Johannes Sembach (1881-1944) was born Johannes Semfke in Berlin. Musically inclined from an early age, Sembach began his working life as a choir director and organist at a local church. The young man also showed a gift for composition and several of his works were published when he was still a teenager. At the age of eighteen, Sembach commenced studies at the Stern Conservatory, a private school in Berlin. However, he left after two years to pursue a career as an artist with Berlin’s Apollo Theater. Sembach (still using his birth name, Semfke) became quite popular singing baritone roles in a variety of operettas at the Apollo during his three seasons there. In 1904, the twenty-three-year-old vaudeville performer was heard by Gustav Mahler, who offered him a contract with the Vienna Staatsoper. At this point, he changed his name to Sembach and made the switch from baritone to tenor. His debut was in the secondary role of Moser in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger on November 13, 1904. Sembach remained at the Staatsoper for the next three seasons, concentrating mainly on comprimario roles. In August of 1907, he made his debut with Dresden Opera as Don José in Carmen and went on to sing Pinkerton in the Dresden premiere of Madama Butterfly and Aegisth in the world premiere of Strauss’ Elektra.
In 1911, Sembach came to the decision that he needed further vocal study in order to continue his career. He took eighteen months off from performing to study with legendary tenor Jean de Reszke in Paris. When Sembach returned to the stage in 1913, he possessed a rock solid technique that would carry him through another twenty years of singing the most demanding roles. Appearances in London, Paris and Munich followed and the tenor made his Met debut on November 26, 1914 as Parsifal. After three seasons, Sembach became a casualty of the anti-German xenophobia that invaded the Met (and the nation) during WWI. The company jettisoned its entire German wing of artists and, interestingly, Sembach was the only leading Germanic singer brought back after the war. During his tenure at the Met (1914-17 & 1920-22), Sembach sang 118 operatic performances (not to mention 15 Sunday Night Concerts) of fourteen works, including Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Siegfried, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Tristan und Isolde, Die Zauberflöte, Fidelio and Samson et Dalila. Sembach also sang the U.S. premiere of Iphigénie en Tauride, the Met premiere of The Taming of the Shrew and the world premiere of de Koven’s The Canterbury Pilgrims. In the last mentioned work, Sembach’s portrayal of Chaucer…particularly the excellence of his English diction…was praised by critics.
After leaving the Met at the end of the 1921/22 season, Sembach returned to Germany and resumed his appearances in Dresden, Berlin and Hamburg. The tenor visited the U.S. again in 1929 as part of a tour of Wagner’s Ring Cycle with Johanna Gadski’s German Grand Opera. After their final tour in 1931, Sembach retired from the stage and settled in Berlin, where he established a voice studio. During the second world war, the ex-tenor moved west to Bremerhaven in order to escape wartime hostilities in Berlin. This proved to be a futile move, however, for Allied bombs hit the town on June 18th. Sembach found himself unable to escape and was badly injured by falling debris. He died two days later on June 20th, 1944 at the age of sixty-two.
Sembach left an impressive legacy or recordings dating from 1900 to 1933. He recorded some 150 discs for G&T, Columbia, the Gramophone Company, Lyrophone, Vox and Clangor. These recordings reveal a robust yet lyrical tenor…not the typical Heldentenor, but a big lirico-spinto voice…along with clear diction and an impressive sense of musicality. In this recording, Sembach sings "Nun sei bedankt, mein lieber Schwan!" from Wagner's Lohengrin. This was recorded for the Gramophone Company in Berlin in 1909.