We are fortunate and very grateful that legendary soprano, Jeannine Altmeyer, was able to speak to Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold for this exclusive remembrance of her friend and colleague, Peter Hofmann.
In the summer of 2000 Peter Hofmann and Jeannine Altmeyer visited the Bayreuth Festival together for the first time since they had last performed there in Tristan und Isolde in 1986. They were mobbed by fans and colleagues, delighted to see their idols once more on the Grünen Hügel. It was the last time Altmeyer would see her good friend in person, and the visit brought back a flood of wonderful memories. The Wagner “dream pair,” as they were often called, had made history together in the Chéreau Ring as Siegmund and Sieglinde and had performed together in the world’s great opera houses throughout the late 70s and 80s. Now retired and living in Southern California, Altmeyer graciously consented to talk about the special place Peter Hofmann held in her artistic life and her memories of a magical time.
CMV-S: When did you first meet Peter Hofmann? And what stories come to mind about that time?
JA: It was in Stuttgart in 1976 in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s staging of Die Walküre. We had been rehearsing and it was getting late, and all of a sudden a tiny little voice piped up from the front row- “It’s late, papa, we have to go!” It was Peter’s adorable little son, and everyone laughed! When the rehearsal was finished, we all piled into Peter’s old Rolls Royce and went looking for this Italian restaurant I had heard about, which we did find, and it turned out to be such a wonderful gourmet experience. I have so many fond memories of that time, being invited to his house, meeting his family, having so much fun. We were so young!
CMV-S: What were your impressions of Peter from the first?
JA: I fell in love with him from the first day, and I loved him to the very end. He was beautiful in every way – he had a beautiful voice; he was so young, slim, and athletic. He was so agile; he could leap over the scenery and do all these wonderful things on stage. People used to think that “they can’t be serious or singing well if they are doing all these athletics” but we were serious! Peter took his singing very seriously, and yet, he was very laid back, very friendly.
CMV-S: To this day, the Chéreau Ring still stands as an unmatched watershed in the history of opera and of Wagner singing in particular. What made that production so special?
JA: It was one of those things where everything came together. It was a fantastic cast! Wolfgang Wagner was such an amazing Intendant; he really cared so much about all of us. There was such camaraderie among the artists; we would all gather in the canteen or go out together after performances. This Bruderschaft carried over into the performances.
And then Chéreau was such an incredible régisseur. I came into the production in 1979 [after Hannelore Bode] – Chéreau had heard me sing in Paris and Peter had really wanted me as his partner and recommended me – and I was fortunate enough to get to do the film. Patrice Chéreau knew the staging and the text and music by heart, and he worked with me, playing all the parts for several weeks before Peter joined the rehearsals, so by the time he came, I was ready. Chéreau has a totally different way of working. He always crouched near us during rehearsal to watch our reactions in close-up – our faces, our eyes, all the little details. He worked with us on the kissing and caressing, making it as realistic as possible. There have been only a handful of stage directors with whom I worked who brought anything like the intensity he did to a production. Some directors were all about creating pictures without a concept. Chéreau understood the score and the German text and he communicated to the singers. And though everything was very rehearsed, he knew how to make it look so spontaneous!
CMV-S: What about some of your other performances together? The Paris recital, Tristan at Bayreuth?
JA: We sang a concert together in Paris, recorded by ORTF, in 1979. Both Peter and I had a lot of trouble with the acoustics in the hall. Peter thought his Walküre selections were the worst he had ever sung, and when I went out to sing Agathe [Freiscüutz], which usually came so easily for me, I was so distracted, I had trouble making it through. We both got freaked out by the sound there.
And I did sing one performance of Tristan with him in Bayreuth in 1986. At that time I was beginning to have problems with stage fright, and I walked away from that production after the opening. Peter told me afterwards that he had really been upset with me because we had rehearsed for a month, and then he had to perform it with a different Isolde. The last time we were on stage together was at the MET in the Otto Schenck production of Die Walküre; we opened the season in September 1986, and we sang the last broadcast together in March 1987. Peter was working on Tristan for Bayreuth at the time, and he was depressed by ACT III. We didn’t go out as we usually did after a performance.
CMV-S: And then you saw him in 2000 at Bayreuth?
JA: Yes. It was always nice for former singers to visit when Wolfgang Wagner was there. I called Peter and told him I wouldn’t go unless he came with me. He was hesitant; he hadn’t been back since his last Walküres in 1988. He was ill at the time, but no one knew it officially. I remember a friend of Peter’s who used to ride with him told me she had seen his hands shake at a concert, and that she was afraid something was wrong, but people still didn’t know it was Parkinson’s. So Peter agreed to come, and people made such a fuss over him. They were so thrilled to see him, and then I visited his new house, which he had fixed up so nicely, and his mother made a delicious Kuchen and after the dress rehearsal we all went out to dinner and had such a lovely time! That was the last I saw him, but I did call from time to time. I heard that he had married again and had a little girl. I made an attempt to see him, but Fritz told me he might not know who I was at that point.
CMV-S: How did you hear of his death?
JA: I sang my last Walküre with a tenor named Thomas Truhitte at the Virginia Opera. He was a terrific fan of Peter’s, and in some ways he reminded me of Peter. He was in his thirties at the time, tall, blond, good-looking, with a wonderful voice, and he spoke German I had wanted to arrange for Tom to get together with Peter when Tom visited Bayreuth. I had written to Fritz, but hadn’t yet heard back when Tom called me from Bayreuth and told me the dreadful news. We both started to cry.
CMV-S: What was it that made Peter such a unique artist? As an opera singer and a rock singer?
JA: I would say it was his beauty – not only his physical beauty, but his beautiful voice. And there was a certain vulnerability to everything he did. His Helden, especially Tristan, were so vulnerable. He had a kind of softness about him; there was a softer edge to the voice. He didn’t always have a flawless vocal technique, but who does? The voice had a dark color, but it could be clarion, and it had power. When he was good, there was no one like him! It was such a pity he never did get to sing Siegfried. He would have been phenomenal! As for his rock singing, I never heard him in concert, but I think his crossover efforts were good for opera.
CMV-S: So many of his friends and colleagues remember Peter as being “larger than life.” Was he?
JA: Yes, on one hand he was. But on the other, he was so approachable to everyone – to the Régie assistant, to his public, to his fans. There was nothing prima donna-ish about him. He was always fun, and he was always kind. I think that sometimes made others jealous because at that time, he had everything going for him!
CMV-S: Your fondest memory?
JA: Oh, there are so many. He was my friend, and I loved everything about him!