On May 22, 1813, Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Germany, an event that, for good or ill, forever changed the way we think about and listen to opera. Exactly 112 years later, James King, whose reputation as America’s leading Wagnerian tenor was established during the 1960s and 1970s primarily through his performances of such roles as Siegmund, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, and Parsifal, was born about 5,000 miles away, in the small southwestern Kansas town of Dodge City.
King began his vocal studies at Louisiana State University, where he took on baritone parts in school productions. Upon graduating in 1949, he came back to his home state and taught singing at the University of Kansas City until 1958. During this time, he started to suspect that he might be a tenor, and an intense period of retraining in New York with the famed French baritone confirmed this fact. After winning the American Opera Auditions in 1961, King was cast as Don Jose at San Francisco Opera; later that same year, he traveled to Italy, and made what he always considered to be his professional debut in Florence as Cavaradossi in Tosca. Engagements in Berlin, Salzburg, and Vienna soon followed, and in 1965, he sang Siegmund at Bayreuth, thus initiating a decade-long relationship with the house that Wagner built. In January, 1966, he made his first Met appearance as Florestan; in October, he returned to the company–now in its new location at Lincoln Center–as the Emperor in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, with Leonie Rysanek, Christa Ludwig, Walter Berry, and Karl Böhm. 1968 marked King’s debut at La Scala, reprising the role of Siegmund, and Covent Garden, in what some critics thought was a rather lackluster production of Frau.
King’s career continued apace throughout the 1970s, 1980s ,and even into the early 1990s. In 1984, he joined the faculty at Indiana University, where he taught music and voice until 2002. He died of a heart attack on November 20, 2005.
The first three clips below are taken from a 1967 studio recital album which, to my knowledge, has never been released on CD in the United States. (I picked up my copy in London 10 years ago.) The last selection comes from the live 1967 Bayreuth Walküre conducted by Karl Böhm, which is available individually (Philips 464 751) or in a boxed set of all four Ring operas (Philips 723 802). King also recorded the work with Solti in 1965 (Decca 455 559), but I actually prefer him here. (And who can resist Leonie Rysanek’s blood-curdling scream when Siegmund pulls the sword out of that tree?)
Rienzi – “Allmächt’ger Vater” (“Rienzi’s Prayer”)
Tannhäuser -“Hör an…Insbrunst im Herzen” (“Rome Narration”)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – “Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein” (“Walter’s Prize Song”)
Die Walküre – “Wehwalt heißt du fürwahr?” (Act One finale), with Leonie Rysanek, soprano, and the Orchester der Bayreuther Festspeile, Karl Böhm conductor (rec.1967)