Kurt Baum

Kurt Baum


• 1908 1989


A dramatic tenor alternately gauche and exciting, Kurt Baum filled a crucial spot for the Metropolitan Opera and other houses without ever quite having attained star status. Long after his nominal retirement from the stage, he continued to make concert appearances. Noted throughout his career for stentorian top notes, he later wrote several treatises on preservation of the voice and singing well in old age. Whatever his deficiencies as an artist, he was an exemplar of longevity. That he could apply himself to artistic high purpose can be heard on a Traubel/Melchior disc of Wagner in an extended scene from Lohengrin. Urged by his businessman father to become a doctor, Baum spent his high school and college years in Cologne, Germany, before entering medical school at Prague University in 1927. During this period, Baum engaged in a number of athletic activities, becoming the amateur boxing champion of Czechoslovakia. He also evinced a strong interest in music. According to one story -- perhaps true, perhaps not -- his singing voice gained in timbre and strength when his nose was broken by famous German boxer Max Schmeling (there may have been some truth to the event having taken place, but Baum was noted for having a tight vocal production from the very beginning of his career). Urged by friends to sing professionally, Baum left medical school and enrolled at Berlin's Music Academy in 1930. By 1933, Baum was sufficiently well prepared to win the Vienna International Singing Competition, taking first prize among 700 contestants. Heard by the Intendant of the Zurich Opera, Baum was engaged for that company and made his debut there in 1933 singing in Alexander von Zemlinsky's Der Kreidekreis. After singing a variety of lyric roles at Zurich, Baum was engaged the following year by the Deutsches Theater for a succession of more dramatic roles. Feeling the need for further study, Baum traveled to Italy to work with Eduardo Garbin in Milan and with faculty at Rome's Accademia Santa Cecilia. Fortified with additional technical expertise, Baum sang in many of Europe's leading houses in Paris, Vienna, Budapest, Monte Carlo, and at Salzburg. Heard in Monte Carlo by the director of the Chicago Opera, Baum was engaged and made his American debut in Chicago on November 2, 1939, singing Radames to the Aida of Rose Bampton. He was heard in subsequent seasons as Don José and Manrico. Meanwhile, Baum joined the Metropolitan Opera, making his debut on November 27, 1941, as the Italian Singer in Der Rosenkavalier. In this short but memorable part, his talents were well matched to the role's requirements. Critic Robert Lawrence described his singing as being of "excellent quality," noting the power of his top notes. For the next quarter century, Baum sang the spinto repertory at the Metropolitan to reviews both complimentary and critical. When the company mounted Wozzeck for the first time in 1959, Baum found a highly congenial role in the preening Drum Major. After WWII, Baum returned to Europe and made his debut at La Scala as Manrico and re-established relations with several other major companies. He appeared for the first time in London, where he was found to be a "rather metallic" Radames in his June 4, 1953, debut. During the 1956 -- 1957 season, he was booed as Manrico. Several early Maria Callas recordings made live in Mexico City show Baum at his best -- and worst.