Michael Bohnen’s unusual voice, which possessed an extended range covering both the traditional bass and baritone registers, attracted attention while he was still at school. He went on to study singing at the Cologne Conservatory with Fritz Steinbach and Richard Dornburg, making his operatic debut as Kaspar / Der Freischütz at Düsseldorf in 1910 and taking part there in the same year in the first performance of Alfred Kaiser’s opera Stella Maris. Between 1911 and 1914 he was a member of the opera company of the Court Theatre of Wiesbaden. He substituted for a sick Paul Knüpfer as Gurnemanz / Parsifal at the Berlin Court Opera in 1914 with great success and in the same year appeared twice in London: at the Drury Lane Theatre as Baron Ochs / Der Rosenkavalier with Beecham conducting, and at Covent Garden (his only appearance there) as King Henry / Lohengrin. In addition at that year’s Bayreuth Festival he sang Hunding / Die Walküre and Daland / Der fliegende Holländer.
During World War I Bohnen served in the German army, founding a 200-strong soldiers’ choir which toured German cities. He was released from military service in 1916 to join the Berlin Court Opera, of which he remained a member until 1918, and where he continued to appear subsequently as a guest. Bohnen was also active as a film actor from 1918 onwards (he formed his own film company), most notably as Baron Ochs in the silent film version of Der Rosenkavalier and in the film of the operetta Viktoria und ihr Husar (Victoria and her Hussar).
Between 1935 and 1945 he was, in addition to his film work, a member of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, where in 1923 he had created the title role in Rezniček’s opera Holofernes, and in 1928 appeared in the operetta Casanova, created by Ralph Benatzky from the music of Johann Strauss. From 1920 to 1922 he sang at the Swiss opera houses in Basle and Berne, and at the Vienna State Opera; later (1938) he returned to Vienna. Bohnen also appeared at the 1939 Salzburg Festival as Kaspar.
Between 1923 and 1932 he sang regularly at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, making his debut as Francesco in the American premiere of Max von Schilling’s opera Mona Lisa, singing opposite the composer’s wife, Barbara Kemp. Bohnen’s repertoire at the Met was large and covered Italian and French as well as German operas: in all he sang twenty-one parts over 175 performances, including the title role in the American premiere of Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf, in 1929. Other parts included Baron Ochs, Daland, Gurnemanz, Kaspar, King Henry, Amonasro / Aida, Hagen / Götterdammerung, Hans Sachs / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Kecal / The Bartered Bride, King Mark / Tristan und Isolde, Méphistophélès / Faust (Gounod), Rocco / Fidelio, Tonio / Pagliacci and Wotan / Der Ring des Nibelungen.
In Europe during the inter-war years Bohnen sang in Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Holland, Italy, Spain and Sweden; he appeared also at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires during 1933 and 1934. After the end of World War II he served between 1945 and 1947 as the general manager of the Deutsche Oper (also known at this time as the Städtische Oper or Municipal Opera), and he gave his farewell operatic performance there as Hans Sachs in 1951. His final years were overshadowed by allegations of Nazi collaboration and he died in poverty.
Because of Bohnen’s wide vocal range he was equally at home in both the baritone and bass repertoires. In addition to those already mentioned, other roles which he sang included Alberich / the Ring, Escamillo / Carmen, Falstaff / Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, Figaro / Le nozze di Figaro, Iago / Otello, and the four villains of Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Bohnen recorded extensively during the era of the 78rpm disc, and a wartime radio recording of Weber’s Abu Hassan is notable as an illustration of his capabilities as a buffo singer.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).
Role: Classical Artist