Paul Frey, tenor (born 20 April 1941 in Heidelberg, ON). Although he did not start singing opera until he was 29, Paul Frey made his professional debut at 35 opposite Maureen Forrester, and went on to become a prominent tenor in North America and Europe. He has performed in a wide variety of lyric and heldentenor roles with some of the world’s leading opera companies.
Frey grew up in a Mennonite family in St Jacobs, ON, and sang in the Glad Tidings quartet as well as the Schneider Male Chorus in Kitchener-Waterloo. He left school at age 14 and eventually took over his father's trucking business, but was inspired to pursue a singing career after listening to a Mario Lanza record while sidelined with a hockey injury at age 21. Encouraged to take voice lessons by Paul Berg, director of the Schneider Male Chorus, Frey studied with Douglas Campbell and Victor Martens. In 1972, he sold his trucking business and began studying with Louis Quilico at the University of Toronto Opera School as the first recipient of the Edward Johnson Scholarship.
In spite of Frey’s lack of basic musical training — which hampered his career at the Opera School, but was eventually rectified by courses at the Royal Conservatory of Music — Stuart Hamilton recognized Frey's potential and engaged him to sing Werther opposite Maureen Forrester in 1976 for Opera in Concert. He subsequently sang other roles for Opera in Concert, two roles (Rudolpho in La Bohème and Alfredo in La Traviata) for the Canadian Opera Company, and Tamino at the National Arts Centre, as well as various concert and oratorio performances.
In 1978, after a Canada Council-sponsored audition tour, Frey was engaged at the Stadttheater Basel in Switzerland. Within the first few months he sang the lead roles in Werther, Fidelio and The Bartered Bride. His performance in 1985 as Lohengrin at Karlsruhe led to a contract offer from Bayreuth, in Germany, which he declined in order to complete his contract at Basel, where he took up residence in the late 1970s.
In 1986, Frey was summoned to Mannheim, Germany, to substitute for ailing star tenor Peter Hofmann as Lohengrin. Wolfgang Wagner heard the acclaimed performance and signed Frey to sing at the Bayreuth Festival, where he debuted in 1987 as Lohengrin (later broadcast by the CBC). Frey reprised the role in 1988 under conductor Peter Schneider and stage director Werner Herzog.
After Frey’s Bayreuth debut, he was hired by most of the major European opera houses. His most important Wagnerian roles have been Lohengrin, Parsifal, Erik and Walther. He has also sung a wide variety of lyric and heldentenor roles (heldentenor is closer to baritone and requires a dark, rich, powerful tone), including the title role in Britten's Peter Grimes, Aeneas in Berlioz' Les Troyens, Tamino in The Magic Flute, Titus in La Clemenza di Tito and Corrado in Verdi's Il Corsaro. He is particularly renowned for his singing of Florestan in Fidelio and Max in Der Freischütz.
Frey made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1987 as Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos and debuted at Covent Garden in 1988 as Lohengrin, replacing Placido Domingo. He performed in Paris in a 1988 production of Der Freischütz and opened the 1988 Munich summer festival in Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae. In addition to his many European appearances, he performed with the San Francisco Opera, the Australian Opera and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra under Christoph von Dohanyi.
Frey returned to Canada in 1989 to perform in The Flying Dutchman with Charles Dutoit in Montréal and in Die Walkure in Toronto. He also performed in Ontario with the Menno Singers and Mennonite Mass Choir, and produced two fundraising albums with Consort Caritatis in Kitchener-Waterloo. He moved back to his Mennonite community to farm in 2002, but continued to perform occasionally.
Honorary Degree, D Litt, Wilfrid Laurier University (2002)
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.