Jacques Urlus (1867-1935) was one of the greatest dramatic tenors of his generation. Although born to Dutch parents, Urlus’ birthplace was actually in Germany. His parents moved back to Holland when Urlus was a baby and he was raised in Tilburg and Utrecht. As a youth, he worked in a steel mill but also sang in his local church choir. It was during his military service in the mid-1880s that the captain of his regiment noticed the young man’s singing voice. Although the officer was impressed with Urlus’ voice and even offered to pay for his singing lessons, nothing came of this opportunity. However, Urlus was encouraged by his captain’s reaction and decided to pursue singing as a hobby. After a number of local concerts and recitals, the young singer was heard by an artist from the Dutch National Opera, who recommended Urlus for an audition. Impressed by what they heard, the administration offered the young tenor a contract.
Urlus made his debut on September 20, 1894 a Beppe in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. He remained in Amsterdam as part of Dutch National Opera’s repertory company for the next six seasons, gradually working his way up to leading roles. During his tenure with the company, Urlus performed throughout Holland, building an impressive and varied repertoire. His first appearances outside the Netherlands occurred in 1898 when he was invited to sing Tannhäuser and Lohengrin in Hannover. This led to an audition with Cosima Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival, for which Urlus prepared fastidiously. He took the time to relearn all of his existing Wagnerian repertoire in German (he had initially learned most of it in Dutch) and spent the entire summer working with Bayreuth’s coaches. Instead of receiving an offer for the upcoming season, Urlus was given the opportunity for further coaching. Feeling slighted, the tenor left Bayreuth and didn’t return for another 13 years.
In the meantime, Urlus accepted an offer as principal tenor on Leipzig, a position he held until 1914. He also made regular appearances in Munich, Berlin, Dresden, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Vienna, Antwerp, Prague and London. During the 1911-12 season, Urlus was finally given the opportunity to appear at Bayrueth as Siegmund in Die Walküre. The Metropolitan Opera in New York also offered the tenor a contract and he made his debut there as Tristan on February 8, 1913. It was not, however, a performance for the ages. Urlus, suffering from a bad cold, lost his voice during the first act, but was compelled to continue the opera, as there was no substitute to spell him. Reviews were mixed but understanding of the singer’s plight. Urlus acquitted himself admirably in subsequent performances and was secured as THE Heldentenor of the Met’s Wagner wing. He remained with the company for five seasons, singing over 120 performances of Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal, Lohengrin, Die Walküre, Götterdämmerung, Tannhäuser, Die Meistersinger, Siegfried, Fidelio and Die Zauberflöte. Unfortunately, when the U.S. entered WWI, the company suspended its Wagner productions and Urlus found himself out of a job.
Returning to Europe, Urlus found himself more in demand than ever. Throughout the 1920s, the busy tenor appeared in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Rotterdam, Brussels and Paris. He also returned to London and New York and made his first appearance at the Liceo in Barcelona as Tristan in 1930. Following a Tristan in Amsterdam in November of 1931, Urlus bid farewell to the operatic stage. Despite his advancing age, the tenor was still in remarkable voice and continued to perform in concert throughout Holland. His final public appearance took place in Amsterdam in the spring of 1934, when he sang Mahler’s “Lied von der Erde”. His health now in decline, the 67-year-old tenor retired to his home in Noordwijk, where he passed away on July 6, 1935.
Jacques Urlus was an amazingly versatile tenor with a repertoire that encompassed over 40 roles. Although largely self-taught, Urlus had no difficulty navigating the most treacherous roles in the repertoire and kept his voice completely intact during a 40-year career. His recorded legacy, consisting of around 150 sides made for G&T, Pathé, Edison, The Gramophone Company and Odeon between 1903 and 1927, reveal a tone that was not, perhaps, what we think of as the typical Heldentenor instrument. The voice was dark and baritonal in the lower and middle registers, but with an easy top. All in all, Urlus was a most lyrical and expressive singer and his recordings provide a pleasant contrast to the shouting and declamation of many Wagnerian tenors. In this recording, Urlus sings "Nun sei bedankt, mein lieber Schwan" from Wagner's Lohengrin. This was recorded in Berlin for G&T in 1907.