Obituary: Karl Ridderbusch

Elizabeth Forbes
Monday 07 July 1997 23:02

Karl Ridderbusch was a German bass with a magnificently resonant, dark-coloured voice, the kind of singer who is the mainstay of productions of Wagner's Ring cycle the world over.

He duly sang Fasolt, Hunding, Fafner and Hagen in Bayreuth, and several of those roles at the Metropolitan, New York and at Covent Garden, but his voice encompassed a very wide range, and he became particularly noted for his portrayal of Hans Sachs, which he sang at the Easter Festival in Salzburg under the baton of Herbert von Karajan.

Another favourite and much-admired role was that of Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier. An excellent actor, he sang a number of comic roles, including Rocco (Fidelio), Van Bett (Lortzing's Zar und Zimmermann), Nicolai's Falstaff, and Kecal (The Bartered Bride); he never, even as Ochs, overplayed the comic business, but in more dramatic parts such as Caspar (Der Freischutz) and Pizarro (Fidelio), not to mention his Wagner repertory, he used his fine voice and impressive height to even greater advantage.

Karl Ridderbusch was born in Recklinghausen in 1932. He trained to be an engineer, intending to work in his father's brick-works. His voice was discovered when he entered an amateur competition held by the Herzog Film Company in Dusseldorf, where he was heard by the tenor Rudolf Schock. Encouraged by Schock, who paid for part of his studies, first in Duisberg, then in Essen, Ridderbusch made his stage debut in 1961 at Munster.

In 1964 he moved to Essen, and in 1965 to the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Dusseldorf/Duisberg, which remained his home base for the remainder of his career, and where he sang Italian roles such as Henry VIII in Donizetti's Anna Bolena and Philip II in Don Carlos, as well as the German repertory.

Ridderbusch was soon giving guest performances, in Vienna, Berlin, Frankfurt and Hamburg, in Dallas, where he sang Sarastro in Die Zauberflote in 1966, and at the Paris Opera, where he sang King Mark in Tristan und Isolde in 1967. That same year he made his Bayreuth debut as King Henry in Lohengrin, followed by Titurel in Parsifal and Fasolt in Das Rheingold, and his Metropolitan debut as Hunding in Die Walkure, later singing Fafner in Siegfried.

He made his Covent Garden debut in 1971 as Fasolt, Hunding and Fafner, returning as the Landgrave in Tannhauser in 1974.

Ridderbusch continued to appear at Bayreuth for the next decade, as Hunding, Hagen (Gotterdammerung), Daland (Der fliegende Hollander), and Pogner as well as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, which soon became his most successful role. He gave an especially fine performance at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 1974. He returned to the Metropolitan in 1976 as Sachs and sang the role at the Lyric Theatre, Chicago in 1977.

During the 1980s Gurnemanz in Parsifal became one of his most successful interpretations: he sang it at Turin (1982), Cologne (1983) and Rome (1984). Another finely characterised part was the Doctor in Wozzeck, which he sang in Munich in 1982, and repeated at Madrid in 1987, when I wrote that he was "a sinister Doctor, his colossal shoulders twitching with maniacal glee as he contemplated Wozzeck's moral and physical failings . . ."

The last time I heard Karl Ridderbusch was later that year, when he took the small role of the Podesta in Schreker's Die Gezeichneten in Dusseldorf. This production was taken to the Vienna Festival in 1989. He sang Falstaff in Die lustige Weiber von Windsor for the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in 1991.

In his prime Riddersbusch made a great many recordings: he can be heard as Pogner and Sachs, King Mark, Titurel and Gurnemanz, as well as in his usual roles in Der Ring, and as Rocco. My own favourite among his recordings is Richard Strauss's Capriccio, in which he takes the part of the theatre director La Roche and in his great monologue both explains and demonstrates what opera is all about.

Karl Ridderbusch, opera singer: born Recklinghausen, Germany 29 May 1932; twice married (two sons, one daughter); died Wels, Austria 21 June 1997.

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