Part two of four
Part one here
The soprano Katharina von Mikulicz recounts her years of study with Fritz Wunderlich:
“When you stood next to Fritz on stage during a concert, you immediately realized that something extraordinary was going on. There are things in his music that we can’t reach. (…)”
The Freiburg Academy of Music, where Fritz studied from 1950 on, had only been founded shortly after the end of the war. At first Fritz was not sure whether he could make a living with singing. In the first three semesters, Wunderlich concentrated primarily on studying the horn.
But soon it became obvious that he wanted to become a singer: On December 8, 1953, Fritz Wunderlich was invited into a studio for the first time for a recording.
First recording session
During this first recording session, Fritz recorded popular music: He proved for the first time that he could shine beyond “serious music”.
A little later followed recordings accompanied by the Kaiserslautern Radio Orchestra conducted by Emmerich Smola.
These recordings helped him to make ends meet and to increase his popularity: after all, he had to finance his studies.
Trouble at the Freiburg University
But his recording activities caused displeasure at the university in Freiburg: some professors could not understand how a singer who had performed an operetta by Robert Stolz the previous day could shine the next day with Bach cantatas.
Wunderlich’s activity as an entertainment musician was even declared to be damaging to the image of the Freiburg university: Fritz, however, was not deterred and continued the balancing act between light music and “serious music”.
Almost 350 years after its premiere, the “Favola in Musica” L’Orfeo (Claudio Monteverdi) was to be restaged in Hitzacker (Elbe) in July 1955: Fritz Wunderlich was part of this – Wunderlich’s first recording was made on this occasion.
Shortly before this recording, a decisive career leap occurred for the twenty-four year old tenor…
On April 4, the Freiburg newspaper announced: “Fritz Wunderlich (…) was engaged by the management of the Württembergische Staatstheater Stuttgart as a lyric tenor for three years.”
In truth, it was a five-year contract that Fritz had been offered. The State Theater in Stuttgart was already of supra-regional importance at that time: Max Reinhardt, founder of the Salzburg Festival, is said to have once described it as the most beautiful theater in the world.
Fritz had the choice at that time: Either he stays in Freiburg and accepts major roles there, or he goes to Stuttgart and accepts that he will initially only be offered less major roles. He decided in favor of Stuttgart.
Thus Fritz Wunderlich’s studies were over after five years – he also had to say goodbye to his singing teacher Margarethe von Winterfeldt. However, the correspondence between the two continued.
Stepping in as Tamino: coincidence?
Initially, Wunderlich was given smaller roles in Stuttgart: The state theater was a new dimension for him that he first had to get used to.
But soon an opportunity opened up for Fritz to demonstrate his talent:
On February 18, 1956, a performance of The Magic Flute (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) was scheduled. The tenor Josef Traxel, who was to portray Tamino, cancelled. The opera star Wolfgang Windgassen was asked if he could take over the role. Windgassen, however, suggested that the role be given to Wunderlich: The background was an agreement that Windgassen and Wunderlich had made with each other – Windgassen had promised to hand over the role of Tamino to Wunderlich.
Thus Wunderlich sang for the first time in front of a large audience his future signature role – the role of Tamino in The Magic Flute.
His stepping in as Tamino was enthusiastically received: Fritz showed that he was ready to take on leading roles in the future. Without his agreement with Windgassen, Fritz might not have gotten a leading role in an opera production until much later.
In April 1956 – only one year after the contract was signed – the contract with the Stuttgart Opera was revised: Wunderlich was to sing primarily leading roles from now on, and his fee for the 1957/58 season was DM 12,000 – the equivalent of about 30,000 Euros today.
In the following years, his annual fee increased successively – at the end of the five-year contract (in the 1959/60 season), his annual fee amounted to DM 24,000, today just under 55,000 Euros.
In return, Wunderlich provided the Stuttgart Opera with all his talent: He preferred to sing operas by Mozart or pieces by Bach – both composers were the cornerstones of music for him.
It was not long before Vienna, the world capital of music, took notice of the tenor:
On April 2, 1958, Wunderlich made his debut in the Great Concert Hall in the St. Matthew Passion (Johann Sebastian Bach). In the same month, the schedule included eleven opera performances in Stuttgart and two concert evenings.
Festival summer 1958
The summer of 1958 was the first international festival summer for Fritz Wunderlich: he was invited to the festival summer in the south of France in Aix-en-Provence for four Magic Flute performances – in the role of Tamino. Georg Solti conducted, Walter Berry portrayed Papageno.
At that time, the tenor Fritz Wunderlich was no longer an insider tip, but a rising star in the opera sky…
The video shows Fritz Wunderlich in 1959, and the audio is his 1964 recording with Karl Böhm as conductor.
Karl Böhm in search of a tenor
In October 1958, conductor Karl Böhm was looking for a cast for a new production of the opera Die schweigsame Frau [The silent woman] (Richard Strauss). The new production was to be performed at the 1959 Salzburg Festival.
Especially the tenor part of Henry Morosus was vacant. Karl Böhm invited Fritz Wunderlich to an audition in order to get his own impression of Wunderlich’s voice.
Böhm was convinced of Wunderlich’s voice: he signed Wunderlich for the 1959 Salzburg Festival.
Karl Böhm said about his collaboration with Fritz Wunderlich:
“I experienced him for the first time in the first role in which he achieved world renown. That was at the Salzburg Festival as Henry in the Strauss opera Die schweigsame Frau. I can still remember very well this production, which I conducted (…). I can still remember very well how beautiful the work was back then. We worked up to ten hours every day (…). I premiered the opera in Dresden at the time, but as Henry I have never heard a better representative of this part than Fritz Wunderlich.”
Salzburg Festival 1959
His appearance at the Salzburg Festival, one of the world’s most important classical music festivals, is often described as the real start of Fritz Wunderlich’s career. Performing at the Salzburg Festival opened many doors for him as an opera singer: in the spring of 1959, for example, it was decided that Wunderlich would become a permanent ensemble member of the Bavarian State Opera as of August 1, 1960.
In the opera Die schweigsame Frau, Wunderlich met the baritone Hermann Prey for the first time: From then on, the two were to be linked by a friendship that lasted for years and resulted in many musical collaborations.
Immediately after the 1959 Salzburg Festival, Wunderlich began his three-year contract with the Bavarian State Opera in August 1960: His breakthrough as an opera singer had been achieved. But being remembered merely as an opera singer was not enough for Fritz Wunderlich…
Simon von Ludwig
Cover picture: Fritz Wunderlich as Tamino, Hermann Prey as Papageno, by courtesy of the Fritz Wunderlich Society
The main sources are the Fritz Wunderlich biography by Werner Pfister (new edition 2005 by Schott Musikverlag) and a 1971 documentary on Fritz Wunderlich.
Der Bussard would like to thank the Fritz Wunderlich Society for their support.