Fritz Wunderlich could be considered the James Dean of the singing world — a young, charismatic performer who suffered a tragic death at the height of his career and abilities, and whose posthumous reputation has grown beyond that which he was able to enjoy during his short life. Considered among the finest Mozartean tenors of his day, Wunderlich embraced a wide repertory that expanded to included the works of Strauss, Schubert, Bach, and Mahler, and he left behind many excellent recordings that have been the primary source of his legacy.
Wunderlich (Friedrich Karl Otto) was born in Kusel, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany. His life included music from the very beginning, since his father was the director of a local choir and his mother was a violinist. The young tenor gained mild local celebrity for his singing in Kusel, and in 1950 he departed for the Freiburg Musikhochschule with partial financing from the town; he met the remainder of his study-related expenses by directing a small dance band in Breisgau. Wunderlich's first operatic appearance was, appropriately enough, as Tamino in a student production of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte — a role with which he would remain associated for the rest of his career. In fact, he made his professional debut with the very same piece just a year later (1955) at the Stuttgart Opera. He remained with Stuttgart until he was hired by the Frankfurt Opera company, staying there from 1958 to 1960. He first appeared in the Salzburg Festival in 1959, where he sang the part of Henry in Richard Strauss's Die schweigsame Frau. He became a member of the Munich Opera in 1960 and from 1962 also was a regular at the Vienna State Opera.
Wunderlich quickly earned a reputation as the leading lyric tenor in Germany. His clear, strong voice easily filled an operatic hall, but he always retained a purity of sound and line that was equally well suited to more intimate settings. In international appearances he essayed mostly Mozart roles, for which he was especially celebrated and which did not tax the dramatic limits of his voice; however in the smaller houses of his native Germany he explored slightly more adventurous repertory, including Alfredo in La Traviata and Lensky in Eugene Onegin. All of his performances were marked by an unflappable lyricism and an associated control of phrasing and breath — both of which have remained his most lauded qualities. Wunderlich created the role of Tiresias in the first performance of Carl Orff's Oedipus der Tyrann in Stuttgart in 1959, and sang the part of Christoph in Werner Egk's Die Verlobung in San Domingo in Munich in 1962. He contemplated expanding further, into the lyrical Wagnerian roles. This was not to be, as he died in an accidental fall at a friend's home.