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Monday, August 8, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Hans Wolf, 92, ambassador for opera all over Pacific Northwest

Seattle Times music critic

Wherever there was opera, operetta or song in the Pacific Northwest, you could count on finding Hans Wolf — usually on the conductor's podium, with a bounce in his baton and a twinkle in his eye.

The indefatigable ambassador of opera died at noon Friday (Aug. 5) after suffering a massive heart attack. At 92, the community-outreach director and longtime conductor still came to work every day at Seattle Opera, and he was making plans for another of his beloved "Neglected Masterpieces of Operetta" concerts to be held this fall.

Only four days before his death, Dr. Wolf attended a Seattle Opera rehearsal but was too ill to attend the memorial service two days later for Seattle Opera founding general director Glynn Ross.

Dapper in suits and ascots, always with a cheerful smile, the German-born Dr. Wolf came to Seattle in 1969. He gave countless previews and lectures for Seattle Opera, and he loved opera and its lighter cousin operetta so much that he subsidized his own operetta productions out of his pocket.

One of Dr. Wolf's most important contributions was his leadership of Tacoma Opera, which he revived from a state of hibernation, serving as artistic director/conductor for 15 years. He gave countless youngsters valuable singing experience, coaching them in the musical and theatrical values to which he devoted his life.

He brought to the Seattle concert stages such operettas as Strauss' "The Gypsy Baron"; Kalman's "Countess Maritza" and "Gypsy Princess"; and Offenbach's "La Perichole," "Robinson Crusoe" and "Christopher Columbus."

Dr. Wolf's longtime friend and fellow opera enthusiast Heidi Herrmann remembers him as "so positive and so inspiring to all of us. There was never a complaint. He was so excited about young singers, and he would tell me in German, 'Wait until you hear this voice — it will take your spit away!' "

Family fled Nazis

Born in Hamburg on Dec. 5, 1912, Dr. Wolf was the middle child of a prominent Jewish banking family. He studied music with noted composer Heinrich Schenker at the University of Vienna, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1937. Shortly thereafter, his family fled the Nazis and Dr. Wolf ended up in Iowa, where he taught at John Fletcher College. Later he enlisted in the Army, ending up as a translator and communications specialist in the occupation force.

During that time, he conducted Lehar's "The Merry Widow" and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony in Innsbruck, Austria; in Vienna, he conducted the Tonkünstler Orchestra at one of the world's most famous music theaters, the Musikverein.

Under his baton in Vienna, some of the most esteemed singers of the day sang in his performance of Mendelssohn's oratorio "Elijah."

Dr. Wolf returned to the United States in 1950, becoming music director and a frequently featured conductor for the Remington Records label (he was involved in recording the first stereophonic records in this country).

He spent most of the 1960s in Los Angeles, conducting several operas (from "Aida" to "Carmen") for Four Star Television. There he met Ross, the Seattle Opera founding general director, and conductor Henry Holt, who went on to make history here in Seattle.

They invited Dr. Wolf to join Seattle Opera as assistant, then associate, conductor and chorusmaster. For the next dozen years, he directed Seattle Opera's chorus and conducted operas performed in English, as well as leading many community opera previews.

Dr. Wolf began bringing opera to outlying communities when he joined forces with local arts activist Marian Berge in 1974 to produce a succession of highly praised performances of such operas as "The Happy Prince" and "El Capitan."

Later, opera productions were mounted in Renton, Walla Walla, Everett, Anchorage and Salem, Ore. Dr. Wolf usually translated the German opera and operetta texts himself, preferring to do the shows in English.

Over the course of 15 years, Dr. Wolf brought the Tacoma Opera into its present era of success, then departed in 1996 to develop his community-operetta projects staffed with gifted young singers.

"I could have retired many years ago," he said in an interview a few years back, "but why would I want to? There is so much great music, and so much new talent."

Dr. Wolf's longtime friends Robert and Phyllis Petersen met him when they first came to Seattle, and they remember his unfailing kindness.

"Our friendship was one of many years," said Robert Petersen, a singer and teacher, "and if I had to write his epitaph, I would say, 'Hans believed in kindness, and he really lived that belief all his life.' "

Honored for work

Several years ago, Dr. Wolf was presented with Germany's Friendship Award, honoring the maestro for his translations of opera libretti, his choral conducting and linguistic coaching, as well as his productions in Tacoma, Everett, Snohomish and other locations.

One of his proudest moments was his trip in 1991 to the town of Linz-on-Rhine, near Cologne, Germany, for a ceremony erecting a plaque to Jewish victims of World War II. The town dedicated a public square to Dr. Wolf's uncle, surgeon and humanitarian Dr. Sigmund Wolf, an immigrant to this country who died in 1952.

When Hans Wolf arrived in Linz, researchers handed him a meticulous 12-page transcript of the trial of those who had ransacked his uncle's family home in the infamous Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when Nazis ran through the streets of Germany smashing windows and destroying property belonging to Jews.

"A part of Germany has gone kaput," Hans Wolf recalls his uncle saying. "It's time for us to go." (Hans Wolf's family in Hamburg, warned that they were on the death lists, had already left for the U.S.)

Linz-on-Rhine named the square "Sigmund-Wolf-Platz." At the dedication ceremony, Hans Wolf took a quotation from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as the text for his speech: "Alle Menschen werden Brüder." ("All men become brothers.") It was an apt text for Dr. Wolf's own life, as he constantly extended the hand of friendship to aspiring musicians and audiences.

Dr. Wolf is survived by his sister, Elsbeth Pfeiffer of Seattle; nephew Daniel Wolf and his two children, Cynthia and Joshua; and nephew Peter Wolf and his two children, Alex and Kate. The memorial will be a Nov. 12 concert in Seattle's Town Hall (Eighth Avenue at Seneca Street), with an operetta performance Dr. Wolf had originally planned to conduct. His last wish was that the show would go on.

Melinda Bargreen:

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company



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