James King, of Irish descent on his father’s side and German on his mother’s, learnt to play the violin when young and sang in church choirs. During World War II he served with the American navy from 1943 to 1945, after which he studied music and singing at the Louisiana State University, where his teacher Dallas Draper insisted that he learn languages as well. At this time a baritone, he sang in public while at university and after graduating in 1949 went on to earn a Master’s degree from Kansas University. From 1952 King taught at the University of Kentucky, where he was also active as a conductor; but in 1956, realising that he was a tenor, he retrained, taking lessons from Martial Singher, to whom he said he owed his career. He also studied with the pre-eminent Wagnerian tenor Max Lorenz.
King soon attracted attention when in 1961 he sang Don José / Carmen opposite Marilyn Horne with the San Francisco Opera, won the American Opera Auditions in Cincinnati with Bacchus / Ariadne auf Naxos and made his European debut as Cavaradossi / Tosca in Florence. After an exhaustive audition process he was engaged by the Deutsche Oper, Berlin as a principal tenor from the start of the 1962–1963 season: in his first year he sang fifty performances of an extensive repertoire that included his first Florestan / Fidelio. He sang his first Lohengrin, which was to become one of his favourite roles, in 1963, and made his debut at the Vienna State Opera as Bacchus in the same year, repeating it at the Bavarian State Opera, Munich in 1964, the year of the Strauss centenary. Later roles at Berlin included the Emperor / Die Frau ohne Schatten and Apollo / Daphne, two of the most fearsome parts in the tenor repertoire, which King discharged with aplomb and without apparent strain, as well as Calaf / Turandot, the title role in Don Carlo and Siegmund / Die Walküre.
The last became one of King’s most important roles, which he recorded with Solti for the Decca Ring cycle and with which he made his debut at the Bayreuth Festival in 1965. At Bayreuth he was pre-eminent as Siegmund (1965–1969, 1972–1973, 1975) and was an affecting Parsifal (1967, 1970, 1972–1973) and Lohengrin (1967–1968). An early debutant at the Salzburg Festival, King sang there for the first time in 1962 and then in 1963, as Achilles in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide; later roles included Aegisth / Elektra (1964), Florestan (1968–1970, 1983), the Emperor (1974–1975), Bacchus (1976, 1980– 1982), and Giove / Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (1985–1986).
Having moved in 1965 from Berlin to Munich, where he spent the rest of his European career, King made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1966 as Florestan and returned often as the Emperor, Calaf, Aegisth, Lohengrin, Don José, Erik / Der fliegende Holländer, Siegmund, Bacchus, Cavaradossi, Walther von Stolzing / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Captain Vere / Billy Budd (1989) and the Drum Major / Wozzeck, making his final appearance in 1994, as Aegisth. Between 1967 and 1986 King was a regular visitor to the Royal Opera House, London where in addition to his usual repertoire he also sang Manrico / Il trovatore. He appeared as the Emperor at the Paris Opera in 1972 and as Otello at the San Francisco Opera in 1974. At La Scala, Milan he sang the title role in Cherubini’s Anacreon and Paul / Die tote Stadt at Berlin, both in 1983.
King’s career was remarkably long: in 1990 he was still singing the Emperor in Amsterdam, Lohengrin in Nice and Herod / Salome at Salzburg. After the mid-1990s he concentrated on teaching at the University of Indiana, which he had already been doing part-time since 1984, although he still managed to sing Florestan at Vienna and Aegisth at Washington in 1997. His final appearance was as Siegmund at Indiana University in 2000. Among his other notable parts were the title role in Pfitzner’s Palestrina and Radamès / Aida.
At its peak, King’s voice was a pure heldentenor, strong and heroic. He used it with great musicality, never forcing for effect, which may account for its longevity. His tall stature gave him dramatic credibility on-stage. He was also a notable singer in concert, for instance in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).