During a performance at Covent Garden in the late 1940s, the legendary Heldenbariton Hans Hotter, singing Wotan in the then-customary eye-patch and armor, took an all-too-obvious spill from the Valkyries' rock during the last act of "Die Walkeure." He was unhurt, but the incident made the papers and excited the concern of one of the opera trustees. "You're sure he didn't do any harm to himself?" the latter asked general director David Webster. "Because I looked at him and he had something over his left eye."
It's been a while since Hotter last wore the eye-patch, but I am happy to report he is still hale and hearty as he prepares to celebrate his 80th birthday, an event KBYU-FM (89.1) is honoring this month with a special series of broadcasts produced by them for national syndication.The first of them, an hourlong documentary on the singer's career, aired last Wednesday but will be repeated Jan. 19, the actual birthday, at 1 p.m. Packed with interviews - including several with Hotter himself - it contains, in addition to the above story, tributes from fellow Wagnerians Leonie Rysanek, Jess Thomas and Roger Roloff (a prominent Wotan himself these days, and a Hotter student) and former San Francisco Opera director Terry McEwen.
"One of the greatest actors I've ever seen onstage," is how McEwen characterizes the singer, a thought echoed by Rysanek and Thomas. "He was Wotan," Rysanek says flatly, adding that "a Liederabend with Hotter was always a drama." Which highlights a subtle but important truth: Hotter's acting wasn't just physical - it was vocal, enabling him to penetrate to the heart of a Schubert song as profoundly as he did the theatrical creations of a Wagner or a Strauss.
That is why even those of us who never saw him onstage nonetheless shared that vision by way of recordings. We may not have been able to see the tenderness and humanity he brought to Wotan's Farewell, but we could hear it, along with the tragic nobility of his Dutchman and the compassion of his Gurnemanz.
Even when the voice itself - never the steadiest of instruments - was no longer as reliable as it had been, Hotter nearly always seemed able to turn what in any other context would be vocal weaknesses to his advantage. One thinks of the heartwrench of his "Winterreise" or the hollow-voiced expressivity of his Strauss. Even that mid-'60s "Walkuere" with Solti, which unfortunately does not catch him at his best, never loses its grip on the character of Wotan, even in the otherwise disappointing final scene. (As KBYU has done, I usually substitute his earlier recording for EMI, also with Nilsson, around that point.)
But the acting was also physical; we have ample testimony to that. As a young man Hotter, like Pinza before him, fell under the spell of Chaliapin. Before then, he says, opera had always seemed "artificial." And just as Chaliapin was to influence an entire generation of Borises, so Hotter would leave his mark on an entire generation of Wotans.
Rare it is these days to encounter a performance that does not betray that influence, whether in the physical bearing of the singer or the shading of individual words and phrases (an example: the contemptuously hissed final "Geh!" that fells Hunding in Act 2 of "Die Walkuere"). Similarly at Bayreuth last summer, even amid the far-out trappings of the Goetz Friedrich/James Levine "Parsifal" - fascinating on their own - Hans Sotin as Gurnemanz could be seen to incorporate a small bit of business that I believe can likewise be traced back to Hotter: the wondering look heavenward as the unseen voice intones "Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor," as though it has suddenly occurred to him that the guileless fool (Parsifal) he has just expelled from the Grail Castle might be the savior they long for.
The KBYU broadcasts capture most of this beautifully, embracing everything from the expected Wagnerian cuttings and Schubert Lieder (an incomparable "Schwanengesang" with Gerald Moore) to such uncustomary Hotter fare as Bach and Handel (among his favorite recordings, he alleges) and a German-language "La Calunnia" that, to my way of thinking, rivals Kipnis. (Programs air Wednesdays at 9 p.m. through Feb. 1, with additional Hotter items preceding them most nights.) For station manager Walter Rudolph (who doubles as narrator) this was clearly a labor of love, some of which seeps through toward the end of the documentary program.
Frankly I'd have been hard put not to wax a bit maudlin myself. My own feeling is that, apart from the song cycles, you haven't really encountered the Hotter art until you sample one of the two live "Rings" with him, both out of Bayreuth, either the 1953 cycle with Krauss at the helm or, on 15 Music & Arts CDs (available from them for the price of 12), the 1957 cycle with Knappertsbusch. But short of that I can't think of a better introduction than this KBYU series. Or one likelier to leave the listener with a taste for even more.