Paul Franke, 93, Tenor Who Sang in 1,980 Performances Over Four Decades at the Met, Has Died
Boston, MA, December 23, 1917 – New York, NY, July 21, 2011
When Paul Franke made his Met debut on December 1, 1948, as the Youth in Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei Tre Re, it was to be the first of 1,980 Metropolitan Opera performances for the tenor, whose tally of singing appearances with the company stands as the fourth highest in Met history. Franke’s most frequent Met role was Spoletta in Tosca, which he sang 108 times in New York and on tour in three successive Met stagings between 1955 and 1980. Other indispensable Franke characterizations during his thirty-nine seasons on the roster were Dr. Blind in Die Fledermaus, Monostatos in Die Zauberflote, the Messenger in Aida, Spalanzani in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Goro in Madama Butterfly, Parpignol in La Boheme, Remendado in Carmen, Cassio in Otello, Borsa in Rigoletto and Trabuco in La Forza del Destino. Most of Franke’s Met credits were in comprimario roles, but he occasionally took on larger responsibilities, such as Eisenstein Die Fledermaus, David in Die Meistersinger, Prince Shuisky in Boris Godunov and the Witch in Hansel and Gretel. By the time of Franke’s last performance with the Met, as Thierry in Dialogues of the Carmelites in April 1987, he had sung more than one hundred roles with the company.
Franke, who had originally planned a career as an investment advisor, studied voice privately and at New England Conservatory before making his professional debut as the Messenger in Aida in Worcester, Massachusetts, with New England Opera Company. He sold hats at Wanamaker’s and sang at Radio City Music Hall before landing an audition at the Met. On first hearing Franke, Met general manager Edward Johnson was impressed enough to place him in ten roles during his first season under contract.
Franke’s Met credits held many important moments in the company’s history, including featured roles in the Met premieres of The Rake’s Progress (Sellem, 1953), La Perichole (Panatellas, 1956), Wozzeck (The Captain, 1959), Nabucco (Abdallo, 1960), Ariadne auf Naxos (Dancing Master, 1962), The Last Savage (A Scholar and A Tailor, 1964), Die Frau ohne Schatten (Der Bucklige, 1966), I Vespri Siciliani (Tebaldo, 1967) and Esclarmonde (The Byzantine Herald, 1976), as well as the 1966 world premiere of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra (Messenger) that opened the Met’s Lincoln Center home. Franke was Arturo to Maria Callas’s Lucia in her sole Met broadcast, in 1956, and was the Shepherd in the infamous 1959 Tristan that heard Birgit Nilsson sing Isolde opposite three different Tristans. Nilsson was just one of the great Met stars whose company debut featured Franke in the cast: others included Ljuba Welitsch, Renata Tebaldi, Inge Borkh, Regine Crespin, Teresa Berganza, Frederica von Stade, Cesare Siepi, Mario Del Monaco, Hermann Prey, Placido Domingo, Jose van Dam and Leo Nucci, as well as Dimitri Mitropoulos, Georg Solti, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Colin Davis and James Levine. Franke was Lerma in the 1950 Don Carlo that opened Rudolf Bing’s tenure as general manager; Dr. Caius in the 1964 Falstaff that marked the Met debuts of Franco Zeffirelli and Leonard Bernstein; and Manfredo in the 1974 Vespri Siciliani that began John Dexter’s Met career.
Although Franke sang with other companies, such as Cincinnati Opera and Santa Fe Opera, he was first and foremost a Met artist. In a 1964 interview with OPERA NEWS with Quaintance Eaton, Franke had no complaints about his heavy workload at his home company, declaring “It’s a fine life, to be in a repertory theater “I’m lucky to be in the most honest profession in the world. You’re surprised that I call it that? How else can you feel about work in which one owes allegiance only to art?”