For Richard Wagner, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld must have seemed the answer to a maiden’s prayer. For years, the operatic revolutionary had struggled to find a singer capable of encompassing both the vocal and dramatic demands of his taxing tenor leads. Arriving in Dresden for the gruelling six-hour premiere of Rienzi, the composer was initially more than happy with Josef Tichatschek, the affable huntin’ and shootin’ Bohemian tenor who scored a major career triumph in the lead role. Alas, his appearance as Tannhäuser, a role that was written for him, was less satisfactory, and the composer was forced to admit the jovial giant was not exactly the sharpest knife in the dramatic drawer. Wagner knew he needed something else, something perhaps the musical world had not yet seen.

Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld was born in 1836 and made his debut in 1858, soon gaining a reputation for singing the tougher Verdi and Wagner roles. In 1860, he married the Danish soprano Malvina Garrigues and in 1862, Wagner invited the pair to sing some passages from his new opera Tristan und Isolde.

Schnorr, Tristan und Isolde Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld

The work was proving a...