Hans Hotter

Bass-baritone magnificent in Wagner

For Wagner-loving opera-goers in the 1950s and early 1960s, there was only one Wotan in
Der Ring des Nibelungen - Hans Hotter. The German bass-baritone sang well over 100 other roles during his career, but as Wotan, especially in
Die Walküre, he was and remains peerless. Every aspect of Hotter's personality - commanding stature, a noble presence, excellent diction, firm intellectual grasp of the character, a strong, expressive and resonant voice - contributed to his portrayal. Above all, his natural authority matched that of the god.

Hans Hotter, opera singer, recitalist and teacher: born Offenbach-am-Main, Germany 19 January 1909; married 1936 Helga Fischer (died 1998; one son, one daughter); died Munich 6 December 2003.

For Wagner-loving opera-goers in the 1950s and early 1960s, there was only one Wotan in Der Ring des Nibelungen - Hans Hotter. The German bass-baritone sang well over 100 other roles during his career, but as Wotan, especially in Die Walküre, he was and remains peerless. Every aspect of Hotter's personality - commanding stature, a noble presence, excellent diction, firm intellectual grasp of the character, a strong, expressive and resonant voice - contributed to his portrayal. Above all, his natural authority matched that of the god.

He was also a Lieder singer of great power and subtlety, whose performance of Schubert's Der Winterreise, in particular, was an emotional experience that no one who heard it is likely to forget.

Although born in Offenbach-am-Main, near Frankfurt, in 1909, Hotter came from a Bavarian family. He was educated in Munich and, at first intending to become an organist and choir master, studied at the Academy of Music there. Later he studied with Matthäus Roehmer, a former tenor who had once been a pupil of Jean de Reszke and was an inspired teacher, who convinced the young man that he should become a singer. Obtaining an engagement at Opavo (Troppau), Hotter made his stage début in 1930 as the Speaker in Die Zauberflöte. He then spent a year at Breslau, followed by two years in Prague. During this period he studied further with the famous baritone Rudolf Bocklemann in Berlin.

Summoned to audition in 1934 at the Hamburg State Opera, he found himself singing Alfio in Cavalleria rusticana and Tonio in Pagliacci that evening without rehearsal. For his official début at Hamburg he sang Don Pizarro in Fidelio.

At this stage in his career Hotter's repertory included many Italian and French baritone roles, such as Verdi's Amonasro, Falstaff, Iago and Macbeth; Rossini's Don Basilio, Scarpia in Tosca, Escamillo in Carmen, Mephistopheles in Faust and the four villains in Les Contes d'Hoffmann. He also sang Handel's Julius Caesar and the title role of Boris Godunov, in which his aptitude for portraying sovereigns and rulers was already apparent.

In 1937 Hotter was invited to join the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, and he made his first appearance there as the Wanderer in Siegfried. This had been among the earliest of his Wagner roles, which included Wolfram, Kurwenal, Amfortas and Wotan in Das Rheingold. He did not sing Wotan in Die Walküre until 1941. He also became a member of the Vienna State Opera, making his début in 1939 as Jochanaan in Salome.

At Munich Hotter acquired several more roles in Strauss operas: Mandryka in Arabella was followed by the Commandant in Friedenstag, which he created in 1938, and Olivier, which he sang at the premiere of Capriccio in 1942. He sang Jupiter at the public dress rehearsal of Die Liebe der Danae at Salzburg in 1944, but all theatres in the German Reich were closed before the premiere could take place.

The Second World War delayed Hotter's international career by a decade. In 1937 he had sung the title role of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler in concert at Amsterdam; and in 1939 he gave performances of the Wanderer at the Paris Opéra and La Scala, Milan.

He made his first appearance in London during the visit of the Vienna State Opera to Covent Garden in 1947, singing two of his Mozart roles, Don Giovanni and Count Almaviva. The following year, he returned to Covent Garden and with the resident company sang Hans Sachs (his first) and the Walküre Wotan, both in English, as well as Kurwenal. Despite his difficulties with the language, it was immediately obvious that a magnificent new Wagner singer had arrived on the scene.

When in 1949 Hotter sang Wotan and Gunther in a complete cycle of The Ring in German, the full breadth of his talent became apparent. He continued to appear regularly at Covent Garden until 1967. Meanwhile he made his New York début at the Metropolitan in 1950 as Wagner's Dutchman and sang there for four seasons.

In 1952 he sang Kurwenal and Wotan at Bayreuth, returning there annually until 1966; at first he sang Amfortas and Hans Sachs, then, as his voice grew darker, he took on the bass roles of Pogner and Gurnemanz. The latter became one of his finest characterisations - for all its simple humility, it had a spiritual authority that was unmistakable.

At the same time, Hotter was developing a new career as an opera director. Among his productions was a Ring cycle for Covent Garden, in which he sang at some of the performances. For Vienna he directed Palestrina. In pre-war days he had sung Cardinal Morone in Pfitzner's opera. Now he sang the role of Cardinal Borromeo, a prelate whose authority, temporal and spiritual, was exactly suited to Hotter's temperament. He also directed several productions at Dortmund, including Egk's Die Zaubergeige, in which he had appeared at Hamburg more than 30 years previously, and Tristan und Isolde, in which he now sang King Mark in place of Kurwenal.

Although by the late Sixties Hotter was singing less often in opera, he continued to learn new parts; in 1967 he sang the disreputable old Schigolch in Berg's Lulu at Munich; in 1970 he scored one of the greatest successes of his career in the mainly spoken role of Moses in Schoenberg's Moses und Aron at Frankfurt. The following year he repeated Moses at Chicago in a concert performance in English, coached for the occasion by the British actor Donald Sinden.

In 1971 he created a role for the last time, the Schoolmaster in Gottfried von Einem's Der Besuch der alten Dame in Vienna. He sang his final Wotan, in the third act of Die Walküre, at the Paris Opéra in 1972 and made his farewell to the Vienna State Opera in 1978 as the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi's Don Carlos, another proud prelate and a role he had sung over 400 times, more often than any other except Wotan.

Hotter's performances of Lieder by Schubert, Loewe, Brahms and Wolf are generously represented on disc, as are many of his great Wagnerian roles. Among his other operatic recordings two by Strauss stand out: Die Schweigsame Frau, recorded live in 1959 from Salzburg, where he gave an outstanding portrayal of Morosus; and Capriccio, in which he makes a flamboyant La Roche, the theatre director whose avowed philosophy of total commitment to music and drama sounds wholly sincere in the singer's performance.

Hans Hotter was a born teacher and gave highly successful master classes. In 1989, at the age of 80, he returned once more to the opera house, to sing Schigolch in Lulu at San Francisco. He repeated Schigolch in Vienna, Munich, Barcelona and, in 1991, Paris, at the Châtelet, when he displayed those qualities of impeccable musicianship, dramatic involvement and authority that had always distinguished his performances.

Elizabeth Forbes



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