Search This Blog

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Great Jacques Urlus

Jacques Urlus was born in 1867 near Aachen, and grew up in Tilburg, in The Netherlands. As was—and is— so often the case with great artists, entertainers and sports figures, his family was poor, so much so that they could not afford to give him any musical training. The result of this is that Urlus was essentially self-taught, and a mighty job he did of it, for he was to become an extraordinary technician, with a near-flawless vocal technique that made it possible for him to sing Mozart, Wagner (with which he was particularly associated), and Lieder. In a word, like Franz Völker and Leo Slezak, he could sing anything he put his mind to. Essentially, it is always the same voice, and it always works well! More on this subject in a moment.

His debut was at the Amsterdam Opera House, in 1894, in a small part. After singing around Amsterdam for a while, he had the chance to go to Hannover, Germany, where he appeared in Lohengrin, to considerable acclaim. He sang for Cosima Wagner, but was not at that time given any opportunities at Bayreuth. So, it was back to The Netherlands, where he continued singing where he could. His next big move was in 1900, to Leipzig, which became his artistic base for many years. Debuts from farther afield soon came, and he went on to perform in Berlin, Vienna, Frankfurt and other houses in Germany and Austria. He also appeared at Covent Garden at this time. Finally, in 1911, he did get the chance to go to Bayreuth, where he sang Siegmund , which was well received.

It was on to the Met the next year, and Urlus was now established, having sung in all the major Northern opera houses. I do not know that he ever sang publicly in any language except German, or, I assume, Dutch in some of the performances in The Netherlands.  After the Met engagement, it was back to Germany, where he essentially spent the rest of his career.

Urlus is a good example of what I talk about often in these pages, and that is the unsatisfying vagueness of our current terminology for voice types. He was a great tenor. To me that sums it up. We are so besotted with ever-finer vocal definitions, that they lose meaning after while: Heldentenor, heroic tenor (the same thing) dramatic tenor (the same thing), spinto tenor, leggiero tenor, lyric tenor, etc. ad infinitum. They are all in fact tenors, men with high singing voices. We burden our vocabulary with endless definitions, to almost no avail. Most of these definitions, when you stop and think about it, describe the color, size, intensity and flexibility of the voice. It does not invent a new category every time one tenor sounds different from another. Let's look more closely at Urlus, a good example of what I am talking about. Commonly called a "Heldentenor," a term I somewhat uneasy with in his case, here is his rendition of a popular Mozart aria, Tamino's "Dies Bildness ist bezaubernd Schön"

It is beautiful, and reminds me of what a well-known New York opera coach once told me: "Everybody likes to hear these great Mozart arias, but they don't want to hear a church tenor singing them." Indeed. Urlus' voice sounds different here, of course, from that of Fritz Wunderlich, Jussi Björling, or Alfredo Kraus, but so what? They are different people, each with his own voice. If it resembles anyone else's rendition, it would be Franz Völker's. Both were eminently successful singing Mozart. And Wagner!

Let's hear Urlus move now to Verdi, and to what is commonly considered a "big" and "dramatic" aria, "Celeste Aida."  Urlus sings it with exactly the same voice with which he sang the Tamino aria:

I would say this is exceptionally well done; that it is, in fact, great tenor singing, without question. The line, the purity of the vocal production, the style, and the dynamics, even with the "as written" ending.  It is elegant and consummate singing, by any standard and in any historical period.  What I am not sure I hear is "Heldentenor."  If Lauritz Melchior is a "Heldentenor," then Jacques Urlus may not be. That is as simply as I can put it. They are both tenors, and they both sound very good in very different kinds of roles.

Finally, 2 short Wagner arias, from Lohengrin, recorded in 1907 and 1911. ("In Fernem Land," when Urlus was 40 years old, and "Mein lieber Schwan," four years later. I invite you to compare the voice, in all its aspects, to the two pieces we have already heard.

And there you have it. Superb singing on all fronts: Mozart, Verdi and Wagner, and we have not even touched the lighter song repertoire, at which he also excelled. One voice, finely tuned and universally applicable. The fact that he always sang in German or Dutch, of course, helps make this happen. If he were to sing in Italian, Spanish, or French, it would be possible to talk about his particular aptitude for one or the other language, but that only adds another element to the real differences between tenor singing voices, and that is the aptness to the language of birth—another matter altogether, unrelated to voice types. Jacques Urlus was a great tenor; remarkably consistent and almost infinitely adaptable.*

*For those who wish to listen to more of Urlus, please permit me to recommend strongly the Youtube channel of Mr. Tim Shu, at dantitustimshu, one of the very best sites currently available on the web, where you can find many Urlus videos, all with erudite and reliable commentary.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, Edmund, for another superb article! In terms of career pedigree and reputation, Urlus preceded Lauritz Melchior as the leading Heldentenor active at the New York Metropolitan Opera. Where vocalism and artistry are concerned, he is in a class of his own. Urlus does not have the heroic ring in the highest notes that one hears in Melchior. What makes him truly outstanding are his sheer musicality and legato style, which he never sacrificed for the sake of dramatic declamation. As we could hear clearly on his recordings, he was able to maintain a consistent balance between both elements. His versatility is also impressive. Apart from the heavier and lighter Wagnerian roles, he was capable of adapting his voice to a wide range of repertoire, including Mozart, the early Romantics, Meyerbeer, Verdi, Bach's St Matthew Passion and Mahler, and do exceptionally well in virtually everything he sang. It's good that with the reissue of his considerable number of recordings on CDs (largely through the efforts of Ward Marston on his own label and the Austrian record label Preiser), his stellar qualities are becoming increasingly appreciated by more. He is truly a great singer of the Golden Age and undoubtedly one of the most outstanding Heldentenors in the 20th Century.


JD Hobbes said...

Another excellent posting. Each one makes me realize how many fine singers there have been and how many are unknown to us. YouTube provides quite a service bringing us those talents from a distant past. Your channel and those you mention provide consistenly good materials at a high level of scholarship. Well done.

Anonymous said...

A further observation: The closest reference to Urlus' remarkale versatility and vocal style is possibly the great Polish tenor Jean de Reszke (who could be heard , albeit faintly, only in primitively recorded live fragments on the Mapleson Cylinders).


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Tim! Superb comment. Spot on, and a perfect example of why I am so keen to direct readers to your channel and narratives! Thanks for all you do to keep the quality of Youtube up!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Mr. Hobbes, for a lovely comment. I really appreciate it, as I appreciate your faithfulness as a commentator, always clear and always to the point. I believe, in the nearly 3 years this blog has been up and running, that you have never missed a single issue. Extraordinary, and much appreciated, and I say that sincerely.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article, Edmund. This singer was totally unknown to me; I even didn’t hear his name. It’s sad that he is less known than other tenors of his generation, because he had a beautiful voice. Thanks to Tim for great recordings. I would say that Ulrus was an outstanding lyric tenor:) Now singers with such high and ‘golden’ voices are considered ‘lyric ’. Some tones of his remind me of Leonid Sobinov, and like Ulrus, Sobinov was an outstanding Lohengrin.
I totally agree with you: they were tenors, who could perform everything beautifully. The problem is that modern classification of voices affects many people and it’s hard for them to understand that it’s not necessary to be a typical 'heldentenor' to sing Wagner. Anyway, Ulrus was a brilliant singer, it was pleasure to hear such a voice.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend! Always a pleasure to hear from you. Great comment! As usual, you cut through all the superfluities and go directly to the heart of the matter. "It's not necessary to be a typical heldentenor to sing Wagner." Brilliant sentence, and absolutely to the point. No indeed, it is not. And my experience has taught me that often the opposite is the case; i.e., that often audiences enjoy listening to even non-Germans and to non-dramatic tenors sing Wagner. Georges Thill comes to mind. Trained as a bel canto tenor, he sang Wagner in French for years at the Paris Opera, to great acclaim. And Placido Domingo has sung Siegmund's role in Die Walkure, at the Metropolitan, for years, and to rave reviews. We use far too many descriptive terms describing individual voices, and 9 times out of 10 they don't hold up in actual practice. Thanks so much for the comment!

Anonymous said...

Natalie's characteristically astute analysis provides much food for thought. Categories such as "dramatic(spinto)", "lyric-dramatic(lirico-spinto)", "lyric", "lyric-coloratura" and "coloratura" were prototypes developed by critics and audiences through the years as convenient cognitive means to discuss and analyze singers and they have somehow become deeply entrenched over time in people's minds. However, the universality of these categories can indeed come under considerable doubt when we come to singers closer to the time of Meyerbeer, Verdi, Wagner, etc. The sheer range of their repertoire/roles and their amazing versatility simply transcend and even defy those categories that became naturalized later on. Apart from the examples of Jean de Reszke and Jacques Urlus, other significant examples include Lilli Lehmann and Lillian Nordica, who excelled in heavier and lighter Wagnerian roles as well as roles such as Violetta, Philine (in Mignon) and those in the grand operas of Meyerbeer. Even though it is difficult for us to completely forgo the categories, the achievements of these great singers should at least bring us to the realization that those seemingly established boundaries and prototypes can indeed be seriously questioned and problematized.


DanPloy said...

The singing of Celeste Aida, (I am not so familiar with Wagner or Mozart so I will reserve my comments to that aria), reminds me a little of Joseph Rogatchewsky who also sang Wagner, even Parsifal, but had a voice that was quite 'French' in style which allowed him to sing Manon. He also did not qualify as the traditional heldentenor and in fact the voice, as with Urlus, is silvery in timbre.
(My apologies for trying to characterise the voice, as with wine, rather than try to describe it as chocalately or peachy, it is best to just drink it and not pontificate).

I will say however that, for me, the aria is made somewhat awkward by it being in German. There are times when I feel the words do not quite 'fit' and the phrasing, (if that is the right term), is lost somewhat. But that is another subject of course.

Thank-you for bringing to my attention a tenor I had not heard of previously.

And happy Chinese New Year!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Dan, and Happy Year of The Dragon to you also! Great comment, and I enjoy the gourmet analogies:) Even though "silvery" is non-gustatory in nature, it serves very well indeed for describing Urlus' voice! Thanks again, always a pleasure to her from you.

Edmund St. Austell said...

For Tim, commenting on Natalie's comment. Thank you again, Tim, for an astute and penetrating observation. There is certainly not much I could add. I might add Antonina Nezhdanova to your list of versatile singers who defy categorization. I have always felt that audiences would happily listen to non-specialists singing Wagner if only the conductors would cooperate. A strange kind of manic mentality seems to overcome conductors who tackle Wagner...they start to become much more interested in the orchestration than in the solo performers on stage, and they soar, and blast, and exhalt until the volume becomes such that only singers with gigantic voices (and often hippopotamoid physiques)need apply. Which is silly, when you think about it. One of my favorite recordings is Nezhdanova singing "Elsa's Dream." It shows how lovely and lyrical Wagner can sometimes be, given a chance to be heard! Thanks again for your comment, Tim.

Darren Seacliffe said...

There are two types of singers in my experience, one, which you can listen to without referring to the libretto or having listened to the piece he is performing beforehand and the other which you have to listen to with the libretti in your hands. I feel that Urlus belongs to the later category.

I find Urlus a really difficult singer to appreciate.

Firstly, I feel that his voice isn't beautiful. It certainly isn't in the same class as Sobinov and or Volker. If you listen to those singers, their elegant warm voices speak for themselves in terms of beauty, no matter what they sing.

Secondly, as pointed out by Tim and Edmund, if you're thinking of Urlus as a Heldentenor like Melchior, you're in for something completely different. I fully agree with that. The three videos posted don't shed light on this aspect but it's apparent if you listen to the Forging Song Urlus sang on YouTube. His high notes don't have that heroic ring Melchior has and his voice doesn't have that kind of power and robustness.

Thirdly, there's a redeeming feature of his singing despite the above two drawbacks. Urlus' vocalism, musicality and artistry are really outstanding. When you listen to the two arias from Lohengrin, you can really feel it. He's not really singing them, he's telling the narrative contained in these arias in the fashion of a bard. You'll definitely need to have the libretto in your lap when you hear him sing. I might not understand German but from the way he sings, I can discern that he is closely following the score and the libretto, not only in his singing but also in the nuances and changes in mood and emotion underlying.

It's a pity that the records don't capture him well. I sense that there's something missing from them. If Urlus was able to sing Tristan into his 60s, I feel that there ought to be more energy and more vigour in his singing. Perhaps the studios weren't advanced enough to pick these up. He reminds me of Frida Leider, who was said to be much better than her records show her to be.

With reference to the comments, I think a Heldentenor is named thus because of his repertoire rather than his technique. Thill might have sung Wagner at the Opera but I feel that he would have sung more French opera. Urlus might have sung French and Italian opera besides Wagner but I feel that he performed Wagner most often, so he was classified as a Heldentenor.

I think differently about the categories. I feel that they can always be applied, even to the great singers of the 19th century. It's just that the classification of the roles ought to be changed. Take Violetta, for example, on one hand, you can have coloratura sopranos such as Lucrezia Bori or Amelita Galli-Curci singing it, but you can also have dramatic sopranos such as Lilli Lehmann and Lilian Nordica singing it. Perhaps it ought to be seen as a role in the middle since both coloratura and dramatic sopranos could sing it, probably a lyric soprano one.
There are frankly quite a number of roles like that, like Don Jose, Faust, etc, judging by the records left behind.

To sum up, Urlus is really an amazing singer though he isn't to my liking. If you don't agree with the other points I made, just look at his repertoire, that speaks for itself. How many Heldentenors were there in history, that had such a wide repertoire? Leo Slezak comes close but unlike Urlus, he didn't perform Tristan. I heard he sang a few performances of Siegfried, which he later conceded to Schmedes, if I'm not wrong.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for an obviously well thought-out comment, Darren. Always appreciated. I am a bit more enthusiastic about him that you are, but that simply reflects somewhat different tastes in singing, which is always the case, and as it should be, really. When you praise the "vocalism, musicality and artistry" you hit squarely on the things that make him exceptional. I would just call your attention to one thing. I feel I should at least suggest that the reason he continued to sing to 60 was in fact BECAUSE he sang all hislife in a moderated way, and with less volume than he might have. Easier on the voice:-) Thanks again for an interesting and incisive comment!

Verdiwagnerite said...

Thank you again Edmund. Another great artist from the past that I did not even know. I really like his versatility and his legato.

It's only in the last year or so that I "discovered" all the operatic content on youtube. It is quite amazing and wonderful as a way of discovering singers and operas. As you would well know, there are many complete opera performances. Great if one wants to get to know an opera before seeing it for the first time!

You make great sense when you talk about the voice types. In the end does it really matter if a tenor is a lyric, spinto, dramatic, helden or any other name one cares to use? Surely the point is that they are all slightly different and that, for me, is the magic of the singing voice over any other musical instrument. And I agree with you completely about so called non heldentenors singing Wagner. I think of Kaufmann or Domingo as Siegmund for example. Though, interestingly, Domingo left Wagner alone (except for a brief run of Lohengrins in the late '60s) till he was over 50, I believe.
Another great article!
I love reading all the great comments your readers post!


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for another great comment, Kate! Always appreciated, and always informative!

Emilio said...

Dear Edmund, I like your article, and it inspired me to write something about Urlus in my blog, or better said: I didn't write so much (you did that better) but give a rare record from the end of his reecording career for listening. I think, the 1910 version of "Ein Schwert verhiss mir der Vater" is better, but the 1923 version is even very good, too. Maybe you will like to put my blog on your bloglist. It is

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for the comment! Yes, your blog sounds fascinating. I will certainly check it out! Thanks for writing.

Satyr said...

You give me much pleasure by giving attention to our (I'm from Holland!) greatest tenor we had. A long career, from 1894-1933. He made records from 1903-1927 for Pathé, G&T, Gramophone, Edison and Odeon. Thanks for your well written article!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Het was mij een genoegen volledig! Bedankt voor de reactie. Er is geen twijfel over, Urlus was een prachtige tenor, een ware kunstenaar.

Gerhard Santos said...

Hi Sir Edmund, Thanks for such an informative article and the extensive explanation, it's been very useful. Thank you, Good Night and *GOD BLESS*