Obituary: Erich Kunz

When the Vienna State Opera company gave a short season at Covent Garden in the autumn of 1947, the baritone Erich Kunz sang three Mozart roles: Figaro, Leporello in Don Giovanni, and Guglielmo in Cosi fan Tutte. His voice, light in timbre but strongly projected, and his stylish singing were greatly admired. It was not, however, his first appearance in Britain. During the summer of 1936 he had sung in the chorus of Glyndebourne and on one occasion had taken over the speaking part of the Pasha Selim in Mozart's Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail from Carl Ebert, the director.

After the Second World War, Kunz again appeared with the Glyndebourne company, singing Guglielmo in Edinburgh (1948) and at the company's base in Sussex (1950). The Vienna State Opera visited London once more in 1954, this time playing at the Royal Festival Hall. They brought only Mozart's three Da Ponte operas with them and Kunz sang, as before, Figaro Leporello, and Guglielmo.

Although Kunz never appeared with a British opera company again, he sang all over Europe, often with the Vienna Opera and usually in one of six roles: Papageno in Die Zauberflote, Faninal in Der Rosenkavalier and Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, as well as Figaro, Leporello, and Guglielmo. At home in Vienna he took part in many operettas at the Volksoper, and was perfectly happy to sing character roles such as the Circus Manager in The Bartered Bride or the Fifth Jew in Salome, if not otherwise engaged. Kunz was one of those singers who enjoyed their work, and he could always communicate his own enjoyment to an audience. A natural comedian with superb diction and impeccable timing, he was sometimes accused of overplaying the comic business, especially in The Magic Flute, but he never for an instant endangered the musical or vocal side of a performance with his clowning.

Kunz was born in Vienna, where he studied with Theodor Leirhammer and Hans Duhan. He made his debut in 1933 at Troppau, in Silesia, as Osmin in Die Entfuhrung. In 1936, after his season at Glyndebourne, he was engaged at Plauen, and in 1937 at Breslau. In 1941 he became a member of the Vienna State Opera, remaining there for 35 years. He first appeared at Salzburg in 1942, and at Bayreuth the following year, returning in 1951 when the Festival reopened after the war. His Beckmesser was legendary, and he sang it at La Scala, at the Metropolitan (where he made his debut as Leporello in 1952), and in Vienna during the celebrations for the reopening of the State Opera House in 1955.

On that occasion the critic Peter Heyworth wrote: "His economy of gesture and of grotesque vocal effects raised this character from the level of an Aldwych farce to that of great comedy." From my seat in the gallery, I cheered and applauded with the rest of the audience.

Kunz's characterisation of Faninal was equally interesting and equally restrained. He sang it at Salzburg in 1960 when the newly built Festspielhaus was opened with Der Rosenkavalier, and at La Scala in 1962; Faninal was also one of his roles at the Met. Of his Mozart interpretations, Leporello and Guglielmo were probably the finest, but Figaro and Papageno were the most popular. With the incomparable team of singers then available in Vienna and in Salzburg - which included Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Lisa Della Casa, Irmgard Seefried and Sena Jurinac; Anton Dermota, George London and Walter Berry as well as Kunz - performances of Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutte, Le Nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflote were experiences for opera lovers to treasure for the rest of their lives.

Kunz continued to sing until the mid-1970s. In 1976 at the Vienna State Opera he created the role of the President's Valet in the premiere of Kabale und Liebe, Gottfried von Einem's version of the Schiller play adapted by Verdi in Luisa Miller. The production was taken to the Florence Maggio Musicale the same year, and the BBC broadcast a tape of the premiere on Radio 3 the following September. In 1978 Kunz committed his well-known portrait of Fifth Jew in Salome to disc, in a recording of Strauss's opera conducted by Herbert von Karajan that remains one of the finest ever made.

Kunz made many recordings. His Mozart roles, as well as Beckmesser and Faninal, are all represented, while in the early 1950s he made some unrivalled operetta recordings: Colonel Frank in Die Fledermaus, Danilo in The Merry Widow with Schwarzkopf, Caramello in A Night in Venice and Graf Peter Homonay in The Gypsy Baron. Kunz also recorded a number of Viennese popular songs, in which his thick Viennese accent does not camouflage the artistry of his singing.

Elizabeth Forbes

Erich Kunz, singer: born Vienna 20 May 1909; married Winfriede Kurzbauer (one son, one daughter); died Vienna 8 September 1995.