Janssen came from a wealthy, music-loving family and received his first singing lessons in his early youth. He grew up in the family's castle on the Rhine, which was filled with magnificent art. His family wanted him to study law for the benefit of the family business. They disowned him upon discovering that he had used his law school tuition to study singing instead of law. He did, in fact, study law before deciding to commit to a professional singing career. The night he made his debut at the Berlin Stadstoper, a 12' Bosendorfer concert grand piano was delivered to the opera house with a card saying "welcome back to the family". He returned the piano to his family and went on to sing everywhere to great acclaim.
In 1922, Janssen was offered his first contract at the Berlin State Opera, starting with small roles but rising in status quickly. A year later, during the 1923-24 Berlin season, he appeared for the first time as Wolfram in Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser, a role that would become one of his trademarks.
Janssen remained a member of the State Opera's ensemble until 1937. During this time, he appeared as a guest at most of the important opera houses and festivals in Europe.
Beginning in 1925, Janssen spent the summer months singing at the Wagner-Festival at the Zoppoter Waldoper. From 1926 until World War II, he regularly sang at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London. Guest appearances led him to the Vienna State Opera, Nationaltheater München, Opera Garnier in Paris, Semperoper in Dresden and the principal operatic theatres in Barcelona and Den Haag. From 1930 to 1937, he sang at the Bayreuth Festival.
He was known to say that he sang opera so he could sing Lieder. No one would attend a solo Lieder concert unless the artist had achieved fame in opera. He said he always considered himself a Lieder singer first and foremost. He made a number of recordings of Lieder, in addition to his sublime performances in opera, some of which have been preserved and are now available on CD.
Posthumous Charge of Nazism
One source which gives no references or documentation (the author of which is now deceased, rendering the source unverifiable), has claimed that in 1937 Janssen became a member of the Nazi party. However, a year later he had to flee Germany as a political refugee, going initially to Buenos Aires. His escape was facilitated by Toscanini.
This sole accusation of Nazism is evidentially contradicted by Janssen's presence on the famous 1944 Toscanini broadcast of Fidelio. Learning of the danger to him from the Nazis for speaking against Hitler, Janssen fled Germany as a political refugee, with the help of Toscanini, who was known for his outspoken opposition to fascism. If Janssen had had any association with the Nazis, he would not have received Toscanini's assistance, nor would he have appeared on Toscanini's broadcast of Fidelio.
Janssen's opposition to the Nazi party is confirmed by Toscanini biographer, sound engineer Richard Caniell and Janssen's student, American Jewish soprano Ilona Simon-Muller. Simon-Muller tells this story as related to her by Janssen, who had been invited to dine with Hitler following a performance at Baryreuth. According to Simon-Muller, Janssen said "I will sing for the man, but I will not eat with him." Simon-Muller further reports: "That was enough to mark him as an enemy of the Nazis. A warrant for his arrest became known, and it was Toscanini who came to get him one evening following another performance at Bayreuth, telling him he was going to be arrested, and that he had to leave that night with him for Buenos Aires. He left with the clothes on his back. Erna, his wife, was called into the Gestapo headquarters, where she saved her own life, by saying, when asked about Herbert's whereabouts, 'I don't know and I don't care. I hope when you find him that you kill him'. She walked out and Toscanini took her to Buenos Aires where she joined her husband."
Tangible evidence of Janssen's innocence in regards to the charges of Nazi party membership can be seen in Toscanini's famous 1944 broadcast recording of Beethoven's opera Fidelio. Janssen was selected by the anti-fascist Toscanini to sing the role of Pizarro in his famous broadcast recording of Fidelio. Toscanini was openly and famously opposed to Nazism and would not have used Janssen in his recording of Beethoven's opera about political freedom had he (Janssen) had any Nazi affiliation. Toscanini's opposition to fascism has been well-documented. [Harvey Sachs,'Salzburg, Hitler, and Toscanini. Grand Street, vol. 6 no. 1, Autumn 1986 http://www.jstor.org/pss/25006938] So impassioned an anti-Nazi was Toscanini, that he refused to conduct at Bayreuth and Salzburg, emphasizing Janssen's innocence of any Nazi charges. His student, Simon-Muller remembers a prominent photo of Toscanini hanging in Janssen's New York apartment.
Further evidence that Janssen was not a Nazi can be found in anti-Nazi Friedelind Wagner's memoirs, Heritage of Fire (1945, Harper, New York). In this book, Richard Wagner's granddaughter describes Janssen as a "brave artist" who, rather than share a meal with Hitler had left town for the day, thereby ending up in Hitler's black books because "the Führer didn't like to be snubbed" (p. 101)
From 1939, Janssen lived in New York City, where he accepted a contract to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, remaining at the Met until the end of his stage career in 1951. He never returned to Germany. He stayed on in New York during his retirement and was a sought-after singing teacher until his death in 1965.
Originally, Janssen had sung an extensive and manifold repertory. He appeared in, for example, Mozart roles (such as the Count in Le Nozze di Figaro) and as Lortzing's Zar Peter in Zar und Zimmermann. Major baritone roles composed by Giuseppe Verdi also figured in his early repertoire. They included Conte di Luna in Il Trovatore (a personal favourite of his) as well as Renato in Un ballo in maschera and Iago in Otello. He performed Bizet (Escamillo in Carmen), too, and much else.
Yet at the height of his career, especially at the Metropolitan Opera, Janssen was cast overwhelmingly in Wagnerian roles (a development which he regretted because it curtailed his versatility as a singer). Indeed, during his vocal prime, he was considered to be the most important extant singer of the more lyrical baritone parts in Wagner's music dramas. He was celebrated for his beautifully sung interpretations of Kurwenal (in Tristan und Isolde), Amfortas (Parsifal) and, above all, Wolfram (Tannhäuser). The heavier Wagnerian baritone roles, such as Wotan and Hans Sachs, were the natural preserve of Janssen's more heroic-voiced contemporaries Friedrich Schorr and Rudolf Bockelmann, but he was ill-advised enough to attempt them during the Second World War, owing to a shortage of dramatic singers at the Met.
Janssen made commercial gramophone records of some of his signature roles. There is also a recording derived from the 1930 Bayreuth Festival with him performing Wolfram's music, while he sang the role of Don Pisarro in a 1944 radio broadcast of Beethoven's Fidelio, with Arturo Toscanini conducting. These recordings have all been re-issued on CD. A live 1941 Met Tannhäuser reveals Janssen's perfection in the role of Wolfram, to which he brought unsurpassed humanity and vocal beauty. On top of his other attainments, Janssen was a fine Lieder singer, employing his soft, rich and velvety voice, with its Italianate timbre and smooth legato style, to outstanding effect.
Prieberg published the analysis of his private archives under the title Handbook 1933-1945 German musicians in the electronic self-publishing as a resource on a CD-ROM as a pdf file.
- Kesting, Jürgen: Die großen Sänger des 20. Jahrhunderts, 1993, ECON Verlag GmbH, Düsseldorf, ISBN 3-517-07987
- Rosenthal, Harold and Warrack, John: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera, second edition, Oxford University Press, London, 1980.