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HANS HOTTER: MOST HEROIC OF THEM ALL

The German word is Heldenbariton .

Literally, it means “heroic baritone.” It is the vocal category applied primarily to dominant Wagnerian forces: Wotan, the tragic chief of the Gods in the “Ring”; the brooding and mysterious Flying Dutchman; the wise, tough yet sensitive Hans Sachs in “Die Meistersinger”; the long-suffering Amfortas in “Parsifal.”

Richard Strauss called upon the same aggressive sort of baritone when he created the martyred Jochanaan in “Salome,” the vengeful Orest in “Elektra,” the tempestuous Mandryka in “Arabella” and the primitive Barak in “Die Frau ohne Schatten.”

A bona-fide Heldenbariton belongs to a rare breed. He must command a voice of extraordinary size, heft and stamina. He also should be able to rise with ease to bright, ringing climaxes at the top of his range yet descend with weight and power to dark basso cadences.

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When the real thing isn’t available, opera companies tend to sacrifice pushed-up basses, who eventually come to grief on the high tessitura and exposed top notes, or pushed-out lyric baritones, who eventually succumb to the inevitable damage of strain.

For one American generation--the Flagstad-Melchior generation--the model Heldenbariton was Friedrich Schorr. The upper part of his voice did not serve him well in later years, and his physical stature may have been something less than heroic. Nevertheless, his intelligence, his musicality and dramatic poignancy were much admired.

In recent years, the repertory has been dominated by wily pretenders and competent lightweights. Some could boast the requisite brains but not the voice. A few have had the right laryngeal equipment but the wrong temperament. One or two have possessed the appropriate basic credentials, but the scale was small for the biggest houses.

Today, a few credible pretenders to Wotan’s imposing throne may lurk on the horizon. All of them, incidentally, happen to be Americans.

James Morris certainly has made vocal waves in San Francisco and Munich, though his grasp of German is limited and his acting style generalized. Roger Roloff showed signs of genuine promise in Seattle, despite a voice of relatively modest proportions. Although his sound tends to be more mellow than incisive, Simon Estes has impressed New York and West Berlin.

For most connoisseurs, however, there has only been one great Heldenbariton in our time. Only one singer has managed to define the majesty, the power, the sensitivity, the pathetic contradictions of Wotan, simultaneously man and immortal. That singer was, of course, Hans Hotter.

America didn’t see the best of Hotter. Born in 1909, he came into his prime during World War II in Germany. Rudolf Bing brought him to the Metropolitan Opera for a triumphant debut in “Der Fliegende Hollaender” in 1950, but painful differences of opinion with the impresario regarding repertory confined Hotter’s New York career to four years and 35 sporadic performances. San Francisco and Chicago hardly fared better.

In Munich, London, Bayreuth, Vienna and Paris, however, Hotter reigned supreme and virtually unchallenged for three decades. Even now, 15 years after his valedictory Wotan, he still casts a formidable shadow.

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Although his voice, physique and temperament made him a natural Wagnerian, he always resisted typecasting. He liked to sing Puccini’s Scarpia, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Verdi’s Amonasro alongside Wotan and Sachs.

When his voice was young and relatively light, he sang Escamillo in “Carmen,” Verdi’s Macbeth and the Count in “Le Nozze di Figaro” (or, more likely, “Figaros Hochzeit”). When age began to make his voice darker, thicker and lower, he turned to such bona-fide basso challenges as Boris Godunov, King Philip in “Don Carlo,” Gurnemanz in “Parsifal” and King Marke in “Tristan.”

An unsuspected flair for comedy made him a blissfully sleazy Basilio in Rossini’s “Barbiere,” a witty Falstaff and a sly, Cyrano-nosed Gianni Schicchi. Hotter didn’t always want to be heroic.

On a good day, his voice was huge, rich, warm, resilient, capable of shimmering pianissimos as well as thunderous fortissimos. He knew how to define a character imaginatively and instantly. He illuminated the text with striking stresses and subtle inflections.

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Contrary to widespread popular opinion, however, Hotter was human. On a bad day, his voice could lose focus and security. Periodically, he fell victim to hay fever. When stricken, he often sounded tight and muffled. Sometimes his tone production tended toward the thick and the nasal.

“Don’t sing the way I do,” he used to caution his awed students at the Munich Hochschule fuer Musik.

“Sing properly.”

With Hotter, the vocal flaws hardly mattered. He was never just a singer. One never expected him just to make beautiful sounds.

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He was the archetypal singing actor. He knew how to stand still. He knew how to magnetize attention with his expressive face, his towering frame, his eloquent but spare gestures.

He never stooped to cliches, cheap tricks, easy effects or hand-me-down traditions. When he was on the stage, it was difficult to notice anyone else.

Los Angeles first saw Hotter as the Flying Dutchman with the San Francisco Opera. That was at Shrine Auditorium in 1954. Later the same season, he added Don Pizarro in “Fidelio” and, in a Pasadena run-out, Count Almaviva in “Figaro.” In 1956, he repeated the Dutchman, took an unusual repertory excursion as Rangoni in “Boris” and introduced his definitive “Walkuere” Wotan to Southern California.

Twenty-one years later, when he was only 68, Hotter returned to give a shattering account of the “Summer Wind” Sprechgesang in the “Gurrelieder” with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Music Center. He had agreed to appear as a late replacement for an ailing younger colleague, George London.

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A few weeks ago, Hotter undertook the same Schoenberg task with the San Francisco Symphony. Although Herbert Blomstedt, the resident conductor, didn’t provide ideally spacious accompaniment, Hotter once again dominated the performance with his authority and intensity of expression. Here, as in Los Angeles a decade earlier, he defied tradition by really singing certain lines, not just speaking rhythmically on vaguely defined pitches.

The next morning, huddled in a modest suite in an inn near the opera house, he offered a few explanations in nearly perfect, slightly British-accented English.

“I know Schoenberg stated very clearly that he wanted no conventional singing in this part. But sometimes one may take certain liberties.

“Actually, the idea came from Zubin in 1977. ‘The Los Angeles public remembers you,’ he said at the time. ‘Sing a few notes for them.’

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“I tried it, and it seemed quite natural. One has to add color somehow. One has to find the balance between song and speech. In a way, this challenge isn’t that far from Wotan’s narration.”

Like many artists of his generation, Hotter looks at the present world of music with a certain skepticism. He still undertakes a few special roles, such the mysterious Schigolch in Berg’s “Lulu” or the wise and dignified Sprecher in Mozart’s “Zauberfloete.” He still offers occasional Lied recitals, still teaches master classes, still coaches younger singers. Until recently, he found stimulating employment as a stage director. For most practical purposes, however, Hotter has distanced himself from his erstwhile calling.

“Things are so different now,” he said. “To survive, one has to be able to cope with the zoo we call the theater. It takes a special attitude, special training, perhaps a special mentality.

“One has to be economical with one’s resources. One has to be careful. Everyone is in a rush today. I know, I sang my first Wotan when I was only 22. But that was in a very small house, and under very sympathetic conditions. It was a dangerous gamble, and I was lucky to survive.

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“Today, no one has time to develop, to really study the important things. The training today is dubious, and we don’t have ensemble theaters any more that nurture talent.

“Young singers aren’t taught how a king walks, how a banker walks, how a peasant walks. They don’t care about the correct look of a character. They don’t know how to wear a costume. They don’t know how to hold a sword, much less a spear.

“Of course, the things that were so important to me don’t matter as much now. I am appalled by so many of the new productions. Everything has to be different for the sake of being different. The new ideas may be very theatrical, and sometimes they actually bring out great things for the individual singers. But they often disregard the music. They change so many things in the composer’s ideas.

“Look what has happened to the character of Wotan. Today they only bring out the weaknesses. They are afraid of pathos, generosity, nobility.

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“I sometimes wonder why the modern directors don’t just go ahead and rewrite the music too. If it isn’t perverse to put the mythological king of the gods in modern dress, why not change the melodic line and the harmonies as well? Why not change the meter and the orchestration?”

Hotter’s own productions were relatively traditional. They were respected, but they caused no sensations.

“It was frustrating,” he said, “to be a stage director. To be successful today, one has to do the new style. One has to turn everything upside down. One cannot respect the score and the libretto very much. I don’t want to be labeled old-fashioned, and at my age I cannot be something that I am not and never was.

“Of course, opera must be alive. It must change with the times, to a degree. It must excite the audience. But much of what is happening now is not to my taste. After all, I went through one revolution.”

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He was referring, of course, to the stark, simplified, abstract stagings introduced by Wieland Wagner in postwar Bayreuth.

“It was difficult at the beginning,” Hotter recalled. “But I had become bored with Wagner, with the standard gestures and the helmets and capes and the grandiose emotions. Wieland introduced an aura of introspection. He gave us stillness, an empty stage in which to focus inner feelings.

“ ‘The other stuff,’ he always told us, ‘is rubbish.’ We resisted at first. Then it seemed right.”

“No two voices,” Hotter reflected, “are the same.

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“My colleague Paul Schoeffler was comfortable singing Hans Sachs all his life, and he sang it beautifully when he was quite old. I adored the role, but it really did not suit my voice. It lay just on the break between registers, in the high middle voice. I had to give it up fairly early, with much regret.”

When he abandoned Sachs, the role fell to singers who chose to stress the central character’s occupation--cobbler--rather than his preoccupation--poetry. While the other Heldenbaritons shouted their lines and pounded their hammers, Hotter retreated to the generous basso platitudes of Pogner in the same opera.

It cannot be not surprising that Hotter’s successors seek his seal of approval, but few seem willing to pay the price. The would-be sorcerer acknowledged no genuine apprentices.

“James Morris worked on ‘Walkuere’ with me, but didn’t consult me when it came to ‘Siegfried.’ He is very talented, and perhaps a bit arrogant. I wouldn’t say he is particularly brainy. Roger Roloff came to me for a few lessons. He was good in many ways, serious, sincere. But he remains something of a Beamter type, a civil servant.”

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Even Hans Hotter didn’t always get what he wanted.

“I had a very hard time persuading the company directors to cast me in certain roles. They always wanted me to be bigger than life. I loved being funny.”

He would have been especially happy to sing Baron Ochs in “Der Rosenkavalier,” a great, multifaceted, basically aristocratic role that most bassos distort with cheap buffoonery.

“Richard Strauss wanted me to sing Ochs, and I was willing. Somehow, the right conditions never came about. At one point I was asked to do it with Bernstein in Vienna, but the record company was pushing Walter Berry at the time. That was that.”

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He admits to only a few other regrets: not collaborating with Maria Callas or Arturo Toscanini, not singing much Italian opera in Italian, and not having many opportunities to appear at his best at the Met. New York never even saw him in a complete “Ring.”

“It was strange,” Hotter recalled. “Mr. Bing brought me to America, and I had a good success. But he did not believe in me. After a few seasons, he offered me a contract that would have made me a specialist in secondary roles. He told me he thought I was singing the wrong repertory.

“I told him I thought he was working in the wrong opera house. I suggested he belonged somewhere in the provinces. The parting wasn’t happy.”

Hotter insisted that he is enjoying the lingering twilight of his career.

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“When I was very young, my teacher always told me that the worst thing is to be pitied as an artist. He warned me not to sing when the voice wasn’t good enough any more. I have been careful. I have no regrets. None.

“I loved my work, but I don’t really miss it. I listen to my records with mixed feelings. The same problematic spots always come back to haunt me. Styles have changed. Some of my early work seems oddly sentimental now.

“I am lucky because I still have things to do. In Munich, I sometimes have lunch with old friends from the opera. I am happy to see them, but it is sad. All they talk about is the good old days. They have nothing else to do now. There was nothing in their lives outside opera. “It is terrible to live that way. It can make one crazy.

“My teacher used to tell me something very important: ‘One is in really good voice only one day a year, and on that day one doesn’t happen to have a performance.”

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The eternal Wotan intoned the words with mock horror compromised by a touch of majesty. Then he rose from the couch--he seemed to rise about 20 feet--and did something strange and disarming.

He shrugged and grinned.


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