Part four of four

Part three here — Part two here — Part one here

It was in June 1963 that Fritz Wunderlich caused a small scandal in his hometown Kusel: In a television broadcast, Wunderlich referred to his home town of Kusel as “a little nest in the Palatinate.” The people of Kusel took this as an insult – it took less than 24 hours for Fritz Wunderlich to learn of the uproar… 

Wunderlich’s reaction

The day after the TV show aired, Wunderlich wrote a letter to his home town:

“But tell me honestly, is it so bad to call our beautiful Kusel a ’nest’ [aka a backwater]? (…) Isn’t a nest something in which one feels secure, in which one is happy? I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten this far in life if I hadn’t been allowed to enjoy this nest warmth during my childhood, and believe me, my job is not easy.”

With that, the eclat was passé and Wunderlich revealed that he remained connected to his hometown despite his international career. 

Vienna: Capital of Music Politics

In the coming seasons, Wunderlich was to become a permanent ensemble member of the Vienna State Opera: Wunderlich thus entered music-political terrain. Although Wunderlich himself never became the subject of any music-political controversy, he was aware of much of what was going on in Vienna, the city of music.
For the opening of the Vienna Festival in 1963, Wunderlich was to sing the role of Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni (Mozart). The conductor: Herbert von Karajan.
Karajan caused a furor in the run-up to the Don Giovanni production: he wanted Italian operas to be sung in the original language and not – as had been the custom – in the German translation. Don Giovanni was to be just the beginning. Karajan, then director of the State Opera, met resistance from all sides with his push.
Today it is customary in Germany to stage operas in their original version. Wunderlich participated in this change at the time as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni

Portrait of Fritz Wunderlich
Portrait of Fritz Wunderlich, by courtesy of the Fritz Wunderlich Society

Two careers 

From then on, Fritz Wunderlich had two careers: One as an opera singer, the other as a Lieder singer. In addition, there was another activity: Wunderlich wanted to make his legacy audible for later generations through recordings. In early 1964, Fritz Wunderlich signed an exclusive contract with the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft [German Gramophone Society]. Only a few months later, Herbert von Karajan also signed an exclusive contract with the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft – both artists made recordings there that are incomparable to this day and have been adapted several times by remastering to meet today’s demands. 

Return to Freiburg

On October 28, 1964, Fritz Wunderlich gave a song recital in his study city of Freiburg. He was accompanied by his mentor Hubert Giesen. Hubert Giesen – not an unknown name in the world of classical music: he spent two years traveling across Europe and America with Yehudi Menuhin. He also accompanied numerous concerts of the famous violinists Fritz Kreisler and Erica Morini.
One critic commented on Fritz Wunderlich’s song recital in Freiburg:

“Whoever has followed Fritz Wunderlich’s rise from the scholars of the Freiburg Academy of Music to the top class of tenors knows that this fairy-tale career did not fall into the singer’s lap. A great deal of diligence and planned work, without spending himself early, were necessary to consolidate his success.“

One phrase stands out: without spending himself early. The media was increasingly interested in Fritz Wunderlich. People expected a lot of his performances. The responsibility of representing an entire profession weighed on Wunderlich. The risk of exhausting his talent thus became higher – yet he found a way to divide his energies and satisfy the audience at the same time. 

Queen Elizabeth II.

In May 1965, Wunderlich was awaiting a special engagement: a gala performance was given in Munich in honor of Queen Elizabeth II and her husband. The queen had requested The Knight of the Rose: Fritz Wunderlich took on the role of the Singer. In the Hamburger Abendblatt of May 22, 1965, it says:

“The Queen does not take the glass [the opera glass] from her eyes when Fritz Wunderlich sings his lyrical aria in the first act.” 

Between his family and the Met

When the 1965 festival season came to an end, during which Fritz Wunderlich rarely had a day off, he made a decision: he wanted to take more time for himself and for his family: in 1964, a year earlier, his third child had been born.
That was easier said than done: the Metropolitan Opera in New York offered him the chance to come to New York for four weeks in the fall of 1966 and take part in a new production of Don Giovanni. The Metropolitan Opera: the terrain of Maria Callas, Nicolai Gedda, Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and other singers of that ilk. Opera singers who performed at the Met played in a different league – for many opera singers, the Metropolitan Opera was the key to the gateway to worldwide fame. 

Fritz Wunderlich was not sure he wanted worldwide fame: If one follows biographer Werner Pfister, Wunderlich was not necessarily convinced when he accepted the Met’s offer for the fall of 1966. It is conceivable that this engagement would have made Fritz Wunderlich the first German opera world star after the Second World War. 

The Metropolitan Opera in 1937
The Metropolitan Opera in 1937, taken from Wikimedia Commons

Debut in Berlin

On February 10, 1966, Fritz Wunderlich made his debut at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, in the role of Tamino in The Magic Flute.
At the same time, Fritz Wunderlich went on a Lieder recital tour with Hubert Giesen, which took them both to fourteen cities throughout Germany.
Wunderlich also wanted to record his song repertoire on record: Originally, the recording of Schubert’s song cycle The Fair Maid of the Mill had been scheduled for February 1967. Wunderlich persuaded the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft to reschedule the recording for July 1966. 

The last time

At the end of August 1966, Wunderlich set off for Edinburgh: various operas, including The Magic Flute and Wozzeck, were to be performed. A Lieder recital in the Usher Hall was also on the agenda. It was to be Wunderlich’s last time on an opera stage: it is often said that Wunderlich’s career began and ended with the role of Tamino in The Magic Flute.

Blow of fate

When Wunderlich returned to Munich on September 6, he still had a Traviata recording for the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft on his schedule. After that, Wunderlich was getting ready for his upcoming trip to New York – he was expected at the Metropolitan Opera at the end of September.
But everything was to turn out differently than planned: on September 16, shortly after midnight, Wunderlich suffered a fatal head injury when he fell down a flight of stairs. 
The day after, Wunderlich succumbed to his head injuries. He was 36 years old. 

What remains to the world is the legacy of one of the most influential tenors of the 20th century: Wunderlich carried his opera and Lieder interpretations beyond the borders of Europe. To this day, Fritz Wunderlich is synonymous with his profession: Posthumous tributes are paid to the singer time and again, including the Fritz Wunderlich Music Days, regularly hosted by Wunderlich’s hometown of Kusel. 

Simon von Ludwig

Article series on Fritz Wunderlich

Cover picture: Fritz Wunderlich as Belmonte, by courtesy of the Fritz Wunderlich Society

The main source is the Fritz Wunderlich biography by Werner Pfister (new edition 2005 by Schott Musikverlag)
Der Bussard would like to thank the Fritz Wunderlich Society for their support. 

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