With a large, bronzed voice and unusual facility in the top register, James King proved an important artist in the Strauss and lighter Wagner heroic tenor categories. In addition, he was a reliable and musically sound, if often short of electrifying, singer of Italian and French roles, such as Don José, Samson, and Otello. In at least two roles, Strauss' Kaiser in Die Frau Ohne Schatten and Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos, he was without peer. OneRead more of very few artists to have truly mastered the higher tessitura of these ungratefully written roles, he invested them with the intrepid, shining authority the composer had imagined. Nor was his trim, handsome appearance a liability in roles often taken by strained, portly singers on the far side of viability. King's technique was secure enough to see him through a long career; he was still singing -- and singing well -- leading roles in his mid- and even late sixties.
After studying voice at the University of Kansas, where he prepared for a career as a baritone, King studied with the baritone Martial Singher. King has recalled his work with the meticulous French artist as difficult, their sessions often stormy. Nonetheless, the singer has acknowledged his debt to Singher for the dedication and security of technique he gained under that teacher's demanding oversight. King made both his American and European debuts in 1961. With San Francisco's Spring Opera, he sang Don José opposite Marilyn Horne's Carmen. That same year, as the result of having been declared a winner in the American Opera Auditions in Cincinnati, he traveled to Europe and sang Cavaradossi in Florence.
Other major engagements quickly followed. In 1962, he became a member of the Deutsche Opera in Berlin and made his debut at Salzburg. The Vienna Staatsoper heard him in 1963 and by 1965, he was singing at the Bayreuth Festival. King's Metropolitan Opera debut took place on January 8, 1966, as Florestan. Later that same year, he joined Leonie Rysanek, Christa Ludwig, and Walter Berry under conductor Karl Böhm in a production of Die Frau ohne Schatten. This cast/conductor team was acclaimed not only at the Metropolitan, but also at Salzburg, and each member assumed a defining relationship to his/her role. In addition to the Kaiser, King sang such other roles as Bacchus, Walter von Stolzing, Don José, and Cavaradossi during his 11 seasons at the Metropolitan. At Chicago, he offered his tormented Don José and San Francisco heard him again when he returned in 1969, to take over for an ailing colleague, as Bacchus in addition to his scheduled Florestan. In 1971, King sang his "sure, trim, and ringing" Walter as well as an often-exciting Manrico. For the 1974 San Francisco season, King undertook Otello to mixed reviews, being found often unfocused in tone and interpretively not quite cohesive.
King's best years are well documented on recordings. In addition to his Florestan, Siegmund, Samson (a worthy interpretation played against the voluptuous Dalila of Christa Ludwig), Parsifal, and Lohengrin, his mastery of the Strauss oeuvre yielded two live performances of his Kaiser (both from Salzburg, the 1974 being an altogether incandescent and indispensible performance from the aforementioned dream cast), a Bacchus with Kempe, a gleaming Apollo (Daphne) caught live at Vienna, Herodes, and Aegisth. Read less
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