Karajan’s great Sachs has died, aged 92

The great German bass-baritone Theo Adam died yesterday in his hometown, Dresden.

After a Dresden debut in 1948, he joined the East Berlin state opera, where he specialised in Wagner roles. He sang his first Wotan in 1963.

A perennial at Bayreuth, he was a particular favourite of the Berlin Philharmonic and Salzburg chief, Herbert von Karajan, who employed him on numerous engagements and recordings. He appeared at Covent Garden from 1967 and at the Met from 1969. One of his major triumphs was Wozzeck at Salzburg in 1972.

share this

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on google
  • OK, de mortuis nil nisi bonum and all that, but I have always hated this singer. He had dreadful wobble, and often unpleasant gurgling noises, (I’m thinking of his ghastly rendition of Wotan in Bohm’s DIE WALKURE) and often sounded insipid. Part of the problem may have been: I think he was singing parts which were too high for him, at least, too high for him to sing well in the big-hall setting; I say this because the only three recordings of his which I like are all lower parts (and all live recordings from Bayreuth): he was sweet as Pogner the Goldsmith (MEISTERSINGER) in 1960, and quite imposing as King Heinrich der Vogler (LOHENGRIN) in 1954, and really good– powerful, and feeling, in-the-character– as Fasolt the Giant (DAS RHEINGOLD) in 1958. (Now that I think of it, all three of these are Knappertsbusch performances; maybe Kna understood something about Adam’s voice which Adam himself didn’t understand.) In all three of these performances, he sounded higher and lighter than most singers who sing these roles, but that may be just a matter of timbre, not of his natural range of pitch. I can see why he thought he should go for the bass-baritone roles like Wotan and Sachs, but hearing the results I would have advised him to stick with the lower parts and accept his identity as a bass, a mellow, high-sounding bass, but a bass, not a baritone or bass-baritone. There’s no shame in it; plenty of basses sound best on their tops, like Walter Kreppel and Hans Sotin.

    One interesting thing he recorded which I have not heard but probably should listen to sooner or later is Alberich, under conductor Bernard Haitink (with James Morris as Wotan). The frenzied, choppy, howling villain is so different from the stately, legato, slow-buildup-to-big-climax roles he (Adam) specialized in. I have resisted listening to it out of fear that he would mangle the part beyond recognition.

    • Thanks. Who are you? And exactly what qualifies you to bash somebody artistically in a comment on their obituary??? Your remarks are unsolicited, insensitive and pathetic. Get a life.

      • I have no idea at all whether the comments you criticise are accurate or not, and you have a point when you raise questions of taste.
        But surely he has the right to his opinion when he comments on things which are aesthetic rather than personal. For those who do not remember Adam’s singing, or who never heard him, the moment of his passing is perhaps the last opportunity to get an idea of the kind of artist he was and, for this, both positive and negative commentary is of value

        • This is an obituary note so any criticism should be suitably toned down. Theo Adam was described as a “wobbler”, especially in “Das Land ohne Musik”, but he was revere in Austria and Germany where of course his core repertoire was created and appreciation carries weight.

        • Takes real guts to kick a 92-year-old guy in the teeth on the day of his funeral. When they threw you out of the Kremlin, they didn’t throw you far enough.

      • He explained that he is a listener of music. That makes him qualified. And I appreciated his insightful comments.

    • OK – I know you just want / need a reaction, so God forgive me for giving it to you, but there’s a time for this kind of thing and this assuredly isn’t it; or at least not for anyone with any decency. . I also think you’re wrong at just about every turn, but that’s your problem.

    • I agree – I remember a broadcast of Meistersinger from Bayreuth when Adam as Sachs often sounded higher and lighter in voice than the Walther (Waldemar Kmentt); and he was quite dull sounding as Klemperer’s Dutchman.

    • What a vile hatchet-job – even before his funeral has been held. Disgusting. And musically ignorant, too.

    • Yes, his Wotan with Böhm is rather “white-voiced” and nasal, and it’s evidently a rather big stretch vocally for him, but his overall interpretation of Hans Sachs (with Karajan) is unsurpassed to this listener. His way with the text, the “Stimmung”, the nobility, the human and sympathetic aspects of the Master Cobbler are amazing, and his Sachs debut in 1968 (Bayreuth with Böhm) is also wonderful, although he has the role more under his skin with Karajan two
      years later.

      I find Adam far more enjoyable singing Ballades by Carl Loewe and Baron Ochs (!)

      Otto Klemperer was fond enough of him to cast him as the Dutchman in his sensational EMI recording, aswell as in the concert performances that followed the recording (with the sam cast as in the recording but with the exception of James King singing Erik instead of Ernst Kozub).

      Personally I prefer Franz Crass among the german “Basso cantantes” who had enough power both in the bottom and the top registers (Crass’ 1961 Dutchman is superb), but he was smart enough to stay away from Wotan (and Sachs), giving us instead the most gorgeous Pogner I’ve ever heard on record.

      However, there is no question within the opera world that Theo Adam was a giant as an interpreter and a highly beloved and sympathetic person, something one can appreciate in his interview session with August Everding wich I hear attach:
      The interview is of course in german and without surtitles, but there’s enough musical material to enjoy this noble singer’s grandiose interpretations.

    • The saying is “one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.” That generally means criticizing the deceased as a human being. Here we’re getting someone’s assessment of the late Herr Adam’s singing qualities, which strikes me as fair game. And of course if anyone wants to actually post complimentary assessments of his singing art, he/she is free to do so.

    • Your bad is that you just don’t understand or get the point here. You better be thrown back to your Kremlin and RIP there. R.I.P. Theo Adam.

  • Let’s not forget to mention that he has been associated a billion times with his tenor colleague, Peter Schreier. They were the Laurel and Hardy of GDR classical singers.

      • Petros Linardos, a fantastic comparison, thank you. If only Wunderlich had lived longer (and Prey too, for that matter)…

      • Prey and Adam can’t be compared; the one was a light bass and the other a pure lyric baritone. And even if I adore Schreier (especially as the great Bach Evangelist – the best after Erb), nobody had Wunderlich’s silvery purity of lyric sound…

  • Karajan employed Adam on numerous recordings? As far as I know he only appeared on one of them, the Dresden Mastersingers. Karajan wasn’t too enthusiastic in having him, his name having been put forward by the East Germans, but he had worked with him and thought well enough of him not to veto the suggestion. Adam and Karajan were never close as artists so where the suggestion of him being a ‘favourite’ comes from I don’t know.

    • It says ‘numerous engagements and recordings’. There can be engagements which don’t result in recordings, y’know?

  • My comment is getting down-votes! Just for the record, I’m not alone.

    “Mr. Adam sang neatly, but with more resonance in his upper register than in his lower one. There are also the beginnings of a wobble here, which pushed many tones uncomfortably high.” — Bernard Holland, NY Times, March 2, 1986

    “Theo Adam knows his way around the part of Wotan, but it does him little good, because his voice at this point will not supply steadiness, power, nobility of tone or subtlety of declamation. It is not a matter of simply being past one’s vocal prime but of being forced to contradict the interpretation with the singing.” — Will Crutchfield, NY Times, March 24, 1988

    “Theo Adam as Wotan is not up to the same standard. His voice is short on power and authority and tends to sound abrasive, …” –Charles E. Muntz, “Wagner on the Web”, republished here:


    • If you would examine the dates of the reviews you quote, you will hopefully realise that this singer was just approaching 60 or 62 for the other, by which time most professional singers are calling it quits. He was coming up to 40 years on stage! Adam was entitled to a wobble by this time but he certainly did not have one at Bayreuth in the sixties. This man was one of the great Wagner sings of the 20th Century. He sang Wotan for Karajan at the MET in 1969 in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre.

      • On the contrary, this is the ideal moment. It is precisely at the moment of passing that attempts are traditionally made to assess an artist’s life in full. To do otherwise, is arbitrarily to sugar-coat and render meaningless the assessment of the singer’s career.

        But even if the first commentator had not filed his/her comment, we have the Bach excerpt provide above. It fully makes the case for how unsatisfactory this singer was in many of the roles that he attempted to sing.

  • I wasn’t aware that Karajan featured Adam “on numerous recordings.” The only one I recall is the EMI Meistersinger.

  • I am not educated enough to comment on the quality of Adam’s voice but he was the first Wotan I bought on record (Bohm/Bayreuth on Phillips) bought I must say because it was the cheapest available at the time. It is still the one that gives me the most satisfaction, I now have it as a download on my phone, how times change. I can say that to my untutored ear he sang the part as well as many others I have subsequently seen and heard and in many cases better than most. At 92 he presumably had a good long life and it can at least be said that he has brought pleasure to many more than the odd naysayers hereabouts.

  • I don’t understand all this bashing about Theo Adam. He was way more than Karajan’s Sachs. He was not everybody’s favorite singer, not perfect (who is?) but a very fine and sensitive musician, who also paid close attention to the word-music relationship. He deserves to be remembered in a more positive light.

  • A good age (the DDR couldn’t have been all that bad with Peter Schreier in his 80s and Gunther Leib in his 90s!) and a great voice. English critics mocked the “wobble” but I adored it – and he was revered on both sides of the iron curtain. His Lieder singing in Wolf – in fact there is a whole buried treasure of his records on the Eterna label in vinyl – is distinguished and persuasive, though he had too big a voice I think and the wrong quality for Schumann. His Wagnerian roles, too many to list, are probably his most well known legacy. A great Wotan, but it is his magnificent rendering of the role of Landgrave in Otto Gerdes DG recording of Tannhauser where his burnished dignified bass baritone acted as a rock solid foundation for some breathtaking ensembles of soloists including Windgassen, Fischer-Dieskau, and others with the fine choir of the Deutsch Oper in the background. Wonderful architecture in music.
    Operadepot (online) is offering 60% discount on his selected recordings, mostly historic but in good sound, as a token of respect. RIP.

    • “the DDR couldn’t have been all that bad…”
      Like the USSR, the GDR treated its international star artists extremely well as long as they remained loyal.

  • >