Excerpts from Singen Ist Wie Fliegen

These excerpts have been translated into English with the kind permission of the author, Marieluise Müller.

BORN IN MARIENBAD

Fritz (age 4) and Peter  (age 8) Hofmann

Fritz (age 4) and Peter (age 8) Hofmann

. . .on the 22nd August, 1944. War – flight – the family settled in Darmstadt. This traditional-rich, artistic city in Hessen became the home of Peter Hofmann, whose father had come from Berlin and whose mother hailed from Bohemia – he a businessman, she a budding young actress in the family theatrical troupe. Hofmann’s paternal grandfather was a big city perfume manufacturer. The Bohemian grandfather was a principal actor in his own company.

Peter Hofmann’s father had grown up, educated by private tutors, in an eminent city household. Possessed of a lovely bass voice and the desire to become a conductor, Max Peter Hofmann, instead, became a businessman. However, already the young man took after his own father, Peter’s grandfather, who was an enthusiastic Wagnerite, going annually to the Bayreuth Festival, and within no time at all Herr Hofmann, sr. became a devoted opera lover. Peter’s mother, Inge, performed on the stages of inns and schools in Bohemia, where the family acted in The Rape of the Sabines, many folkloric plays, several classics, and a repertory of operetta.

With denazification, a more difficult period of Peter Hofmann’s father’s life in Darmstadt began. In these postwar years, when “one barely had a piece of meat to put between the bread,” his mother acted in operettas in the villages, using scores handwritten by the country music teacher. Together with his brother Fritz, four years younger, Peter Hofmann attended the Georg Büchner School in Darmstadt, which he left shortly before taking his degree, When he was twelve years old, his parents had divorced, and it had been difficult for the schoolboy to get along with his twenty-two year-old stepfather, particularly since his own father – “an honest man – was nearly fifty at the time. His stepfather, who had grown up in a business environment, decided that he should make the young man who wanted to be a singer into a German solider. He did not understand how singing – which he considered a hobby – could become a proper profession. His mother, on the other hand, would have been pleased to see one of her sons on the stage. Until his first true encounter with opera (which took place during his military career), Peter Hofmann’s opera knowledge stemmed predominantly from his father’s record collection. After the divorce Max Peter had relocated to the environs of Frankfurt. When Peter visited his father there, he listened to various opera recordings. “I already liked Carmen quite a bit, and there were many other recordings there.” Hofmann’s father lived long enough to see the beginning of his son’s opera career before he died when Peter was thirty years old. He could hardly have foreseen that his son would sing with great success on the stage which, he, himself, as a young man had known and loved.

Even Peter Hofmann, himself, did not know at first in which direction his great talent would point. During his school years success came to him through his athletic abilities. In the Darmstadt ASC he became the Hessian Youth and Junior Champion in pole vaulting; he participated in the decathlon and he promptly created the Hessian youth record in this discipline. With the ASC he even became German Men’s Champion. He also experienced his first musical success as a guitarist and singer in his own Rock n’ Roll band.

After his departure from the Gymnasium he performed his military service. Shortly after his induction into the army in 1963, at nineteen years-old, he married his school friend, Anne Kathrin, who was the same age and whose parents were both opera singers. A year later his son Peter was born. In 1965 a second son Johannes came into the world. But his determination to become an opera singer still held firm. As a soldier who could not have paid for them on his own, he received free voice lessons from his singing teacher. In order to finance his later vocal studies, he signed up for another six years as an army paratrooper. At the end of his service, he enrolled at the Staatlichen Hochschule für Musik in Karlsruhe. In these financially difficult months after his army severance had been used up and his first engagement had not yet begun, American Tenor Jess Thomas supported the Hofmann family of four.

In 1972 Peter Hofmann made his debut as Tamino in Die Zauberflöte with the State Theatre in Lübeck. After two seasons there he picked up two more engagements before the summer of 1976: in Wuppertal he sang his first Wagner role, Siegmund, and achieved a sensational success. From there he followed the call to Bayreuth. From the moment he stepped onto the Festspielhaus stage he was valued as Bayreuth’s “private property,” just as he had been before in Stuttgart and Hamburg.

Even before his years at Bayreuth there had been guest appearances which took him to other opera houses. Following his Lubeck engagement, he received a five-year contract in Stuttgart, where critics prophesied that he would become Wolfgang Windgassen’s successor.

The peripatetic life –living out of suitcases – which, of necessity accompanied these guest appearances affected his private life. He separated form his wife, who, the following year, talked about what she had given up in their marriage: the opportunity to develop her own voice and to work on the stage. The tenor’s second wife is also a singer, the American soprano Deborah Sasson.

In Peter Hofmann’s second Bayreuth season, his career was interrupted by a dangerous motorcycle accident, but once recovered, he sang at all the world’s leading opera houses in the years afterwards. From the Hamburg Staatsoper his path led to the Vienna, Munich, Paris, Covent Garden London, San Francisco, the Metropolitan NY, La Scala Milano, the Bolshoi Moscow, and the Salzburg Festival.

Recording contracts soon followed. The first was a Zauberflöte in 1978; the next a Fidelio under Sir Georg Solti, Parsifal under Herbert von Karajan, Siegmund under Pierre Boulez, Tristan under Leonard Bernstein, Lohengrin and Orfeo ed Eurydice. He came to the attention of a wide public through the televised performance of the Bayreuth Die Walküre ( broadcast on several German stations and in America after its recording in 1980), as well as through his concert performances of Tristan from Munich’s Herkulessaal and of the televised Bayreuth Lohengrin.

He began his pop career in 1982 with a television show for which he wrote the script and in which he performed with Deboarah Sasson. Numerous other television appearances followed throughout his career. Rock Classics brought him a smash hit in the pop sector. Within six weeks after it came onto the market in the fall of 1982, the album went gold and in less than ten weeks platinum with 1,5 million sold LPs and CDs.

Home base for Peter Hofmann and his brother Fritz, who since 1979 has worked as his manager, is a former hunting lodge, renovated in 1980 and located in the neighborhood of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

 

THIS FASCINATION WITH ABSOLUTE SOLITUDE

Why do I sing? Perhaps, if I didn’t I would have been a criminal. Whatever the reason, onstage I get to experience extraordinary human behaviors, that in real life would inevitably lead to prison. To permit oneself to experience “legitimately” some extreme situations –incest, murder, for example – to be able to absolve oneself by role-playing alone in your living room – What is the charm of that? But if one gets to perform in public, that becomes a transforming experience. Acting as therapy! How many have been helped by this game? Doesn’t all life and perhaps eighty-five percent of all theatre exist for secondary purposes? Can one train for this? How can one react?

But seriously, why do I sing? Why pursue a career?

I once read in an article about me that I was more interested in success than in a well-rounded education. How the writer came to that conclusion, I have no idea, though I must confess that success is important to me. I did want to pursue a career, or what people call a career. And to do that well, one has to get out of the provinces. The story of the genius who is ruined in the provinces – that doesn’t add up. Certainly one has to have guts – under nerve-wracking conditions. But if a person doesn’t have guts, he is not going to last in this profession. One definitely needs them in all cases!

When I began, I gave myself five years. I would either make it in that time or I would give up opera. But this humiliation –(at least that’s how I always found it)- of having to audition!

During my first engagement in Lübeck – I have nothing against Lübeck, but if I had had to stay there, I would have gone on to Rock music instead – I had one of those crucial experiences. Imagine a tenor, forty-five years old, with a house, four kids, and a golden voice. While he was auditioning on stage, the intendent asked him to sing another aria, even though he had already whispered, “We can’t use him. He’s too old.” But he let the tenor sing on because he wanted to enjoy his voice. It was such a beautiful voice! Then, a very brief, polite dismissal.

Despite this treatment, the tenor asked if he could come back another day. He had so much more in his repertory. It made me enormously sad. Afterwards I met him. He was weeping, and he said to me, “Be careful that this doesn’t happen to you.” I just let him stand there while tears welled up in my eyes. In that moment I swore to myself that I would never let this happen to me!

I won the race with time. Now I shall sing for as long as I have joy in singing. Because to sing without joy – that’s like singing without energy! You have to want to convince – that’s what’s needed in this profession. Without conviction or commitment, the performance becomes meaningless. If one does not stand on stage with full commitment, then he has nothing more to give. And the public will notice that!

When a person sings, his eyes are the mirror of his heart – Gwyneth Jones

Or do I sing because I am addicted to it? If, indeed, drugs, then why not the opera drug? Music is a stimulant. It frees the emotions. Eroticism on stage can be incredibly erotic. The voice is a mirror of sexuality! Orpheus translated his voice into power – such a fascinating power – that no one and nothing could take it away from him. Most people don’t want to admit the truth that people are most deeply influenced when they experience an intensely erotic performance.

Wagner recognized that music was a kind of drug, an intoxicant. – Helmut Zelinsky

Is opera really a drug? In any case, singing generates an amazing feeling. Singing can be like flying. One always tries to push the limits – to sing until one lifts off. Many times one succeeds!

While the audience only sees my total immersion in a role –(and that is what they should perceive) – I am firmly in control. It is as if I am flying even though both feet are planted firmly on the ground. – Gwyneth Jones

Even total melancholy is best expressed in music. To what should I compare this? When art makes a person open up and cry, that feeling is similar to what the singer experiences – that his voice becomes bigger, more expansive; he stretches his limits.

And then I also feel a masochistic urge: this fascination with absolute solitude. Even when the stage is full of chorus, supernumeraries, and other soloists, I sense them breathing down my neck, so to speak. Above all, I feel their eyes fixed on me, behind me; the entire opera house seems to exist only as many pairs of eyes. It grows so quiet as everyone waits for the Grail Narration. What is he going to say? Will he fail or will he be mediocre or will he be good? Isn’t he supposed to be very good?

What hangs in the air is that sense of solitude which Wagner described in Lohengrin, whom he created as an artistic mirror of himself, a mirror in which the composer and his image of the lonely artist could be reconciled. The same is true of the Prize Song in Meistersinger. Standing there, one feels precisely the same situation: one is a lonely artist.

 

THE FAULTFINDER

office SchönreuthMany a time a fan gets prematurely excited: the friendly voice he hears on the answering machine is not the singer, himself. It is Fritz Hofmann, the tenor’s manager. The similarity of names does not deceive; Fritz is the tenor’s brother, and he has taped the message. (Interestingly enough, the housekeeper is named Frau Wagner, but here there is no relation.) People are sometimes confused by the gay merry-go-round of mistaken identities in the Hofmann clan: Fritz mistaken for Peter; the sons are sometimes mistaken for each other, or occasionally for the tenor, who, in turn, is sometimes mistaken for his manager.

Fritz shares with his brother the majestic Schloss residence, the love of sports and rock music (he is a musician who plays percussion), and he, too, finds opera convincing only when it offers both vocal and scenic enjoyment.

Like Peter, Fritz began his education in a music school; he studied percussion. But since he saw a career as an orchestra musician limiting, he, instead, plunged into the study of languages. In Paris he made use of his linguistic and artistic talents. Hired by one of the biggest artist agencies which handles worldwide management of opera stars, he dove in, and as he likes to characterize his start and tried to endure the first three weeks in a grey flannel suit. For two years he lived on a budget in Paris, acquiring the foundation for his management career and got to know many influential people in the metropolis, of paramount importance if you hope to make it one day independently.

Finally, he took one more risk: he dared to strike out on his own as the sole representative of his brother, and he succeeded! You need nerves to pull it off. The big advantage is that I am not wearing two hats. I am concentrating on one singer, and I can negotiate to advantage. A manager often wears more than one hat, trying to serve both the Intendant and the artist. It is in his own interest to sell the artist as often as possible and as expensively as possible. At the same time he must juggle fees and roles because he always has to present a new group of singers. Seldom can he represent one star alone. Moreover, the various agencies compete with each other for the opera houses’ favors. Therefore, things are often decided to the detriment of the singer, or at least at the start of one’s career when compromises must be made. The agent is compelled to make concessions because he is trying to sell a package.

The policy I adhere to: never pander. If a director or conductor wants a specific singer, an agent has little chance to push through his proposal. My principal is: the best plan we can strive for is not the one in which I make an offer, but rather the one where they come to us.

Does he feel he has to take a back seat to his “big brother”? Generally not, but I have no problems with that notion.

In terms of his own success, being his own boss and not an employee on whose success the boss builds his own reputation has been compensation enough. My serving as manager allows my brother and I to separate our work spheres. My brother does the singing, and I am responsible for all the related decisions. Trust prevails between us. My brother asks me how I see things, and he even takes my tips sometimes. And I am the one who always finds ‘the hair in the soup.’ I am the faultfinder. I am the one who makes sure everything is in order for a television appearance – I make sure all the props are right, for example. It makes me happy to be of service to the overall endeavor, even when it appears that what I am doing comes from my brother.

A special kind of tolerance is part of this attitude, and it is something Fritz applies to most things on a daily basis. For example, his attitude toward the pop scene: I never say to people working in other fields, ‘That was terrible” just because I didn’t like what they produced.

Fritz Hofmann’s work schedule has as little free time as his brother’s. When he does get a few weeks of vacation, his greatest pleasure is not answering the telephone. He has too little time for his favorite hobby – one at which he is very good – photography. (One of the most expressive portraits of his brother comes from his lens!)

THE NEW FAVORITE

00454787_jbhPeter Hofmann made his debut as Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera in 1980 and was hailed by the press “as one of the great Lohengrins in Met history.” “He was a chivalric dream,” said the New York Post on January 25, 1980, and in the Daily News one day later, the review read, “In addition, without a doubt, Hofmann is the most gorgeous man on the operatic stage today (sort of an early Errol Flynn), and he used his stunning physical presence to maximum dignity and dramatic effect. He gives us the art of Wagner performance we have dreamed about for decades.”

That same year Peter Hofmann made an impressive Florestan debut at the Vienna State Opera. The Vienna critics wrote: “Previously, the singer had worked extensively with Karajan on the Parsifal recording, and his vocal and technical mastery of the role indicated that Hofmann has studied considerably since the Bayreuth Lohengrin. He proved here once more that besides being a wonderfully sensitive actor, he has a voice to match. Hofmann’s Florestan is characterized by strong lyrical intensity.” (Der Merkur, March 1980)

During 1979-1980 the first explosion of interest in the tenor from German magazines manifested itself. In November 1979 Playboy wrote: Really in the last century there are only two German tenors worth mentioning – at least only two who could explore the full heroic range up to a high C: Max Lorenz and Wolfgang Windgassen. After that René Kollo seems a worthy successor. And now the new favorite is Peter Hofmann, a young man trained as a competitive athlete with incredibly broad shoulders who, can count among his talents, in addition to vocal power, parachute jumping experience and acting abilities.

Later that year Audio magazine asked Peter Hofmann how New Year’s Eve and Christmas should be celebrated. He replied: “On New Year’s Eve you should enjoy yourself all night long. Eat, drink like a prince, and do not worry about money. That’s the best way to close out the year and the most wonderful release you can imagine. If people did that, psychiatrists would have less to do in the coming year!” Turning the discussion to Christmas celebrations, he added:”It is supposed to be the festival of neighborly love, but very few think about the people who are less fortunate. We sing wonderful songs about the child in the manger, and yet, no matter where you look in the world, there are thousands of innocent children dying in all kinds of wars. Because of this, I think you should only spend moderate amounts of money on this holiday, and, please, don’t think you can ease your conscience by giving a few marks.

Entertainment editors, who had known the tenor primarily as an opera singer, began to take notice of him after his third Bayreuth Lohengrin. Marcello Santi wrote a review typical at this time in Audio in November 1979. He talked about opera lovers becoming “weak at the knees as the tenor let loose the most beautiful sounds” and also commented on :”a well-known pop singer who introduced herself to the tenor during a Walküre intermission.” Peter Hofmann mused on these early stages of fame: “I often find it completely unreal to think about how things fell into place for me.” The tenor’s rock past is brought up in the interview, and Hofmann comments that when he looks back, he thinks, “Man, I rocked!” But he also says that “having a properly trained voice does is important” The interviewer brings up Udo Lindenberg, and Hofmann says he stands in awe of the pop singer. “We opera singers are like puppets on a string, part of a well-oiled machine; we are dependent on things beyond the stage from the orchestra to the director.” The article notes that the tenor’s popular currency has increased: “Even colleagues like Mario del Monaco, who sometimes shares with young singers the ways to shape ringing high notes, says he sees in Hofmann “not only a future Otello, but also, if he continues as he has begun, perhaps my future successor.” Peter Hofmann says he will not do every operetta or pop song just because there might be money in it, but rather that it is the voice itself which fascinates me and the knowledge that, with it, I can achieve all then things that Orpheus did.” The article ends with an admonition that “television executives need to take notice of Hofmann and make use of the singer’s considerable talents: “He is the kind of consummate actor who can give us the tiniest details, who can make stage actors pale with jealousy when they witness his Siegmund. His grandparents, who once belonged to a travelling troupe of Bohemian singer-actors, must be rejoicing.”

In 1980 the press began to focus on the contrasts which Peter Hofmann seems to embody. On stage he played the noble hero, but at home he was “the secret rock musician who blasts rock music all over the grounds of his estate down to the lake. What sounds like a full band is actually only a duo: his brother Fritz playing drums and the tenor plucking out an original song on his electric guitar.”

At that time his plans for his first solo LP were a little different than what eventually emerged – the album recorded in Berlin two years later, Rock Classics. TV Hören und Sehen in August 1980 wrote: “Wagnerian singer Peter Hofmann does not only love classical music. At home he transforms himself into a rock musician, and he says he would like to issue an LP in America, for which he has already written music and lyrics for five songs.

That year the tenor also voiced some doubts about whether “only singing” can satisfy him completely. “Music for me is a means to liberate emotions. That’s why I would love to direct sometime soon before people say, ‘Oh, he’s doing that now because he has sung himself out.’” (Wiener Kurier 4/5/80)

He clarifies his attitudes toward opera and rock music: “I really come from the rock scene, and the music of Pink Floyd means as much to me as that of Richard Wagner. And when I listen to Leonard Cohen or Udo Lindenberg, their lyrics mean perhaps more than those of Siegfried’s Forging Song. Lortzing may say very little, and a Rolling Stones song may say much more.”

Advertising takes notice of Peter Hofmann’s marketable charisma. The promotional media writes: “At Easter 1980 he sang Parsifal under Karajan at the Salzburg on Good Friday; on Easter Sunday he sang the role in Stuttgart, and on Monday again in Salzburg. Singing so much Wagner, mustn’t this color his mood and personality? Doesn’t enjoying such success tempt him to arrogance? Not Peter Hofmann. He takes his art seriously and works at it almost fanatically trying to draw the most possible from a role. Even when he suffered a terrible [motorcycle] accident, he demonstrated his will power and his fit physical condition from years as a competitive athlete proved invaluable to his recovery. Despite having a bone broken in nine places, he was back on stage four months later. This is a man whom the indestructible Rolex suits very well. (He had, in fact bought himself one a few years before.)”

The tabloid press also jumped into the fray. Penthouse revealed what they imagined the intimate life of a rising singer to be like: “He fills the little free time he has with beautiful women and always seems to be asking ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘Am I singing Parsifal?’ The writer, Michael P. Winkler seems more interested in what the tenor does after a brilliant premiere in New York: “He goes to a party at Studio 54 on an invitation by Franz Beckenbauer, who is staying at the same hotel.” The journalist continues: “Anyone can imagine that it is not difficult for the tenor to establish himself with the ladies! And success always suggests something erotic.” The tenor explains,”When you are in a city where you have no attachments, then you can be a little bit naughty. You can spend a few thousand marks partying, gossiping, playing around. You think to yourself, ‘Surely it’s no fun to go back to the hotel and stare at the television; there must be something better to do. In this situation you succumb to amorous desire, and you may even think to yourself that you deserve the pleasure.” Today, however, his friend D. Sasson very frequently accompanies him on his travels to guest appearances!

 

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