Lebendige Vergangenheit - Heldentenöre

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Lebendige Vergangenheit

Hernie Tenors - a welcome object of malicious mockery and ridicule! Sensitive musicians consider them a necessary evil, modern stage directors bulky stage props, conductors reluctantly put up with them as they would an awkward and poorly tuned instrument while for today's generation of singers the term heldentenor itself almost equals a swearword. Such unanimous disapproval makes one sit and think: could there possibly be a fair bit of envy involved? After all, the heroic tenor was - and still is, presuming something like it still exists - the highest paid voice in the hierarchy of an operatic ensemble. Or is it just to defame an expression which in the "good old days" represented something of an ideal which today seems unattainable? The heroic tenor has become a victim of non-musical prejudice. Since the middle of the Twentieth Century, after two world wars, "heroes", especially those of the German kind, are not in demand anymore; rather more in fact, they are unwelcome. The term "hero" arouses suspicion in our "pacified" time. Associations with "power" and "steadfastness" make the hero a bone of contention in the German mind. The Bayreuth of the post-war years contributed suspiciously actively to this radical deheroising policy. The Stolzing of 1968 made it clearly understood in an interview that, yes, he was a Junker but by no means a hero. Apart from the fact that this particular artist, a pronounced pacifist, physically lacked the vocal means required for the role, this whole attitude reveals the Germans' mastery of mental suppression: Italians were more honest in this respect. When the heyday of great Otellos was over, the loss of the great dramatic voices of the past was openly mourned. In Germany, however, arduously bred "anti-heroes" were enthusiastically cheered, up to a point when there was no more chance even to try to re-establish certain values which seemed to have been "overcome by history". When the great singers of the much derided "old school" retired without leaving apparent heirs, the great reformers, to their own surprise, realized that "Tristan" and "Siegfried" were impossible to cast without representatives of the defamed heldenfach. Only today, towards the end of the Twentieth Century, is one ready to confess openly something like a crisis in Wagner singing. Yet, this crisis has long been "overcome" - in the most macabre way: Wagner singers, in the actual meaning of the term, do not exist any more. Too late, maybe much too late, it has become evident that even our new "era of peace" - not so peaceful, really - needs its heroes. As in other aspects, in this whole dilemma, the failings of the much-praised "New Bayreuth" have proved to be fatal. At Bayreuth, like everywhere else, a denied history, or, more particularly in Bayreuth's case, a repressed "hero-complex", took its toll. The rapid decline - which not only concems the heldentenor fach - was not really caused by a shortage of vocal talent. The crisis of all dramatic voice types is the consequence of a style of operatic performance which has not only estranged itself from the art of singing but has even developed a certain hostility towards music. It is not even that the main fault lies with the much-cursed theatre directors. Most of the blame must be put on egomanic and insufficiently, or wrongly trained conductors, most of whom lack in their experience those "three years in Ulm", as one of their greatest masters once put it. Curiously enough, it was just this "master" who contributed a decisive share to today's deplorable national situation of singing. He kept on experimenting with "small" and "miniature heroes" until he had created the impression that a role like Siegfried could be managed with even half a voice. Although the common opinion that the term heldentenor implies a good deal of power is not at all groundless, the singer does not necessarily have to be a tenore robusto or a tenore di forza, with the implications of those Italian expressions. There are, however, moments in Wagner's works when a singer, once he has decided to tackle such roles on stage, has to face the challenge of Wagner's full orchestral sound. For modern "rniniature heroes" the recording studio and acoustically retouched, so-called "live" performances from distinguished festivals may be of great help in redressing the balance but in the opera house without a proper voice, it won't work! Lauritz Melchior was convinced that a genuine heldentenor could only come from the baritone fach. His theory is underlined by such prominent examples of acoustically preserved heroic voices as the two Danish singers, Erik Schmedes and Peter Cornelius, Bayreuth's first-rate Tristan, Alfred von Bary and Belgium's exemplary Parsifal, Ernest van Dyck. The legendary, all-round tenor from Poland, Jean de Reszke, too, started out as a baritone, as did Adolf Wallnöfer, by no means less universally gifted as a singer and a composer and stage director. When first in Bayreuth in 1876 he sang bass in the chorus and worked as a copyist before becoming famous worldwide as Tristan and Siegfried seven years later. Oddly enough, a heldentenor's baritonal roots often had no influence on the timbre with which he sang his heroic roles. The metallic fanfare-like voice of Richard Schubert, Vienna's idolized Siegfried during the Twenties, showed little trace of its former baritone as did the voice of Caspar Koch, who arrived at Bayreuth towards the end of the Siegfried Wagner era. One would rather suspect that the voice of Otto Wolf, for many years Munich's leading heldentenor, derived from a lower range, but like his …