Stephen Gould, Tenor Best Known for Tackling Wagner, Dies at 61

Stephen Gould, a tenor who after a detour into musical theater established himself as a leading interpreter of the operas of Richard Wagner in performances at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany and elsewhere, died on Tuesday in Chesapeake, Va. He was 61.

His death was confirmed by his longtime agent, Stephanie Ammann. Early this month Mr. Gould announced on his website that he had bile duct cancer, that the disease was terminal and that he was retiring from singing.

The Bayreuth Festival paid tribute to him on its website after that announcement.

“Stephen Gould was, with interruptions, one of the mainstays of the Bayreuth Festival from 2004 to 2022,” the festival’s post said. “Highly esteemed by audiences, the press and within the festival family, he was rightly dubbed the ‘Wagner Marathon Man’ and thrilled audiences with his distinctive voice and condition in countless performances.”

Mr. Gould established himself as a reliable heldentenor, a singer who takes on heroic roles, mostly in the German repertory, requiring a particularly powerful voice. Such roles are among the most demanding in opera.

He first appeared at Bayreuth in 2004, performing the title role in Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” a production that dazzled Olin Chism of The Dallas Morning News.

“One of the heroes was American tenor Stephen Gould, who sang the title character,” Mr. Chism wrote. “This was his Bayreuth debut, and by the end of the evening he had become a festival favorite.”

He remained so over the next 18 years, performing in 20 Bayreuth productions; he regularly sang the title role in “Siegfried” and Tristan in “Tristan und Isolde.” He also performed in leading opera houses around the world, including with the Metropolitan Opera, where he made his debut in 2010 as Erik, the hunter, in Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman.”

Mr. Gould knew that the major roles he undertook required a certain maturity.

“Everyone wants their heroes to be young and vibrant and look like Brad Pitt in his early days,” he said in a 2019 interview with the German news outlet Deutsche Welle. “But you have to give the voice time to develop.”

As his voice developed, he noted in the same interview, so did his view of how and why he was deploying it.

“I don’t try to sing for the public anymore,” he said. “I did when I was younger, of course. You want to be popular, you want the critics to love you, you want your career to go high and all of that. Now when I’m onstage, what I enjoy most is discovering something for myself.”

Stephen Grady Gould was born on Jan. 24, 1962, in Roanoke, Va. He studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston before joining Lyric Opera of Chicago’s developmental program for young artists, the Center for American Artists. He originally imagined himself as a baritone before switching to tenor.

He was put to the test at age 27 when he had to substitute for Chris Merritt in the demanding role of Argirio in Gioachino Rossini’s “Tancredi” when Mr. Merritt became ill during a run in Los Angeles, where the opera was being staged jointly by Lyric Opera and the Los Angeles Music Center Opera.

“He gamely tackled the patriarchal ardors of Argirio with a light, often pinched voice and reasonable dramatic presence within the static staging context,” John Henken wrote in The Los Angeles Times. “The stratospheric climaxes were forced out as high-pressure bleats, and initially much of the passage work was smeared. But he seemed to gain strength and composure, and more than held his own in the big Act II duet with Marilyn Horne in the title role.”

Soon after, on what he said was a whim, he auditioned for the national touring company of “The Phantom of the Opera” and was cast. He spent several years with that troupe, performing various roles, though not either of the male leads.

“When I finished with musicals, I just was going to quit,” he said in 2019, “but I wanted to give it one more chance and met a teacher from the Metropolitan Opera who told me that I’d been singing incorrectly from the very beginning.”

He rededicated himself to opera, working on his technique and growing into the Wagnerian roles for which he became best known.

“By then,” he said, “I was at the right age to actually sing Wagner. Too many singers today are pushed into their big Wagnerian roles in their 20s.”

Information about Mr. Gould’s survivors was not immediately available.

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