Wagnerian (and Eurovision) Tenor René Kollo, 75, Calls Time

By James Inverne on Oct 14, 2013 07:55 PM EDT

He's 75, so René Kollo has decided that enough is enough. Wagner tenors--real, top-quality Wagner tenors--are few enough in number that when one decides to retire, it doesn't go unnoticed. And even though Kollo hasn't been doing all that much lately, at least not on the international scene as far as we can tell, it's still reason for pause. After all, he dominated the Wagner tenor roles, alongside his colleague and rival Siegfried Jerusalem, throughout the '80s and '90s.

He started his life in music. His father and grandfather were both composers. And Kollo Junior sang operetta early on, as well as pop music. He lost out in his 1964 and 1965 bids to represent Germany at the Eurovision Song Contest, entering the national finals unsuccessfully with the songs "Alles Glück auf dieser Welt" and "Wie wom Wind verweht." And let us not forget this ditty from '63.

Wagner may have seemed a surer bet. And although he was not born with the steely tones of a Lauritz Melchoir (who is, apart from Lauritz Melchior?), his voice was burnished and naturally heavy. That meant he was able to bring great lyricism to killer roles like Siegfried and Tristan while still largely being able to withstand the wear that so many Wagner tenors experience.

What is often forgotten about Kollo is how marvellous an actor he could be. That may be partly because Jerusalem was a more natural stage presence, but in the great emotional moments, Kollo could portray both sincerity and profundity. His Tristan, on record for Carlos Kleiber, and especially on DVD from the Deutsche Oper Berlin for director Götz Friedrich (and there's another DVD performance available under Daniel Barenboim) rises to intensely expressive heights.

And his talents attracted the finest conductors. Solti, Bernstein, Karajan all recorded with him. His Siegfried is caught in the studio by Marek Janowski, and live on film under Wolfgang Sawallisch (from Munich).

Most of his major roles were issued on recordings, and a few circulate in "unofficial" ones--notable his Peter Grimes, a landmark in his career. There's at least one Grimes doing the rounds, under Sir Andrew Davis from Munich.

He never left light music. And it may indeed have been this that gave him such vocal longevity. Or, maybe he was lucky. Either way, as his announced final recitals near, Wagner lovers will be looking for his latest successor, and there aren't that many great options. Mind you, in that repertoire, there never are.

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TagsRené Kollo, Wagner, Siegfried Jerusalem, Eurovision, Lauritz Melchoir, Tristan und Isolde, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Götz Friedrich, Siegfried, The Ring, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Britten, Peter Grimes

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