Wagner to singer: I’ll alter the role, if you like…

Wagner to singer: I’ll alter the role, if you like…


norman lebrecht

May 12, 2021

An unknown letter from Richard Wagner to the bass Gustav Siehr, dated 12 September 1876, has come up for sale in Vienna. Wagner needs to replace an unsatisfactory Wotan, Franz Betz. He wants Siehr to sing the role and thinks highly of his opinion. Here’s the text:

A request and a question. Would you like to see the score for the part of “Wotan”? Dr. Strecker (Schott, Mainz) will certainly be able to obtain the piano scores for you. Then let me know whether the part is amicable to you. This much is certain; I was not thinking of a baritone part when I composed it, but of a true, albeit comprehensive bass part. Individual elements in higher registers could be altered. – For now, most honoured friend, let nothing of this be known; so as not to give rise to excuses.

The auction is at the Dorotheum on June 9.


  • Tom Hase says:

    Is the German text available somewhere? The translation looks awful. For example, the first sentence in German is “Eine Bitte und Frage:” which does not mean “A request and a question:” (which would be “Eine Bitte und eine Frage:” in German and refers to two things, one a request, one a question), but rather “A request/question:” (The German “und” without article has a different meaning than the English “and” in this grammatical context – it is implies that the two things connected by “und” are one and the same). I am unable to read the rest in the picture above and would be interested to know, what Wagner actually wrote.

  • Tom Hase says:

    OK, I found it: “Eine Bitte und Frage. Wollen Sie sich den „Wotan“ ansehen? Die Klavierauszüge besorgt Ihnen gewiss Dr. Strecker (Schott, Mainz.) Sagen Sie mir dann, ob Sie sich mit dieser Aufgabe befreunden können würden. Soviel ist gewiss, dass ich nicht an eine Barytonstimme dachte, als ich sie entwarf, sondern an eine wirkliche, wenn auch umfangreiche Bassstimme. Einzelne hohe Lagen könnten abgeändert werden. – Für jetzt, geehrtester Freund, aber noch nichts davon verlauten lassen; um keinen Vorwand zu geben.”

    Translation: “A question/request: Would you like to take a look at the part of “Wotan”? Dr. Strecker (Schott, Mainz) will certainly get you the piano score.” [In German, vocal scores are referred to as piano scores.] “Then let me know whether you are up for this task. I certainly did not imagine a baritone voice when I first drafted the part, but rather a true bass voice, albeit one with a large range.” [Betz, who created Wotan, was a bass-baritone who also sang rather high Italian baritone parts like Luna in Trovatore and Germont in Traviata.] “The few higher lying parts could be altered. – For now, dearest friend, let nobody know about this plan to avoid a scandal.” [The last half sentence refers to the fact that Wagner still had contracts with Betz and was looking for a way to get rid of him behind Betz’s back.]

  • Maria says:

    Just shows you what can be done! Wonderfully pragmatic Wagner!

  • John Borstlap says:

    Which shows again that Wagner had a good rapport with his performers and knew when and how to adapt, as to give the singer the best opportunity to render the part.

    Also all reports from the 1876 première of the Ring tell about the enthusiasm of all performers and how W cordially mixed with them (observed with disapproval by his wife who preferred the mythological stance of the Great Artist under any circumstance).

    There is only one single piece of evidence where W reacted ‘Wagnerian’ towards a performer: at a rehearsel (not the Ring première) one of the harpists protested that the way the part was written, was impractical. W reacted: ‘This is how I wrote it and imagined the result, it is YOUR task to make sense of it’.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    I made the mistake of taking Cosima Wagner’s diaries on a long flight to Tokyo and couldn’y stomach them. He was still trying to get the First conductor of Parsifal, a Jewish gentleman whose name escapes me, to convert to Chrristianity the night before the first performance. Ugh.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Well, it was a tragic/comic farce; W considered his work a new form of Christianity: ‘Kunstreligion’, as something to replace existing religion which had become insufficient for contemporary concerns. That he had to accept the orchestra together with Hermann Levi was a ‘blow’, not Levi but his ‘Jewishness’, so of course he had to converse him to make the première also spiritually ‘perfect’. But there is no evidence that anybody at the time heard the ‘Jewish’ side of the conductor at the performances, in contrary, it was a hughe success.

      With Wagner, the profound and universal often sits happily next to the farcical, the genius next to the confused clown, not only in his life but also in his works. With Parsifal he wanted to express the suffering of the world and how man as an innocent fool can achieve enlightenment. That this is played-out in the conflict between frivolous debauchery of imaginary sex girls and the customs of a group of militaristic monks, as if there are not much greater concerns for humanity, is one of the crazy things we find in W’s oeuvre. The music however does indeed express universal spiritual pain, all the more embarrassing that it appears to be inflicted by prostitutes and a quite mixed-up reincarnated woman.

    • Ari Bocian says:

      Hermann Levi

    • Ben G. says:

      The name you’re looking for is Hermann Levi. He was Jewish, and Wagner’s “favorite” Parsifal conductor.

    • Stuart says:

      I read her diaries years ago. If people have trouble stomaching Wagner, just read Cosima’s diaries – she was something awful.

      • John Borstlap says:

        She was French, and half-Jewish, and a ‘bastard child’ from a famous travelling artist and womanizer – Franz Liszt. To compensate for all of this, she sought an important and respectable position in the cultural world, but on her terms. She was extremely well-educated and erudite, and had a very dominating and impressive presence, while she was not a beautiful woman. Also she was quite tall and thin, towering above her little genius husband, so: an ideal position. She was the real extremist of the couple because her willpower and passive aggression was even stronger that Wagner’s. But we have to thank her for putting tape around the rough edges of Wagner who had a knack of alienating everybody around him and create trouble wherever he went – she was the perfect PA, creating the best domestic conditions for him to work and dealing with the troubles of the world.

        Alas, after W’s death she tried to create the image of the Grand Man for PR purposes, but it was too late – there was enough evidence of the opposite: the truth. Her antisemitism was ridiculous, given her own background – but then, ‘Jewishness’ in Wagner’s eyes was a ‘world view’ and since he thought it was caused by race, he thought it was necessary to combat it in the form of racism. Cosima pumped this up and it became even nastier than its origins.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Cosima Liszt von Bülow Wagner was the worst kind of scheming, self-interested egomaniac.
      Look up (perhaps in Alan Walker’s “Franz Liszt, The Final Years”, vol. 3 of his superb Liszt biography) how she treated her father as he lay dying in Bayreuth.
      She was scum.

  • Ari Bocian says:

    Hermann Levi

  • Edgar Self says:

    An interesting thing thing about this letter is that in it Wagner says he wrote Wotan for a true bass. The only bass I’ve heard sing it is Alexander Kipnis. The best Wotan I’ve heard, Hans Hotter, is usually classed as a Heldenbariton or bass-baritone Many thanks to Tom Hase for giving us the German original of the letter and for his intelligent observations on it.

    Wagner is said to have considered writing a late opera about Jesus Christ.

    • Anonymous Bosch says:

      Let’s hope that Günther Groissböck will have no more Wotan/Wanderers cancelled on him (so far Bayreuth and Wiener Staatsoper): it will be quite an interesting role debut. Right now he is in Wien directing (!) a production of something called “The Tristan Experiment” for Theater an der Wien in der Kammeroper, in which he will also sing Marke for a month.

      • David says:

        Günther Groissböck is a great artist. But there’s a YouTube video of him singing Wotan’s farewell with piano accompaniment. It is not good. As with Rene Pape, it’s just too high. Pape was smart enough to realize that Wotan isn’t his role, and I hope Groissböck realizes it too.

    • John Borstlap says:

      After Parsifal, which includes elements of this Christ opera and of a bhuddist opera he had had in mind – Die Sieger – he wanted no longer write operas but purely orchestral, symphonic works. There was a discussion with Liszt about how symphonies should be written henceforth: like one continuous flow of music, not in movements, and not with contrasting blocks as in Beethoven but as a stream of consciousness. He kept a couple of sketches for his new ‘symphonies’ in a file, but alas, young Miss Pringle – one of the flowermaidens – undermined his plans.

  • BRUCEB says:

    Like so many artists: idealistic when possible, pragmatic when necessary.

    (Mozart happily – or at least readily – wrote alternate arias for singers who wanted them, or when the original aria didn’t get a big ovation in whatever city they were performing in.)

  • Edgar Self says:

    David has reminded me that Rene Pape is another true bass besides Alexander Kipnis who has sung the role of Wotan. I’m sure there must be others. though I cannot think of them. I’ve seen Rene Pape sing Guernemanz, but not Wotan.

  • Novagerio says:

    Nevertheless, Betz sang the first Wotans in 1876.