When I encountered Peter Hofmann, my husband Greg and I were at a crossroads in our lives, having moved back from the Midwest to New York and in the process of changing careers. Greg, while he shared my love for Italian and French opera – he would unfailingly burst into tears at the first strains of Un bel dì – he adored Wagner, and it was he who introduced me to German opera, a passion we both pursued when we returned to New York in the 80s. There in 1986, we found ourselves at the Met at a performance of Lohengrin. The Swan Knight was Peter Hofmann, and I remember experiencing something that might have been akin to what Mad King Ludwig felt when he responded to the mysterious hero. Though I was familiar with the opera and had seen it several times in the 60s, I had previously found the singing prosaic and the staging rather unimaginative. I needed a singer to reveal to me the inherent beauty, the complexity, romanticism, and expressiveness of Wagner’s writing. Suddenly, there on the stage of the Metropolitan, bathed in a shimmering silvery light, blond, tall, impossibly handsome, stood the Lohengrin of one’s dreams, and when he opened his mouth the sing, “Nun sei bedankt, mein lieber Schwan” I heard the exquisite music sung with a poetry, passionate conviction, and subtle, mysterious character motivation. I was completely and irrevocably swept away!
And so began for me a voracious search for an understanding of this mesmerizing artist and his milieu of the Heldentenor repertoire. It was a quest that led me to research every review, every interview, book, listen to every video, recording, and private tape available, and to see every performance Peter did in New York, as well as traveling to Bayreuth and Hamburg. In the process, my enthusiasm spilled over into all things German. I learned the language so well I was able to translate Hofmann’s first book, Singen ist wie Fliegen, and go on to commit myself to a two-year project writing my own study of Heldentenors,We Need a Hero! (Weiala Press 1988), which, in itself, opened doors for me as a music journalist, so that by 1990 I was working full time as a critic covering the New York and international opera and classical music scenes.
When I first met Peter Hofmann, he was in his prime, at the height of his fame as an heroic tenor and topping the pop charts with his rock and crossover ventures. Within a short time he would face withering criticism for his pop forays and his alleged “abused operatic voice,” and sadder still, his career would ultimately be felled by Parkinson’s disease which caused him to retire in 2000 and pass away at sixty-six a decade later. None of these twists of cruel fate, however, has ever diminished the bright place his artistry holds in my memory.
At its best, Hofmann’s voice was large (but not huge in the Melchior mold) with a pleasing blend of baritonal heft and ringing metallic radiance. He was an intelligent musician, more sensitive to more legato and dynamics than many heroic singers of his day. But most of all, he was a singing-actor, a stage animal who brought to life each of his roles with a cinematic intensity, a touch of revolutionary zeal, and a broad swath of abandoned romanticism. When he took the stage, a century of stuffy Wagnerian drama seemed to go up in smoke; there was a modernity and credibility to his Siegmund, Tristan, Parsifal, and Lohengrin. Moreover, there was a kind of protean energy – the ability to transform completely into character, as well as the ability to constantly push the polite rules of classical music and break the barriers among media and genres. Perhaps what stays with me most now that Peter is gone (and I have the honor of working with his brother and manager Fritz on his memorial website), is his daring and his courage – certainly as a human being faced with an impossible affliction, but also as an artist who valued passion above perfection. Many of Peter Hofmann’s friends have remembered him as “larger-than-life” and yet very approachable – (something I, too, found in our meetings) -and it was this combination of the intensely human and the entrancingly heroic that set him apart.