Obituary: Gottlob Frick
Monday 10 October 1994
NO ONE who heard the great German bass Gottlob Frick as Hagen, summoning the Gibichung vassals in the second act of Wagner's Gotterdammerung, is ever likely to forget the experience. His large, dark-coloured voice could fill the biggest auditorium - whether it be the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, the Vienna State Opera, Covent Garden or the Metropolitan - with the greatest ease and without the sacrifice of its beautiful, black-velvet tone quality, even when the singer was in his sixties.
Equally impressive was his interpretation of Gurnemanz in Parsifal, as devout and spiritual as his Hagen was evil. Though best known for his Wagner roles, especially outside Germany and Austria, Frick was also a magnificent Mozart singer, counting Sarastro in Die Zauberflote and Osmin in Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail - another pair of dramatic opposites - among his finest roles. Yet one more facet of his many-sided talent encompassed comic parts such as Rocco, which he sang at Covent Garden in the memorable performances of Fidelio conducted and directed by Otto Klemperer, and Kecal, the marriage broker in The Bartered Bride.
Gottlob Frick was born in Oelbronn, a village in Wurtemberg, where his father was head forester. The youngest of 13 children, he sang in the local church choir, but had no formal training at a musical academy. He was, however, a frequent visitor to the Stuttgart High School of Music, where Fritz Windgassen (father of the celebrated tenor Wolfgang Windgassen), was in charge of the opera class, which happened to have no bass pupils at the time. At the age of 21 Frick joined the chorus at the Stuttgart Opera; three years later, in 1930, he was auditioned by Siegfried Wagner, then in his final season as director of the Bayreuth Festival. The young bass was engaged to sing small parts. From 1931 to 1934, he studied privately in Stuttgart with Julius Neudorffer-Opitz, a heroic baritone who had had a successful career there.
Frick made his debut in 1934 at Coburg, singing Daland in Der fliegende Hollander. He moved to Freiburg-im-Breslau and then to Konigsberg, in East Prussia, where he was heard by Karl Bohm, at that time music director of the Dresden State Opera, who engaged him on the spot. Frick remained in Dresden for more than 10 years, from 1939 to 1950, learning and singing an enormous repertory. This included Sarastro, Osmin and the Commendatore; Caspar in Der Freischutz, one of his most effective roles; Gremin in Eugene Onegin and Pimen in Boris Godunov; King Philip in Verdi's Don Carlos, which he always claimed as his favourite part, and the Father Superior in La forza del destino. He scored great successes as Falstaff in Nicolai's Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor and in two comic roles in operas by Lortzing: Burgomaster Van Bett in Zar und Zimmermann and Baculus in Der Wildschutz.
At Dresden in 1942 Frick created Caliban in Die Zauberinsel, Heinrich Sutermeister's operatic version of The Tempest, and he also sang the Peasant in Carl Orff's Die Kluge. After the end of the Second World War, in 1950, Frick moved to the Stadtische Oper in West Berlin. Then in 1953 he became a member both of the Vienna State Opera and of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. He had already sung the Landgrave in Tannhauser at La Scala in 1950, and made his Covent Garden debut in 1951, singing Fafner, Hunding and Hagen in two cycles of The Ring. It was at this point that Wagner began to assume an important place in his career. He continued to sing other roles, both old and new; for instance, at Salzburg in 1955 he gave a superbly authoritative performance of Pope Pius IV in Hans Erich Pfitzner's Palestrina and also took part in the world premiere of Werner Egk's Irische Legende (based on WB Yeats's play Countess Cathleen).
In 1957 Frick returned to Bayreuth, where he offered a warmhearted Pogner in Die Meistersinger, and to Covent Garden where for the next decade he sang nearly every season, as Fafner, Hunding and Hagen in The Ring, as Gurnemanz, Rocco and Daland. At Bayreuth from 1960 to 1964 he sang Fasolt, Hunding and Hagen, while in his only season at the Metropolitan, 1961-62, he sang Fafner (both in Rheingold and Siegfried), Hunding and Hagen in four cycles, giving 16 performances in less than six weeks, a real feat of endurance. His other Wagner roles included King Mark and King Henry the Fowler.
After a particularly tiring Ring cycle in Munich in January 1970, Frick announced his retirement from the opera house. He continued to sing in concert for some years, and made occasional operatic appearances in Stuttgart, Vienna or Munich. In 1971 he sang Gurnemanz at Covent Garden, replacing a sick colleague at short notice. The fabulous voice was still there, and the occasion was highly emotive for those in the audience who had first heard the bass on the same stage 20 years before. He recorded nearly all his Mozart and Wagner characterisations, some of them twice, while many of his other roles comic and serious, are also available on disc. Die Freischutz and Fidelio are particularly true to life.
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