Fritz Wunderlich - The Great German Tenor

"If you sing naturally, you do not need a special technique"

Fritz Wunderlich interviewed by Egloff Schwaiger
from: "Warum der Applaus - Berühmte Interpreten über ihre Musik", pp. 317-323

Click here for the original German version!

When Rafael Kubelik recorded Handel's 'Xerxes' in Munich in 1963 [Schwaiger is wrong, the correct date is 1962, A.P.], he scheduled the usual number of days for recording the title role. Astonishingly, though Fritz Wunderlich had never sung Xerxes before, by virtue of his musicality, sense of style and his superior Stimmführung he needed only a third of the time, despite the fact that Xerxes's arias contain extremely difficult coloratura passages that rarely turn out well straight off in broadcast recordings, where minute accuracy is of the essence. All conductors Wunderlich worked with had similar experiences.

"I had never sung Xerxes before, but I had done many other baroque arias, having started out in early music. I come from Kusel, a little Palatine town and in 1950, by circuitous routes, found my way to the Freiburg College of Music, which had been founded by Gustav Scheck and Willibald Gurlitt shortly after the war. I was at once admitted to Dr. Scheck 's well-known 'Kammermusikkreis Scheck-Wenzinger', which had been formed in 1930 and was the first ensemble to play solely on period instruments. To earn my living, I played jazz music on the side. At night I blew the trumpet, played the accordion, sang popular songs; in the morning, after snatching a few hours of sleep, I studied Monteverdi and Lully at college. This growing into early music was crucial for my musical development because I learned something very important for singers and musicians generally: a feeling for style. If you have it and can distinguish between the various styles, you are all set; you can perform all kinds of music without losing face."

"But a sense of style alone does not make a singer. Apart from the voice he was born with, he has to have a certain technical command, has to be trained how to breathe correctly."

"That is absolutely right, but breathing is a bit of a problem. It is right to say that a singer has to have a long breath, just as he must have a pleasant voice. But you can extend your breath if you know how not to waste it between the single notes. For the singer, the problem of breathing consists in coping with the nitrogen that builds up when he holds his breath. We sing with used breath - not with fresh. But after a certain time the body calls for its oxygen again. I have to try to use my breath in the best possible way, so that I do not need to take another breath until the phrasing demands one. To a certain degree breath capacity can be increased by training - divers have always done this. And sometimes even an accidental occurrence may show you that you have a longer breath than you thought. I want to tell you a little story: In June 1963 I sang Don Ottavio in 'Don Giovanni' under Herbert von Karajan at the Wiener Festwochen1. At the dress rehearsal, Mr von Karajan asked me to breathe at an unaccustomed place before the reprise of 'Il mio tesoro'. I did so at the rehearsal but forgot to do so at the premiere. This meant that I had to decide in a split second whether to interrupt the flow of the coloratura passage or risk singing the whole phrase on one breath. I tried it and it worked. Herbert von Karajan, who did not fail to notice why I had sung the whole phrase on one breath, afterwards approached me with a grin and said: "You see that pure accident can sometimes show you what you are able to do. From this day on, I have always sung the aria this way. Particularly in Mozart and Bach, you should take as few breaths as possible. Even more than Mozart, Bach requires an almost instrumental approach to singing, in which you not only have to concentrate on expression and vocal quality but on the interpretation of the composition as such. That again is a matter of style. If you know how every kind of music is to be sung, you can sing an operetta and follow it up with a Bach aria without any trouble."

"Talking about Bach: In the Passions you did not only sing the tenor arias but also the Evangelist. That is an especially difficult part, isn't it?"

"The Bach Evangelist is one of the most difficult parts of all. There is a good reason why Bach wrote it for the tenor: in the higher tessitura the words are generally easier to understand. Intelligibility is most important in the Evangelist's part, for he is telling a story. Yet he is more than just a narrator, being at the same time involved in the events. This difficult combination of matter-of-fact reporting and inner involvement is the real problem in the Evangelist part."

"Presumably because both components should appear to be completely natural?"

"The most important thing about singing is being natural. I think far too much is made of technique; even singing teachers overrate the technical side of singing. Basically, there is only one technique: an absolute natural intonation. You master that intonation if you change as little as possible when singing, if you treat the vibrating tone as an instrumentalist does. That way, you waste as little breath as possible.
I want to give an example: Singing a long note, I am able to get from an open Italian 'a' to a pure, closed 'o' without any audible transition. The only thing I change is the position of resonance. The tone itself remains unchanged. It is even clearer in the contrast between 'i' and 'o'. I can never achieve a uniform melodic line by conceiving the vowels separately. If I am striving for a cantilena, a bel canto, I must concentrate on making the different vowels audible on a single, unvarying tone. Take the Ferrando aria in Act I of 'Così fan tutte': In the Italian original, it starts with the words 'un aura amorosa'. All these words are set so that they can be sung with the voice placed in the same way. There is not much difference between 'u', 'au', 'a' and 'o', but when singing the aria in German, I must try to produce all the very different vowels in 'der Odem der Liebe' in the same tone as well, to correspond with Mozart's conception. That is the secret of correct interpretation. It is the most natural method of singing."

"You have only touched on vocal issues. But you also have to bring life to every character you portray; you have to find a means of expression fitting your characterization."

"In Mozart you have to be careful not to be too expressive, because he wrote all the expression he wanted to have into music. If you manage to bring the written notes to life properly, expression is already there."

"How great a role does the singer's personality play then?"

"That is a dangerous question. The physically relaxed situation of playing on stage easily tempts you to take musical expression too far. The more you lose yourself in the acting, the more you run the risk of overdoing things, of being 'operatic'. But if you restrict yourself to economical movements and restrained gestures, you will never overshoot the mark in musical expression. Anyway, every singer has his own individual timbre and distinctive musical diction. If he expresses only what he really feels and thinks, that is individual enough."

"Do you distinguish sharply between lyric and dramatic tenors?"

"That is again a difficult question, the subject of much discussion. There is surely no definite dividing line, but I think you are born a lyric, dramatic or heroic tenor. As he gets older - say, forty-two or forty-three - a lyric tenor may go over to singing heavier roles, but this is not inevitably the case. It is possible to make the voice heavier and more robust by working it harder, but then its light character, the pliant bel canto, is gone."

"Where do you think your limits lie?"

"I have set the light Italian parts, such as Rodolfo in 'La Bohème' or the Duca in 'Rigoletto', as my limits for the next ten or twelve years. Rodolfo is really an exception, and I can only include him because Puccini composed his melodies in a manner so kind to the voice that a strain seems audible that is in reality just a natural vibration of the voice2. Puccini's melodic gift ensures that the high notes simply come of their own accord. A good example is the final high 'c' in Rodolfo's aria 'Che gelida manina'. It is one of the most easily reached top notes in the tenor repertoire, because it arises from a melodic phrase in a completely natural way. You simply have to open your mouth, and it is there. Verdi's high notes are much more precariously placed, because they often involve large intervallic leaps. Verdi makes great demands on vocal agility and hence vocal endurance. Puccini is a composer who accommodates singers, while in Verdi singers have to accommodate the composer. For this reason my limit is higher in Puccini parts than in Verdi."

"Where are your limits in the opposite direction, in the light, buffo repertoire?"

"This is a field which I find especially attractive. We lyric tenors have the advantage over dramatic and heroic tenors, in that we can also sing light opera and operetta. But I think a composer like Lortzing presents a tenor with the same problems as Mozart does. Both require very precise intonation, and that is not easy. Besides, light opera in particular requires a well-developed sense of style. If I add something to the music Lortzing composed, I put a touch of Wunderlich in it, and that is dangerous as soon as that touch of Wunderlich becomes too pronounced.
Doing that is even more dangerous in the operetta repertoire. A lyric tenor must sing operetta. And it is great fun to be able to let off steam once in a while. But you have to exhibit a sense of style even in that repertoire. You can certainly let your voice flow luxuriantly, but you cannot fool around. The tendency to fool around can best be avoided by doing some Lieder-singing in between. Singing Lieder compels you to exercise the utmost control. I came to the Lied very late. Not because I did not have an affinity to it, but because I knew that I could only sing Lieder when I had gained full control over my voice. That is the most important prerequisite for the Lied. You cannot have even the smallest technical difficulty under any circumstances. The Lied is my measure of whether I am really able to sing. I have been giving Lieder recitals for some years now because I feel that I am gradually learning to truly sing."


Translated from German by Andreas Praefcke, 1997; revised by Gwynne Stanley Newton, 1998. Original version © by Ehrenwirth Verlag, Munich, 1968.

Fritz Wunderlich Homepage