Jean Cox

I’ve been thinking about Jean Cox.

Jean Cox, heldentenor (click picture for details of Cox’s extensive work at the Bayreuth Festival)

Cox was a great American heldentenor, who died on Sunday.  By coincidence it’s the same day that Franz Crass passed, and not many weeks after the death of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

I am pondering the workings of the culture machine, a bit mystified that whereas DFD is universally known and loved, and FC also well-known, Cox never made the same deep impression, at least in North America (but then again Cox is likely remembered far more in Europe than in America)

Of course nobody –certainly not me–can know objective truth. Maybe the way these male artists are remembered is the proper reflection of their ability.

Maybe.  Yet I suspect that in fact other factors are involved.

Timing seems to be a big factor in fame.  Singers have a window of opportunity to make an impression.  For some that window is very brief indeed.  If you listen to this sampling of tenors –all singing the same brief passage in the last act of Götterdämmerung –you get a sense of the brevity of careers.  New cohorts of singers replace the older ones, and the changing recording technology may distort the singers’ actual voices. 

If you come along at the right time for a key project you will be remembered.

  • Wolfgang Windgassen came along at the right time to be the Siegfried on that first seminal Ring cycle conducted by Georg Solti.  
  • Manfred Jung was the Siegfried on Chereau’s Ring conducted by Pierre Boulez
  • Helge Brilioth and Jess Thomas share the Siegfried duties on the von Karajan Ring

That’s where timing comes in.

I saw Jean Cox sing the Siegfried from Götterdämmerung at least a couple of times in 1973 (with the Canadian Opera Company, in the unfriendly confines of the O’Keefe Centre).  His portrayal was riveting, a confident physical presence at ease moving, acting and singing.  His voice combined power, lovely tone & nuanced expression in this difficult role.

I also heard him on CBC radio broadcasts from Bayreuth conducted by Horst Stein (another talent who somehow fell through the cracks).  To my ear Cox sounded much better than Windgassen or Jung.  While I adore the quirky interpretations of the von Karajan Ring (Brilioth for example), Cox never had a recording whereby he could stake his claim as one of the great heldentenors of the century.

Recently I saw a discussion online about tenors where some put forward the notion that  Jay Hunter Morris –admittedly a reasonable performer in the Met’s Ring—was one of the great tenors of the century.  Why?  Again, it’s a matter of timing, being in the right place at the right time.

Here’s a little sample of Cox’s death scene from Götterdämmerung, beginning at 3:20 in a clip that also includes the unique voice of Franz Mazura. 

I am grateful to have seen Cox.

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4 Responses to Jean Cox

  1. lighthouse75 says:

    Thank you! During the time I lived in Europe my brother and I saw Jean Cox in a very memorable Ring Cycle at the Hamburg Opera — 1971, I believe. It also included Birgit Nilsson and Donald McIntyre. Jean Cox certainly had a deserved reputation as a great singer in Europe, if not in his native country. Conversely, I’m thinking of someone like Erland Hagegard, cousin to the more famous Hakan. and a tenor. Erland’s career has taken place chiefly in Sweden and a bit in northern Germany, I believe; he never attained the international reputation that Hakan did, though for my money he was the better artist. Thank you for the memories of Cox, Franz Crass, and the other great singers.

  2. barczablog says:

    I feel we have a responsibility to bear witness, given that live performance is so evanescent. What we’ve seen and heard lives with us, is part of the fabric of our being and then when we go it’s also gone. Thank you for sharing your own memories.

  3. alastairbc says:

    I had the great privilege of staying with Jean Cox in the mid Noughties on a number of occasions when my wife and I were being coached vocally by Jean’s celebrated wife, the great English mezzo-soprano Anna Reynolds. At that stage his Parkinsons variant disease was quite well advanced and this had badly affected both his speaking voice and his mobility. But he was wonderful, and even though his affected, rapid Alabamanian flow of speech was difficult to decipher (one learned to listen for keywords), the gist of what he told me was fascinating. Most movingly, I recall his telling of bombing sorties from their Air Corps base in Italy over Germany during the Second World War, as a B24 pilot. (‘If you heard the flack coming up, you were still alive’). What sweet irony that he should have spent so many years later living and working in Germany, thirty three of these at Mannheim Opera. He also gave me a little advice on his vocal technique, which can best be described as ‘grunting’! – much to the annoyance of his wife Anna who approached that particular aspect of voice production in rather a different way! Jean pointed out that this process, which I recall involved flattening the palate, was the only way in which one could vocally survive on stage as Siegfried, singing at top volume and top of one’s range for so many hours. Yes, memories are forever treasured of those few visits we had to their beautiful village home at Peesten, near Bayreuth. I do agree that it is a great pity that there was not more recorded output of Jean’s work. He was a great man with a most unusual and fine voice.

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