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Sunday, November 30, 2014


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.


Edmund St. Austell said...

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