OPERA / Now, just talk us through it again: At the age of 85 Hans Hotter, once opera's reigning Wotan, is still in strong voice, albeit in greater demand as a speaker than a singer these days. Tonight is his Proms debut. Richard Last reports

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Hans Hotter says that his Proms appearance tonight, as the Speaker in Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, will be his last public performance. Since he was 85 last January, this seems a reasonable prediction. Most Hotter fans assumed that his 80th-birthday performances, as the Speaker (confusingly, a singing role) in Mozart's Magic Flute, had marked his swan-song. But, with a singer who began his career three years before Hitler came to power, and who looks hale enough to see in the millennium, you can never be sure.

For Hotter, once the unchallenged king of Wagnerian bass- baritones, the sprechstimme (rhythmic speech) of the Gurrelieder role has acquired special significance. He learnt the part in two weeks in 1976 to help the conductor Zubin Mehta through a casting crisis and has performed it over 20 times since. 'It is,' he says fondly, 'the Wotan of my old age.'

When John Drummond, the director of the Proms, first asked him to repeat his 1983 Edinburgh performance, Hotter objected: 'I shall be too old.' 'Nonsense,' retorted Drummond. 'I can hear you perfectly well on the phone, they'll be able to hear you in the hall.' Hotter finally agreed, provided he could have a stand-in and a contract that would allow him to cancel at two hours' notice.

Drummond is delighted with his Proms centenary-year coup. 'Hotter's is one of the great voices of our time, and his authority remains unsurpassed.' Between artist and impresario, however, there remains one small point of friendly disagreement. The BBC is billing its oldest 1994 performer as making his Proms debut. Hotter insists that he sang at the Proms in the late 1940s, though the records contradict him. Royal Albert Hall maybe, but Proms? It seems not.

The greatest Wotan of the post- war era - some would say, of any era - lives quietly in a leafy suburb of Munich, his home for 32 years. According to the reference books, he 'retired' in 1972. In practice, he still jets regularly to America and beyond to conduct masterclasses, and to take part in performances of Gurrelieder and of Alban Berg's Lulu (in another quasi-spoken role).

At 85, Hotter walks stiffly, but no more so than many men 15 years younger. His speaking voice is strong and confident, with the old resonance clearly evident behind the patina of age. His beaky profile still exudes all the authority of his great days. Reminiscences of what must be the longest career in operatic history flow freely from him, accompanied by many a rich Bavarian chuckle.

He attributes the extraordinary length of his performing life to three factors. The first, inevitably, has to be luck. The second was his teacher, Matthaus Roemer, who persuaded him to embark on a vocal career (he had originally trained as an organist and choirmaster) and remained his coach for 20 years. He taught Hotter the essential maxim which was to sustain the future Wotan through the perils of heavyweight Wagner: 'Never sing with more than 85 per cent of the voice. Mostly, not with more than 65 per cent. Always leave some elbow-room.'

The third factor in Hotter's vocal longevity was the war. He spent the wartime years (like other leading German artists, he was exempt from military service) shuttling between German and Austrian opera houses, frequently exposed to Allied bombing. The experience played havoc with his nerves, but protected his still developing voice from the jet-setting pressures of a later generation.

By the time he was able to embark on an international career he was almost 40, in total command of his vocal resources, and ready to tackle challenges which can ruin younger voices. Fischer-Dieskau once told him: 'You will never know how lucky you were.'

Hotter's first Covent Garden roles, as Wotan in Die Walkure and Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, were sung in 1947 and 1948 - in English. David Webster, the Royal Opera's post-war administrator, took an ultra-cautious view of the audience's readiness to hear opera in the language of its late enemy. When Hotter ventured to question this, Webster told him that the great Kirsten Flagstad had also learnt her roles in English. 'If now I tell her it's going to be in German,' he told Hotter, 'she will give me hell.' The reigning Brunnhilde and the rising Wotan were soon on close terms. 'Why,' she asked Hotter one day, 'did you insist on doing this in English?' Webster had played his old and new stars against each other, and won. But only for that season.

No one who heard Hotter in his prime, as I did many times in the early 1960s, will ever forget the nobility of that enormous voice, the passion and anguish that he poured into his towering portrayal of the flawed King of the Gods. I can still feel the hairs rising on my neck as he dispatched the unfortunate Hunding in Act 2 of Die Walkure with the single hissed syllable: 'Geh]' No physical movement was needed to complement the majesty of his presence, or elaborate the menace of his poised spear. Altogether he sang Wotan in Die Walkure 280 times, the Wanderer (Wotan's alter ego) in Siegfried more than 400. 'Sometimes,' he now confesses, 'Wotan became a burden to me.'

The range of his full repertoire was remarkable. He sang the high baritone part of Iago in Verdi's Otello and the medium-heavy bass role of the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos (480 times, more than any other role). He sweated away half a stone every time he padded up for Falstaff (twice the regular weight-loss for Wotan), and in his early days donned the coronation robes of Boris Godunov, which must have been worth queueing for. And he never lost his devotion to lieder, the perfect antidote (as Roemer always impressed on him) to too much dramatic singing.

So which of his leading ladies had he rated most highly? 'There were so many . . . all good in their different ways. Nilsson was tremendous, of course. And Martha Modl, not so great a voice, but a unique interpretation. But always I shall remember Flagstad. She was too big and heavy to be an outstanding actress. But the voice]' Hotter paused in silent tribute. 'Magical. I remember certain passages, certain ways of phrasing, in her Isolde which I never heard before or since.'

Both as singer and teacher, Hotter has strong views about the way the human voice should be used. 'Learning to sing is not learning to add something to the natural voice, but to remove all the bad things, the hinderings - can you say that? Technique is mostly to help you through a bad day.' Hotter himself has suffered throughout his adult life from hay fever, which bothers him more now that he is semi-retired than when he was in mid-career. 'Singing,' he explains, 'keeps you healthy.'

Today his only public singing (as opposed to the more relaxed sprechstimme) is done in masterclasses. He promises, however, to throw a few sung phrases into his Gurrelieder narration. 'Zubin Mehta had the idea when I first did Gurrelieder in 1976 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He said: 'These old fans of yours will love it if you sing a few notes.' So I have done it many times, in Edinburgh for Drummond, and in London with your marvellous young conductor Simon Rattle. But this, I think, is my last time. Well, let's say, I am not thinking of anything further.'

'Gurrelieder': 8pm tonight Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (071-589 8212) and live on BBC2 and Radio 3

(Photographs omitted)

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