personal thoughts


Some thoughts and anecdotes about a great singer, warm-hearted man and wonderful teacher

Josef Metternich was my first and most important teacher, without him I never would have become a singers myself.

The list of his students who became professional singers - and highly successful singers - is a long one:

Mechthild Gessendorf, Eike Wim Schulte, Soto Papoulkas, Carol Malone, Michael Ebbecke, Katarina Ikonomou, Ludwig Baumann, Raimund Nolte, Sophia Larson, Stella Kleindienst, Matthias Hölle, Ruthild Engert, Wicus Slabbert, Oskar Hildebrandt, Philip Kang, Guido Götzen, Wolfgang Koch, Gerd Grochowski, Jonas Kaufmann, Christoph Strehl, Cornelia Kallisch, Donald George, Michael Volle and many, many others.

One day Mario del Monaco told his students: “If you are looking for a teacher who teaches a true Italian method of singing, do not go to Italy, but to Germany and Josef Metternich.”

No German singer, except perhaps Josef Schwarz a generation earlier, had such an "Italian" voice: rounded, and well balanced, dark and metallic at the same time, build up from a voluminous deep and middle register up to brilliant top notes and with a legato that every great singer would have been proud of - at any time and of any nationality.

Metternich started his career without ever having a singing lesson in the chorus. Soon his exceptional voice attracted attention and he got his first solo parts.

Eventually he moved to Berlin and studied singing with Paul Neuhaus. But with a lot of older, very good and established colleagues there he only sang smaller parts. He followed the advice to join a smaller opera company to sing major roles.  He accepted an engagement at Wiesbaden. After only two performances the Nazis declared the “total war” and all theaters were closed.

A lung disease saved him from being drafted to the army.

After the war without a job he returned to Berlin. By case he there met Henk Noort, a dutch tenor  (mostly known for his splendid 1937 Walther von Stolzing with Toscanini) with whom he had sung some broadcast productions during the war time. Noort arranged an audition with Michael Bohnen - by then director of the Städtische Oper (the former Deutsche Opernhaus and later becoming Deutsche Oper Berlin).

Bohnen, himself one of the famous German singers and called the German Chaliapin, immediately offered Metternich a contract and subsequently became one of his most important patrons.

Metternich became a star-singer in Berlin and sang nearly all the major roles of his “Fach”.

The following years he made guest appearances at all the major European opera houses, the Wiener Statsoper, the Scala di Milano, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden.

One day in the early fifties Leo Blech, one of the conductors whom he admired most (together with Furtwängler, Fricsay and Mitropoulos), told him that Rudolf Bing, manager of the Metropolitan Opera, was at Berlin and would visit the evening performance. “I am sure that he will engage you immediately!”

Next morning Bing offered Metternich a contract for the Met.

At Berlin Metternich mostly sang the great Italian repertoire. But at these times, and at such a company, so soon after the Second World War, it would have been impossible for a singer of German nationality to perform anything other than German operas. Metternich was officially hired only for Wagner and Strauss operas. But Bing advised him, to study some Italian roles as Tonio, Carlos (La forza del destino) and Renato, too - in Italian, of course.

Metternich studied the roles "line-by-line" because he didn’t speak any Italian and Italian coaches must have been an ultra rare species at the Berlin of these times.

When Metternich arrived at New York, the great American baritone Leonard Warren became indisposed before a performance of Verdi's "La forza del destino" and had to cancel at short notice (which of course had been planned some months earlier). As the performance came Bing appeared before the curtain and explained that the only substitute, he could find in the short time, was a certain Mr Metternich from Germany who fortunately did agree to save the show.

The evening was a big success. Metternich for the next years sang the German AND the Italian repertoire at the MET.

One anecdote he told from that time was that after a first-night-party at New York he has been spat and insulted as a Nazi.

Richard Tucker, the great American and Jewish tenor star of MET, who with him had sung the performance of that night, subsequently took him in his arms and announced loudly, that this here was his friend Josef Metternich and who insults Metternich insults him, Richard Tucker, too. After that there was no more discussion about the theme.

American friends sometimes told me that Metternich at the MET suffered from the great competition of such baritones like Merrill, Warren, Bastianini, Gobbi, Guerrera, Valdengo or Silveri and that this fact was the reason that he sang at the most famous opera house of the world for only three seasons.

I think this is not very likely, since he also sang the German repertoire there, an here the competition hadn´t such a strong one - at least vocally - and his newspaper reviews at New York all were excellent.

Metternich himself told that Ferenc Fricsay  in 1955 offered him a multiyear contract for the Bavarian State Opera with many roles and evening per season. That made an engagement for the next years. impossible

He stayed until the end of his career with the Bavarian State Opera.

With his wife, Liselotte Losch, a singer and a sought-after teacher, Metternich lived in a beautiful house at Feldafing near the Starnberger See. Later another famous baritone became his direct neighbour: Wolfgang Brendel.

In 1965 Metternich was appointed professor at the Musikhochschule Köln. He hold this position up to his early seventies and moved on giving singing lessons at his home up to his death.

As unique Metternich might have been as a German baritone in the Italian repertoire, I always felt that he showed his greatest achievements in the German repertoire. Especially in the operas of Richard Strauss up to today he needn´t fear any competition. Equally formidable are his Telramund, Pizarro,  Kurwenal, Flying Dutchman or the broadcasts he made of lighter songs and oerettas.

He was a wonderful person and teacher, warm-hearted, humorous and generous, never jealous of other singers or upset if one of his students left his school to study with a different teacher.

Shortly before his death, I visited Josef Metternich at his home and worked with him.  And again it was overwhelming and surprising. It simply was like coming home after being absent for a much too long time, simply right and splendid.

Metternich´s tomb at the Feldafing cemetery