Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Leading Interpreter of Lieder and Opera, Dies at 86

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Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, hailed as one of the great interpreters of lieder of the last century, died early Friday near Starnberg, in the Bavarian Alps. The baritone would have been 87 later this month. The news was confirmed by the Deutsche Oper Berlin after Fischer-Dieskau’s wife, soprano Júlia Varady, originally made the announcement to German press.

In Germany, Fischer-Dieskau was considered a Jahrhundertsänger, a "singer of the century," thanks in no small part to his recorded interpretations of the art song canon, which were unsurpassed in terms of both quality and quantity.

In his memoirs, accompanist Gerald Moore (with whom Fischer-Dieskau recorded near-complete compendiums of art songs by Schubert, Brahms and Strauss, among numerous other composers) wrote "He had only to sing one phrase before I knew I was in the presence of a master.” His recordings of song cycles, including Schubert’s Winterreise and Schwanengesang, show arresting austerity coupled with an intense longing and innate musical acuity, the perfect blend of heart and head.

“Admittedly, it is really our duty, as artists, to hold up a mirror to our own era; but, on the other hand, these works have lives of their own, and they're still alive today,” he once said of the repertoire.

Fischer-Dieskau’s talents were also lent to wide-ranging opera roles such as the Count in Le Nozze di Figaro, Rodrigo in Don Carlos (his operatic debut) and the eponymous Dutchman in Der Fliegende Höllander. Soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf dubbed him "a born god who has it all.” Fischer-Dieskau adopted Wagner as his birthright and a recording of Wotan’s farewell from Die Walküre reveals an unexpected virility from a singer normally renowned for his sensitive restraint.

Likewise, his Germanic accounts of Verdi and Puccini caused conductor Ferenc Fricsay to exclaim, "I never dreamed I'd find an Italian baritone in Berlin." It was under Fricsay, as Don Giovanni, that Fischer-Dieskau reopened the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1961, following the total destruction of the opera house during World War II.

Berlin was always central to Fischer-Dieskau’s career. He was born in the capital city on May 28, 1925 and gave his first public recital there (presciently, it was Winterreise, in 1943). As a conscript soldier, which he told British newspaper the Guardian in 2005 was “the worst thing of all,” he was captured in Italy by American forces in 1945. Spending the next two years in an Italian POW camp, he mitigated the miseries of war and found focus in giving Schubert recitals. Upon his release, he made his professional debut in Badenweiler, Germany as a last-minute replacement in Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, singing without rehearsal.

The next year, he made his debut at the Städtische Oper Berlin, which in 1961 became the Deutsche Opera and would be Fischer-Dieskau’s operatic base until his retirement 17 years later. With Moore, the baritone also toured the U.S. at age 29, singing Winterreise without intermission on May 2, 1955 at New York’s Town Hall shortly after singing Schubert songs in St. Paul, Minnesota. He also performed Bach and Brahms in Cincinnati.

Fischer-Dieskau’s expertise extended to work with living composers. It was his wartime experiences that led Benjamin Britten to humbly request that the baritone sing in the 1962 premiere of his War Requiem. Of the experience, Fischer-Dieskau told the Guardian, “I have never seen a composer or conductor more nervous before a performance as Britten was before the War Requiem. We were all moved to tears, everybody by this work. I did not know where to look or where to put my feet.” Likewise, his final recorded opera was also a world premiere, Aribert Reimann’s Lear, written for the singer.

Retiring from the concert stage on New Year’s Day, 1993, Fischer-Dieskau remained active as a conductor, but perhaps the baritone’s greatest role outside of singing was teaching the next generation of singers. “I came together with younger musicians and tried to pass on my own experiences. In the process, I always tried to maintain my curiosity and spontaneity,” he told Opernwelt, reaffirming his reputation as an artist to the end.

In addition to Varady, Fischer-Dieskau leaves behind three children from his first marriage to cellist Irmgard Poppen (who died in 1963 due to complications following childbirth): Mathias, Martin and Manuel (a cellist). He was married to actress Ruth Leuwerik from 1965 to 1967, and Christina Pugel-Schule, the daughter of an American voice teacher, from 1968 to 1975, marrying Varady in 1977. Fischer-Dieskau was also the brother of the late Klaus Fischer-Dieskau, a conductor who can be heard with his younger sibling on a recording of Heinrich Schütz's St. Matthew Passion.