Shortly after Christmas, the airwaves will be filled with retrospectives
of this past year, including stories bemoaning the demise of those
accomplished individuals that we “lost too soon.” In 1966, opera
lovers everywhere were similarly saddened upon learning of the
sudden death of Fritz Wunderlich.
Long before superstar tenors filled stadiums with their gifts, Fritz
Wunderlich (1930-1966) was acclaimed as a “tenor’s tenor.” He
possessed a lyric voice of infinite beauty, supported by a seemingly
effortless technique, and housed in a matinee-idol’s body. “Fritz
Wunderlich: Life and Legend” is a 2006 DVD release, telling the
story of this artist whose life was cut short by a fatal accident, at
the age of thirty-five.
Born to musician parents, Wunderlich studied the accordion, piano
and French horn. As a young child, he witnessed the consequences
of the ascent of the Nazi Party who forced his father to relinquish
his choral director position, in favor of an aspiring Party member.
This indignity and the resulting severe economic reversal were too
much to bear, and the senior Wunderlich committed suicide.
His widowed mother was not initially supportive of his musical
ambitions, but eventually became convinced that his talent should
be encouraged. To finance his education, Wunderlich performed
“dance music” at weddings and social gatherings, and also worked
in a quarry. After gaining admission to the Musikhochschule
Freiburg, he eventually switched his studies from the French horn
to singing, under the tutelage of Margarete von Winterfeldt. Fritz
studied with her for five years, and she was interviewed in this film.
Fritz Wunderlich began his operatic career as an understudy.
However, the principal singers were so impressed with his abilities
that the normal rivalries did not apply. In fact, it was noted that
the principal and cover tenors would “create” opportunities for him
to perform, by feigning illnesses. After one such stellar substitution
for an “indisposed” singer, Wunderlich’s curtain call was described
as an audience “primal scream.”
With his career on the rise, he turned his attention to an attractive
orchestral harpist. Their ensuing marriage produced a baby
daughter, and when interviewed, Eva Wunderlich recalled that
Fritz’s burgeoning career enabled her to retire from the orchestra.
Although Tamino from Mozart’s “Die Zauberflote” was a signature
role, Wunderlich also successfully navigated the murderous tessituras
written for tenors in operas, such as Richard Strauss’ “The Silent
Woman.” He had no trouble securing engagements, and due to his
busy schedule, once had to reject a contract proffered by conductor
Herbert von Karajan.
The one area of difficulty for Wunderlich was lieder, and his first
lieder recital was unsuccessful. He wisely sought the counsel of
baritone Hermann Prey, who had an impeccable reputation as a
lieder singer. Film clips included on this disc show both men on stage,
during a production of “The Barber of Seville” sung in German, and
Prey was among those interviewed for this film. Mezzo-soprano
Brigitte Fassbaender costarred with Wunderlich in a German-language
production of “Eugene Onegin,” and had nothing but praise for her
former colleague. Opera singers and audiences alike marveled at
Wunderlich’s “endless breath,” and this film is punctuated by
comments from tenor Rolando Villazon, and baritone Thomas Hampson,
who shared his admiration for Wunderlich in German.
Although this film is short on Wunderlich performances, we are
treated to staged scenes from operas by Pergolesi, Mozart and
Richard Strauss, Lensky’s aria from “Eugene Onegin,” and a rehearsal
scene from an opera by Werner Egk. Apparently, regardless of
the original language of an opera, Wunderlich always performed it
Finally, it was noted that Wunderlich loved to relax by fishing. His
friend, Peter Karger, indicated that this was his favorite form of
relaxation, providing him with an escape from his public life. The
fatal accident that killed Fritz Wunderlich occurred during one of
these fishing vacations, and is symbolically reenacted in this film.
He apparently tripped while descending the stairs at a country
home, falling and fracturing his skull. Wunderlich died shortly
thereafter, a few weeks before his scheduled Metropolitan Opera
debut, and we are left to wonder what might have been.
Anyone who loves the tenor voice should see this DVD!