Anxiously awaiting the warm weather that signals his return to the golf course, Canadian tenor Paul Frey also looks into his seeing-stone for signs of another a milestone event.
April 20th, 2021 marks Frey’s 80th birthday. During his heyday from the mid-1980s to 2005, the soft-spoken Canadian’s name was ranked alongside other great tenors of the day such as Peter Hofman, José Carreras, and Luciano Pavarotti.
The former Canadian farm boy and trucker was an audience and critical favourite during his largely Europe-based career. “Paul Frey’s Mannheim performance has instantly placed him among the world’s great Wagnerians,” proclaimed Music Magazine after his initial Lohengrin performance in 1986 when he replaced an ailing Hofmann in Mannheim, Germany. Writer Kristen Guiget continued: “Suddenly every crowned head of European opera was buying a ticket to this performance, especially to hear Paul Frey sing.”
The fame train only sped up faster after Frey’s performances of Lohengrin in Werner Herzog’s production at the 1987 Bayreuth Festival. Over the next 14 years, he returned to the role seven times at Bayreuth, setting a record for the most appearances at the Holy Grail of Wagnerian Opera.
No insignificant feat for this Waterloo County Mennonite operatic neophyte. A young man who entered opera school at the University of Toronto unable to read a note of music or count beats in a bar.
Born in 1941 outside Heidelberg, north of Waterloo, ON, the young Paul’s life was predestined for agriculture. A Grade 9 high school drop-out, he joined his father’s agricultural trucking firm at age 15. Destiny saw him taking over the business at age 21.
Then fate intervened. An injury playing minor league hockey laid him up for a period. He whiled away his time listening to the long-play album of Romberg’s operetta The Student Prince starring legendary tenor, Mario Lanza.
He was mesmerized.
“Now that’s what I need to be doing instead of wrecking my body playing hockey,” he chastised himself. “That” was singing opera.
Eager to wet his feet musically, Frey immediately joined several local musical organizations before enrolling in the one month Summer Music Workshop at Waterloo Lutheran University (now Wilfred Laurier). There he’d be in the company of serious music students from across North America.
The fact that he could neither read music nor count beats to the bar was little deterrent. The young man had a fine tenor voice—bridging the span from below low to high C. Taking his ambition to the next level, Frey enrolled at University of Toronto’s Opera School in 1977. No small leap of faith, the opera-aspirant was soon to discover.
“We’d be given an excerpt from an opera to learn with our music coach—very difficult, almost impossible for me as they were primarily in French or Italian. And of course I still couldn’t read music.”
“I know I drove my vocal coach, Dr. George Brough, crazy. He had never worked with someone who had as little musical training as me.”
Frey found a supporter in the great Canadian baritone, Louis Quilico, who was a coach at the opera school at that time. The tenor gradually found his footing and graduated from the certificate program in 1978.
That feat was small comfort to the ambitious Frey. “I graduated without ever being awarded a major role in a student production.” Unwilling to concede failure, over the next two years, he took on concert and oratorio engagements across Canada.
“I was doing well financially and I was busy,” he reflects, but he was still frustrated. “I wanted to be at the front of the stage, not in the chorus,” he recalls. Frey moved closer to the operatic career he desired when the Canada Council selected him in 1977 as one of six Canadian singers offered an opportunity to audition at a number of European opera houses.
Six auditions saw six rejections for Paul Frey. Finally acknowledging failure, he resigned to return to Canada.
“It was only because I couldn’t get a flight home that I decided to finish what I’d started—the seventh audition at the opera house in Basel, Switzerland,” he recalls.
Whether it was the Canadian’s relaxed—and resigned—mindset, or that he was exactly what Basel was looking for in a house tenor, Frey left the audition with a two-year contract.
Before long, he was in demand for gigs at European opera houses, jumping in for ailing first-stringers. Little could Frey have predicted that the call from Mannheim to fill-in for Hofmann in Lohengrin would turn his world upside-down.
In the makeup room before the performance, Frey recalls overhearing the opera house public address system announce that “for this performance the role of Lohengrin will be played by Paul Frey.”
“A chorus of moans and groans went up from the crowd,” he chuckles. “Paul Frey? Who’s he?”
It would be the last time over the next 25 years of performances ranging from Milan, to the Met, from Covent Garden to La Scala, that Paul Frey would be introduced without deafening cheers.
Nancy Silcox is the author of Paul Frey: A Story Never Predicted. From
Trucking to the World Opera Stage. Wipf & Stock, Oregon Publisher,