Of the great singers of the past, the one I most wish I had seen and heard was Hans Hotter (1909-2003).
The legendary German baritone certainly was not blessed with the greatest voice of his time, but he may have displayed the endowment he was given to greater effect than any singer before or since.
On disc, no other singer—in any voice category—displays Hotter’s level of probing intelligence and deep insight. He was a magical artist and a profound interpreter, in a class by himself.
If firsthand accounts from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s may be considered accurate, Hotter was an imposing if not riveting stage figure. What was described as an overwhelming stage presence helps to account for the fact that he was in constant demand by the finest theaters in Central Europe for almost three decades.
Hotter never achieved the acclaim in America to which he was naturally entitled, in large part because Rudolf Bing, General Manager of The Metropolitan Opera, seriously undervalued Hotter as an artist. Hotter only appeared at the Met for four seasons, and most often in roles unworthy of his great gifts.
In the 1950-1951 season, Hotter sang thirteen performances at the Met: five performances of Vanderdecken in Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman”; five performances of the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi’s “Don Carlo”; two performances of Wotan in Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”; and one performance of Kurwenal in Wagner’s “Tristan Und Isolde”.
Hotter’s “Dutchman” debut performances, conducted by Fritz Reiner, were a sensation, but Bing chose not to make Hotter a mainstay of the theater—and, of greater significance, Bing chose to offer Hotter only subsidiary roles once Hotter’s first Metropolitan Opera season concluded.
Hotter’s five “Dutchman” performances at The Metropolitan Opera—sung in English—resulted, at the very least, in one of the most iconic opera photographs of the 1950s, and probably the most famous photograph of Hotter in stage costume.
In the 1951-1952 season, Hotter sang another thirteen performances at the Met: five performances of Jochanaan in Strauss’s “Salome”; another three performances of the Grand Inquisitor in “Don Carlo”; two performances of Amfortas in Wagner’s “Parsifal”; two performances of Orest in Strauss’s “Elektra”; and a single performance of Gunther in Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung”.
The 1952-1953 season saw Hotter appear seven times at the Met—and in increasingly insignificant roles: four performances of Marke in “Tristan”; two performances of Pogner in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger”; and another performance of Amfortas in “Parsifal”.
The 1953-1954 season, Hotter’s last at the Met, saw Hotter in five performances, all in more-or-less insulting roles for a singer of Hotter’s gifts: four performances of Hunding in Wagner’s “Die Walkure”; and a single performance of Gurnemanz in “Parsifal”.
After his Metropolitan Opera career ended, Hotter appeared for two seasons at San Francisco Opera.
In 1954, Hotter sang in six San Francisco performances: two performances of Vanderdecken in “Dutchman”; two performances of Pizarro in Beethoven’s “Fidelio”; and two performances of Almaviva in Mozart’s “The Marriage Of Figaro”.
In 1956, Hotter sang another six performances in San Francisco: another two performances of Vanderdecken in “Dutchman”; two performances of Rangoni in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov”; and two performances of Wotan in “Walkure”.
Hotter appeared for one season at Lyric Opera Of Chicago: in 1961, he sang three performances of Pizarro in “Fidelio”.
Given the fact that Hotter experienced an insignificant American career, it is not surprising that he never enjoyed the exalted reputation in the U.S. that he commanded in Europe. However, it is puzzling—and disappointing—that so few American music-lovers recognize Hotter as one of the greatest singers of the 20th Century, a singer of unsurpassed accomplishment in the theater, in the concert hall and in the recital hall. When Hotter is remembered here today (when he is remembered at all), it is usually for Hotter’s past-his-prime Wotan as captured in Georg Solti’s complete “Ring” for Decca.
In Central Europe, Hotter’s greatness was widely recognized by the time he had reached his mid-twenties, an extraordinary age for a male singer to have achieved such renown. By the time Hotter reached his thirtieth birthday, he carried the fame usually reserved for a matinee idol or motion picture actor, a fact demonstrated by this popular postcard from the late 1930s.
The postcard photograph reveals Hotter to be a very handsome and very intelligent man. The photograph was taken in Hamburg and probably dates from 1937, 1938 or 1939, when Hotter was in his late twenties.
Hotter was an artist of the Hamburg Staatsoper from 1934 until 1945. Hotter’s level of accomplishment reached new peaks in 1937, when he sang his first Wotan—as a guest artist in Munich—to unprecedented acclaim. The 1937 Wotan performances sealed Hotter’s reputation, making him an international star virtually overnight. The postcard tribute was probably one of the incidental benefits of Hotter’s new-found fame after his great success as Wotan.
Another result of Hotter’s growing notoriety was a friendship with composer Richard Strauss, who began calling for Hotter to appear in Strauss operas from 1938 onward.
Hotter was in the premier casts of three operas of Strauss: “Friedenstag”, “Die Liebe Der Danae” and “Capriccio”. The role of Olivier in “Capriccio” was written specifically for Hotter, although Hotter assumed the role of La Roche in the first studio recording of the opera, made fifteen years after the work’s premiere.
“Die Liebe Der Danae”, Strauss’s last stage work, did not receive an “official” staging during the composer’s lifetime. Its premiere had been scheduled for The Salzburg Music Weeks in late summer 1944—the Nazis had stopped using the term “festival” in 1943, so music events scheduled for Salzburg in late summer 1944 were referred to as “The Salzburg Music Weeks”—but the attempted assassination of Hitler on July 20 resulted in the abrupt cancellation of all Salzburg performances that year (as well as cancellations of performances all over Germany).
Upon the pleading of conductor Clemens Krauss, authorities allowed one “public dress rehearsal” of “Die Liebe Der Danae” to proceed, an allowance granted largely because The German Reich already had been aggressively promoting Strauss’s eightieth birthday throughout 1944.
More than one notable photograph resulted from the “public dress rehearsal” of “Die Liebe Der Danae”. The photograph below presents three cast members—Horst Taubmann, Viorica Ursuleac and Hotter—onstage with the composer at the conclusion of the opera’s unofficial unveiling.
The “public dress rehearsal” of “Die Liebe Der Danae” was the occasion on which Strauss, famously, told members of the Vienna Philharmonic that he looked forward to seeing them in future, if possible—but in happier times and places.
In his memoirs, Hotter wrote eloquently and at length about the difficulty of maintaining a career in the performing arts in a totalitarian state—especially a totalitarian state in wartime. Hotter must have negotiated the hazards with skill, because he was never in danger from the authorities—as far as is known—and he was never considered “tainted” by The Period Of National Socialism after the war.
In addition to addressing in his memoirs life and politics in a totalitarian state, Hotter also addressed the practicalities and impracticalities of life in wartime Germany. The safety of his family was a constant concern, as was the need to earn a living, which became increasingly difficult as the war staggered to an ill-fated conclusion for Germany.
During the war years, Hotter traveled constantly on blacked-out overnight trains between Hamburg, Munich and Vienna, the three cities in which he most often worked. Such trains were always subject to attack by enemy bombers and fighters, with the result that Hotter never knew when—or whether—he might arrive safely at his destination.
As the war continued, and the air attacks become more and more frequent, Hotter found the nighttime train trips to be unbearable. Unable to sleep on the packed trains, Hotter would sit on his luggage and try to doze, waiting for the alarms that would send the passengers grabbing for their luggage and rushing off into the nearest fields or forests for cover as enemy planes approached.
Arriving at his destination, Hotter would check into his hotel (if it was still standing), nap with his bags at his side—and wait for the air raid sirens to sound and send him rushing off to the nearest shelter.