauss’s Die schweigsame Frau. During the 1960s, he also sang at the festivals in Aix-en-Provence and Edinburgh. His 1960 appearance at the Vienna Festival as tenor soloist in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde marked the first of his many performances under the baton of Herbert von Karajan.

    From 1959 on, Wunderlich established an international reputation as one of the world’s finest lyric tenors. (In fact, at one point, his schedule was so full that he had to turn down a contract offered by von Karajan.) He made his debut at La Scala in 1960 as the Italian Singer in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, and participated in a visit to Buenos Aires by the Bavarian State Opera in September-October, 1961, singing in Die schweigsame Frau, Der Rosenkavalier, and as Belmonte in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. In 1963, he created the role of Christoph von Ried in the Munich premiere of Wener Egk’s Die Verlobung in San Domingo. He took part in a very successful concert tour of the United States in 1964, and the following year made his debut at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera. He was scheduled to make his Metropolitan Opera debut on 8 October 1966 as Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Von Karajan and Wieland Wagner had also been trying – though not successfully – to persuade him to take on the roles of Froh (Das Rheingold) and Walther von Stolzing (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) for Bayreuth.

    Other career highlights included the role of Tiresias in the 1959 premiere of Orff’s Oedipus der Tyrann at Stuttgart; Ernesto and Lenski in new productions of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Bavarian State Opera in 1961; 1963 TV productions of Pergolesi’s Der Musikmeister (at the Schönbrunn Palace theater) and Egk’s Columbus; and the role of Don Ottavio in a new production of Don Giovanni in Vienna under von Karajan the same year; roles in 1964 premieres of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (von Karajan) and Daphne (Böhm), debut in the title role of Pfitzner’s Palestrina in a production directed by Hans Hotter; roles of Belmonte in Giorgio Strehler’s new production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the 1965 Salzburg Festival, and Narraboth in Wieland Wagner’s new production of Richard Strauss’s Salome with Anja Silja at Munich.

    On 17 September 1966, Wunderlich was staying at the home of a hunting friend, a wealthy industrialist who lived in Oberderdingen near Maulbronn. While coming down a stairway in the evening, he tripped on a loose shoelace and fell to the ground floor, striking the back of his head on the stone paving. He died in a Heidelberg hospital without ever regaining consciousness, and is buried in Munich’s Waldfriedhof (forest or wood cemetery)

    Opera performances:

    As was the custom in the German-speaking countries though the mid-20th century, most of Wunderlich’s roles in the operas of Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, Handel, Smetana, Tchaikovsky, and Janacek were sung in German translation. A couple of noteworthy exceptions include the 1959 radio broadcast of Handel’s Alcina with Joan Sutherland and the 1965 Bavarian State Opera production of La Traviata with Teresa Stratas in the title role, both of which were sung in the original Italian. He also recorded the aria “Ombra mai fu” (Largo) from Handel’s Serse in Italian, though his complete recording of the opera is sung in German translation.

    Here are samples of some of his most noteworthy roles:
    Tamino, Die Zauberflöte (1959)

    Henry Morosus, Die schweigsame Frau (1960)

    Lionel, Martha (1960)

    Count Almaviva, Il Barbiere di Siviglia (no date; presumably early ‘60s when he was with the Bavarian State Opera)

    Alfredo, La Traviata (1965)

    Lt. Pinkerton, Madama Butterfly (1965)

    Of all the roles he sang, none probably figured more decisively in his career than Tamino. It was his first leading role, beginning with his student years in Freiburg; it made him a company star at Stuttgart practically overnight; it was his debut role Aix-en-Provence, the Vienna State Opera, and the Deutsche Oper Berlin. He also sang Tamino in a controversial new production of Die Zaube[/I]rflöte by the regisseur Harry Buckwitz at the Bavarian State Opera in 1964. (I’ve been unable to find any information about the precise nature or cause of the controversy, but whatever it was, Buckwitz’s staging produced howls of outrage from critics and the public in a time years away from the advent of Regie-Theater. Nonetheless, this production surfaced again two years later at the Staatsoper’s Summer Festival – again with Wunderlich as Tamino.)
    But perhaps most importantly, there was the landmark 1964 DG recording under Böhm (released in 1965).
    Here is a review from the October, 1965, issue of Gramophone :
    Many operas of many different schools tend to be dominated by the principal tenor, but I never expected to find Zauberflöte joining the group. What shines out from this performance even perhaps above Karl Böhm's masterly direction, is the gloriously realized Tamino of Fritz Wunderlich. To begin with his voice has a natural beauty and an ease in the topmost register which none of the other Taminos on record begin to rival. But on top of that Wunderlich, no doubt with Böhm's help, shows musical and dramatic imagination to a degree I hardly expected even after his many fine records to date.
    "Dies Bildnis" at once suggests what is likely to develop. Böhm's speed is on the slow side, but not once does Wunderlich show any sign of strain, and the phrasing has a natural ease and feeling for Mozartian style which almost makes one forget to admire the vocal control involved and simply revel in the music. Most striking of all is Wunderlich's contribution to the finale of Act 1 where after his conversation with the Speaker (Hans Hotter very much out of voice and seemingly in sluggish mood) he uses a range of tone-colour and control of dramatic tension that I have never heard from any other Tamino whether on the stage or on record. His first words when left alone, "O ew'ge Nacht," are given in a magical half-tone, and at the other end of the scale his climactic top A's in the following pages have a ringing purity. A marvelous performance."
    This recording, perhaps as much as his stage appearances, solidified his reputation in the mid-1960s as the world’s leading Tamino.

    In addition to his many opera roles, Wunderlich also enjoyed performing in operettas. His first radio recordings, made in 1953-54 while he was still a student at Freiburg, were of operetta recordings for Radio SWF, Kaiserslautern, conducted by Emmerich Smola. In 1958, he sang Baron Kronthal in Lortzing’s Der Wildschütz at Stuttgart, and followed this up in 1960 with his first Alfred in Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. He recorded selections of Viennese operetta arias for both EMI and DG. In listening to his recordings of this music, one hears the same care and commitment he gave to his operatic roles; there is no sense that he regards this lighter genre as inferior and less worthy of his best efforts.

    Here he sings the famous aria, “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from Lehar’s Das Land des Lächelns


    While Wunderlich achieved rapid success as an opera singer, it took longer for him to develop his talents as a Lied interpreter. When he presented his first Lieder recitals in Vienna and Munich in 1962, the reviews were not especially flattering. After the latter concert, the noted German music critic Walter Panofsky wrote in the “Süddeutsche Zeitung“ that, though Wunderlich was an outstanding opera singer, he knew nothing about singing Lieder. The tenor recognized the validity of the criticism and turned to his colleague and friend, Hermann Prey, for advice. On Prey’s recommendation, he began intensive study in 1963 with the Stuttgart-based pianist and Lied specialist Hubert Giesen, who became his accompanist.

    Wunderlich was so committed to improving his artistry that he cancelled one engagement and passed up others in order to study with Giesen. By the following year, he had progressed sufficiently that the two were able to go on their first concert tour with the program they developed. This program, which included selected songs by Beethoven and Schubert, as well as Schumann’s Dichterliebe, became the basis for Wunderlich’s first Lieder recording with DG. The duo were successful enough with this initial effort that they began work soon afterward on Schubert’s “Die schöne Müllerin,” which they first presented in Vienna and Munich’s Cuvielles-Theater, and subsequently recorded for DG.

    In three years of collaboration with Giesen, Wunderlich’s skills as a Lied interpreter had advanced to such a great degree that his final recital, at the 1966 Edinburgh Festival, earned a glowing review from Conrad Wilson of “The Scotsman.” Wrote Wilson:
    Mr. Wunderlich, whom we know as a Mozart singer from Stuttgart and Munich, sings Lieder in a much more casual manner than other opera singers do. He is a lyric tenor; he has a clear, soft voice, and he has expressive and tonal possibilities at his disposal which he uses with the highest skill. One should think that Usher Hall did not exactly encourage these virtues, but yesterday's afternoon granted us enthralling singing, with groups of Schubert, Beethoven and Schumann songs. And Wunderlich even brought us to Richard Strauss in good time with his generously granted encores.
    “Normally, a lyric tenor is not expected to hit the gloominess of some of the despairing 'Dichterliebe' songs. Yet, 'Ich grolle nicht' suddenly revealed Wunderlich's reserves of dark, dramatic timbre, of powerful emotional intensity. That seemed surprising, all the more as he had treated some of the earlier songs in a very soft and tender manner. From now on, the moving development of this musical composition was expounded in its coherence. This was a deeply experienced, carefully increased and singular interpretation where one did not only enjoy Wunderlich’s subtle sentiment in every song, but also had to admire his understanding of the secret relations in the succession of the songs . . .

    Here the tenor sings Schubert’s beautiful “An die Musik”:

    Oratorio/Sacred Music

    Along with Mozart, Bach was one of the tenor’s favorite composers and another cornerstone of his musical career. Wunderlich was regarded as an ideal Evangelist in this composer’s St. John and St. Matthew Passions, both of which he recorded, and as Evangelist/tenor soloist in Bach’s Christmas and Easter Oratorios, which he also recorded. In a retrospective on the tenor published in the Feb., 1999, issue of Gramophone, Richard Wigmore describes Wunderlich’s singing in the Passions as having “a searing directness and a wonderful sense of pacing and color. The overwhelming intensity of moments like Peter’s denial in the St. John prompted his colleague and close friend Hermann Prey to remark that ‘you could always feel the pain in Wunderlich’s back when he sang the Evangelist.’”

    Wunderlich was also featured as tenor soloist in recordings of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Verdi’s and Mozart’s Requiems, and Haydn’s oratorio “Die Schöpfung” (“The Creation”). The last-mentioned, a studio recording conducted by von Karajan, remains as a sad reminder of Wunderlich’s untimely death. He had finished recording all of Uriel’s arias and some of the recitatives prior to his accident. Rather than sacrifice Wunderlich’s contributions, executives at DG decided to bring in another tenor, Werner Krenn, to sing the remaining recitatives, and issued the complete recording after Wunderlich’s death.

    Here is Wunderlich singing an excerpt from Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio):

    And the Ingemisco from Verdi’s Requiem

    Of course, the most authoritative and interesting observations on Wunderlich’s singing are provided by the tenor himself in an interview with Eglof Schwaiger, here translated into English:


    Wunderlich as Lt. Pinkerton in Madama Butterly

    In listing the opera and operetta roles Wunderlich included in his repertoire, I have omitted those where it appears he only recorded famous arias (i.e., Calaf, Cavaradossi) but did not actually perform the complete role. Those he sang on stage(rather than on radio or only on studio recordings) are shown in boldface type.

    Composer - Opera/Operetta/Role

    Beethoven - Fidelio/First Prisoner
    Berg - Wozzeck/Andres

    Cherubini - I]Les deux Journées
    /Count Armand
    Dallapiccola - Volo di Notte/Pellerin
    Donizetti - Don Pasquale/Ernesto
    Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor/Arthur Bucklaw
    Egk - I]Columbus[/I]/Ferdinand
    Egk - Der Revisor/Bobtschinsij
    Egk - Die Verlobung in San Domingo/Christoph von Ried

    Fall - Der fidele Bauer/Stefan
    Fall - Die Rose von Stambul/Achmed Bey
    Flotow - Martha/Lionel
    Gluck - Iphigenie en Tauride/Pylade
    Handel - Alcina/Ruggiero
    Handel - Giulio Cesare in Egitto/Sesto
    Handel - Jephtha (staged version)/Prophet

    Handel - Serse/Serse
    Janacek - The Excursions of Mr. Broucek/Mazal, Asurean, Peter
    Janacek - Osud/Singer of Lensky

    Kálmán - Gräfin Maritza/Graf Tassilo
    Kienzl - Der Kuhreigen/Primus Taller
    Lehar - Das Land des Lächelns/rince Sou Chong
    Leoncavallo - I Pagliacci/Beppe
    Liebermann - Die Schule der Frauen/Horace

    Lortzing - Der Waffenschmied/Georg
    Lortzing - Der Wildschütz/Baron Kronthal
    Lortzing - Zar und Zimmermann/Marquis du Chateauneuf
    Mascagni - Cavalleria Rusticana/Turiddu
    Monteverdi - L’Orfeo/Apollo, Pastore, Spirito
    Mozart - Cosi fan tutte/Ferrando
    Mozart - Don Giovanni/Don Ottavio
    Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail/Belmonte

    Mozart - La Finta Giardiniera/Belfiore
    Mozart - Zaide/Gomatz
    Mozart - Die Zauberflöte/Tamino
    Mussorgsky -Boris Godunov/Leibborjar
    Nicolai - Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor/Fenton
    Orff - Antigonae/Old Theban
    Orff - Der Mond/Narrator
    Orff - Oedipus der Tyrann/Tiresias

    Pergolesi - Der Musikmeister/Maestro Lamberto
    Pfitzner - Palestrina/Palestrina; Abdisu
    Puccini - La Boheme/Rodolfo
    Puccini - Madama Butterfly/Lt. Pinkerton
    Puccini - Turandot/Pang
    Rossini - Il Barbiere di Siviglia/Conte d’Almaviva
    Rossini - La Cenerentola/Don Ramiro
    Rossini - Il Turco in Italia/Don Narciso
    Schubert -Alfonso und Estrella/Ferdinand

    Schubert - Fierrabras/Eginhard
    Smetana - The Bartered Bride/Jenik (Hans)
    J. Strauss the Younger - Eine Nacht in Venedig/Caramello
    J. Strauss the Younger - Die Fledermaus/Alfred

    J. Strauss the Younger - Der Zigeunerbaron/Sandor Barinkay
    R. Strauss - Capriccio/ Italian Tenor
    R. Strauss - Daphne/Leukippos
    R. Strauss - Die Frau ohne Schatten/Apparition of a Young Man
    R. Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier/Italian Singer
    R. Strauss - Salome/Narraboth
    R. Strauss - Die schweigsame Frau/Henry Morosus
    Stravinsky - Oedipus Rex/Oedipus; a Shepherd
    Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin/Lenski

    Tchaikovsky - Pique Dame/Hermann
    Thomas - Mignon/Wilhelm Meister
    Verdi - Aida/A Messanger
    Verdi - Don Carlo/Don Carlo
    Verdi - Otello/Cassio; Rodrigo
    Verdi - Rigoletto/Duca di Mantova
    Verdi- La Traviata/Alfredo
    Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer/Steersman
    Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg/Ulrich Eisslinger
    Wagner - Tannhäuser/Walther von der Vogelweide; Heinrich der Schreiber
    Wagner - Tristan und Isolde/A Young Sailor
    Weber - Der Freischütz/Kilian

    Zeller - Der Vogelhändler/Adam


    Fortunately, the tenor’s art was captured on numerous live and studio recordings, radio broadcasts, and televised performances. He was under contract to Electrola/EMI from 1959-64, and to Deutsche Gramophon from 1964 onward. In addition to several major opera, oratorio, and Lied recordings issued during Wunderlich’s lifetime, both EMI and DG have issued a large number of compilation recordings with material taken from their archives. The Wunderlich discography of Andreas Praefke provides a comprehensive listing of his recordings by category:

    Here is also another list of Wunderlich’s recordings:

    In 2006, a DVD, “Fritz Wunderlich: Life and Legend,” was released by DG. The original film was produced by Wunderlich-Medien, a company founded by the tenor’s son, Wolfgang, and younger daughter, Barbara.

    The complete program can be viewed on YouTube. Unfortunately, there are no English subtitles (though Rolando Villazon’s comments are in English).

    As a side note, Wunderlich-Medien has also developed videos on Jonas Kaufmann, the composer Robert Stolz, and on such subjects as opera singing as a profession, and classical music during the Cold War. Work on a video devoted to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is currently in progress.
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Artist In-Depth: Fritz Wunderlich started by MAuer View original post

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