September 22, 1892; Cologne, Germany – June 3, 1965; New York, NY
Herbert Janssen — with his fine-grained voice, keen intelligence, aristocratic musicianship, and (not incidentally) handsome appearance — was the leading German baritone in several major theaters during the 1920s and 1930s. After studying law and serving as an officer in WWI, Janssen studied with Oskar Daniel in Berlin. Janssen made his debut as Herod in Franz Schreker’s opera Der Schatzgräber in 1922. He remained at the Berlin State Opera until 1937 singing both lyric and dramatic roles, many of them in the Italian repertory. Elsewhere, his roles were confined largely to the German repertory, with an occasional excursion into a role such as Prince Igor, which he performed at Covent Garden in 1935. In this production, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, Janssen received high praise while the rest of the cast were criticized for sounding too Germanic.
Janssen was a fixture at the Bayreuth Festival from 1930 to 1937. His Wolfram in Tannhäuser set a standard not approached since, and, fortunately, it was recorded in a somewhat truncated 1930 production. During that decade, he established benchmarks for several Wagner roles, particularly Kurwenal, Telramund, Gunther, and — especially — Amfortas. His interpretation of the latter was an exquisitely sung realization of a soul in torment, achieving a remarkable unity of voice, movement, and makeup. His doggedly loyal Kurwenal is preserved on complete recordings of Tristan und Isolde made live at Covent Garden in 1936 and 1937. His tortured Dutchman is also available in a live recording made at Covent Garden and featuring Kirsten Flagstad as Senta.
In addition to his stage work, Janssen acquired a reputation as a superior singer of Lieder. The exceptional beauty of his voice and his interpretive acuity made him a prime candidate for Walter Legge’s Hugo Wolf Society venture of the 1930s. Among the finest singers Legge could pull together, Janssen was given the largest assignment and his subscription recordings made throughout the decade remain supreme, even in the face of the best achievements of post-war Lieder singers.
Janssen was very unpopular with the Nazi regime, especially for a number of derisive remarks. Warned to leave Germany in 1937, he traveled first to England, then settled in Austria. When the Nazis invaded, he fled to France. After a season in Argentina, he came to the United States where he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1939, remaining at that theater until his stage retirement in 1952.
World War II made access to many established European singers impossible, and so Janssen was induced to assume Hans Sachs and Wotan. Although Janssen’s was a powerful voice, it lacked the sheer weight and the low pedal tones needed. This was a grave mistake on Janssen’s part, and the more he sang heavy roles such as Wotan, the more his voice suffered. Perhaps because of the strain, Janssen cancelled performances often, increasingly incurring the displeasure of Met management.
Despite the stress of roles too heavy during his final decade of performing, Janssen retained most of his beauty of voice and all of his musical integrity, a scrupulous and regal artist to the very end. Following retirement, he remained in New York as a respected teacher.