Christian Gerhaher, why do we never see you smile?
I can see we're off to a good start!
Do Lied singers always have to look so gloomy? Do they have to have this serious, German Liedsänger gaze, one which looks to the very edge of humanity, one which Fischer-Dieskau cultivated and perfected? People think you're a complicated person....
I probably am. My wife doesn't think I have much of a sense of humour. (laughs)
You've just sung Don Giovanni in Frankfurt. Magnificent! But I've never seen such a depressive Don before. You creep around in the dark like some poisonous old codger. What on earth do Elvira and the other women find in him?
Yes, Don Giovanni is a role you don't automatically associate with me. In fact, it wasn't a role I thought about at all when I was thinking about which operas to do. I'd said from the very beginning that I could only do it with a very special director and if I could come onstage in a wheelchair. That director was Christof Loy...
...and he had you enter on foot and you had to do a lot of boxing and fencing. What sort of man is he, your Don?
Don Giovanni is one of those strong archetypal theatrical figures from modern Europe. Like Faust or Hamlet or Homburg. He scratches at the ceiling of human existence, that's one of things he has in common with Faust. But he has much less content to offer than Faust. Don Giovanni is simply a piece of meat. He's an evil person. He's a murderer, a rapist, a liar and a deceiver. But he nevertheless has something which many people see as something worth striving for. He can live for the moment. And it was this living-for-the-moment which fascintated me. I feel that that is what makes the Don the most Mozartian of Mozart's opera characters.
What do you mean by that?
What was new in Mozart's operas – compared to the number operas of the preceding Baroque era -- was that the action was not quite so retrospective or prospective. The reflective nature of the arias, the way they looked at the situation in this way or that way, the way they looked back or forward -- all this had increasingly disappeared. Giovanni's two arias, "Fin ch‘ han dal vino" and "Metà di voi", are a good example. They're why people always say Giovanni has so little to sing. Mozart here created a very special Mozartian figure, one who captures maximum strength from the moment. It's fantastic what emotional intelligence this character has. It's an intelligence that is not concerned with content and ideas but with the Here and Now.
There aren't many roles in opera for a lyrical baritone. You've already done "Orfeo", which you'll be singing next in Munich, a few times. But also Almaviva in "Figaro" and Posa. Is there anything else on your list of roles you'd like to do?
Yes. Alban Berg's "Wozzeck" which I'll be doing for the first time next year in Zürich. Also planned – albeit not for a couple of years -- is Amfortas in "Parsifal". That's not a particularly brutal role. For a start, it's not particularly long. Also, it's wrong to sing it purely as a Heldenbariton role. Another dream for me would be "Simon Boccanegra". It's not overly heroic either. And I'd like "Guillaume Tell", too. And Hans Sachs... But I don't know if I can do that.
Why no heroes?
Because that's not me. Because I can't do them. I don't want to overtax myself.
You'll have to explain that a bit more. Everyone who has ever heard you sing knows that, from a technical point of view, you can sing absolutely anything. So what do you mean by overtax yourself? Dynamically? In terms of the tessitura or volume? Are you saying a dramatic baritone has to bellow?
Yes, exactly. But truly dramatic voices tend to be louder anyway and can sing louder for longer without causing any damage.
You're a lyrical baritone. You're a Lied singer. Does that mean you can't bellow?
That's not what I said. Of course I can sing loudly. But it's taxing. Let's put it this way: I can't sing dramatic roles without endangering my Lied singing. And that's another thing: singing a baddie is also very hard work for a lyrical voice. Baddies aren't often required to sing lyrically.
I doubt that bellowing is good for anyone, for any type of voice. Not for Heldentenöre either, as we know from experience. I believe the classification of voices into specific categories can be dangerous, for singers themselves, too, because their voices are too rigidly fixed too early. Isn't it more a question of how an individual singer approaches and shapes a role?
I disagree. This classification into different "Fach" is of enormous importance for us. Each "Fach" -- lyrical, youthful, heroic, or youthful and dramatic -- is associated with a different character. And they go to make up a wide spectrum of different vocal categories. Of course, you needn't stick to a particular Fach. But neither should you overstretch the basic temper of a particular dramatic role. It's the same with acting. There are a few exceptions, actors who can play anything. But normally, actors, like singers, have only a certain repertoire of possibilities at their disposal.
With actors I often think they're best when they simply play themselves ...
That's also a danger for singers: that they incorporate something of themselves to a role, instead of incorporating the role into themselves. I believe Diderot was right when he described the paradox of the actor. He said there is no place on the stage for an actor's own feelings. Exaggerated tears are the wrong way. A role must be played out of a certain standpoint of detachment, not as some sort of emotional exercise. It simply will not do just to go out on stage and spill out all your emotions.
There are wonderful opera singers who are hopeless at singing Lieder. But it seems to function better the other way round and a good Lied singer can switch to the opera stage. You're a good example of this. How do you explain this?
I'm not sure whether that is right. There's a lot of resentment on both sides. When I just used to sing Lieder, the opera house bosses would say: "What do we want him for? He can't sing opera." A lot of the time, it's the language which is the problem. In opera, language isn't always quite so important. But with German Lied, it's different. In German, the differentiation of vowels is extremely important. There are so many different ways of forming vowels in German. There is not just one way of singing an A or an Ä. If you do, it renders the text unintelligible. Another major misunderstanding is when Lied is performed in a way which is too entertaining, too narratively and too dramatically. Lied is not a miniature opera.
But doesn't every Lied tell a story? Isn't it a self-contained little excerpt of the outside world?
A Lied is neither narrative nor dramatic. There are of course exceptions, there are narrative Lied cycles such as "Schöne Müllerin", or dramatic ballads. But these are secondary or sub-categories. The Lied in its main form is lyrical. And as such, it can never be totally understood, or explained or self-explanatory, out of principle.
If that were the case, we can write off all poetry analysis completely.
Hm. No. Of course, a fundamental statement can be made about every poem, with lots of objective information. But I believe that the content of a Lied cannot be made understandable via words. And that's why I think this widely held notion that Lieder are miniature dramas is a load of rubbish. Lieder are lyrical structures, they bring to life different aspects....
Several aspects, simultaneously or in succession? But where is that different to telling stories?
A story has a contingency, a meaning, something self-contained, it has a beginning and an end. The Lied has none of these. That's the difference. Take "Ganymed", for example. Franz Schubert didn't understand at all at first that this was a dialogue between Zeus and Ganymed. But he didn't have to. It's still a Lied which is unbelievably moving. It's just that no-one can say why. It's not a story at all. Goethe himself said it was about "Entselbstigung" as he put it. And Schubert set it to music. And now no-one is able to say exactly what is happening here. Nevertheless, it is one of the most beautiful and important Lieder. I find it fabulous, this ambiguity.
Another example: „Waldesgespräch“, Eichendorff Lieder by Schumann. Also one of the most beautiful and important Lieder. Someone is riding through the forest, meets a girl, who turns out to be a witch. She says: "You'll never get out of this forest." That's a story, isn't it? It has a beginning and an end.
Yes, but it's a pretty silly story. (laughs)
True. But if you look at t that way, the stories are always silly. Most Lieder, pop songs too, are about falling in love and something going wrong. Sorrow, anger, hope. It's all about that...
That's not a story. Just a scene at best, even if it's a very banal one and always the same. In cinema, there would be a cut and it would all be over. That's not what it's all about, surely?
What's it about then?
It's not about being about something. That's the way Lieder are. You get a Lied and gaze into it like a crystal and you think: wow, that's amazing, it's really, really beautiful. But you don't know where the crystal starts and where it ends and how to get out of it again. You don't need to understand a crystal like that. But if a Lied is hanging like a crystal in the air in the concert hall, then everyone sees and hears something different or something similar. And everyone feels their feelings and has the impression that they have felt something true. And they're right. And I, too, am part of the audience when I sing that. I'm feel it like everyone else.
And generations of singers before you have sung this Schubert Lied. And generations of musicologists have bent over it and analysed and interpreted every note and every syllable...
And still they're all just contributing to the discussion. There is nothing definitive. Not even the composer themselves ultimately knows what they meant. This ambiguity, this lack of definition in reception, as Wittgenstein formulated it, is indispensable in art. It is not possible to understand what it's all about. And that's exactly what I experience when I go to a concert. I can remember going to lots of concerts of contemporary music and being thrilled without understanding it a bit. Recently for example, I heard a piano concerto by Pascal Dusapin. I didn't understand a thing, but I still loved it. .
Christian Gerhaher, you sing contemporary music, you sing standard repertoire, you sing Lieder, opera -- ever since Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau there has never been a singer with such versatility and charisma. You're winning prize after prize, too. You're hot property.
Oh come on, stop this. That's all totally exaggerated. I'm currently in fashion. If there is a singer who is brilliant for me, then it was Fischer-Dieskau. But his way of interpreting Lieder was also a fashion. A fashion he himself created, even better. But like any other fashion, they pass. You forget them and are perhaps reminded of them again one day. I don't know if anything ultimately remains of a singer when all is said and done. I think with Dieskau, it does. That's clear. But it's definitely not certain with me.
Christian Gerhaher, if you won't like all the praise, then don't sing so well in future. I recently noticed you do something even better than Dieskau: You really enjoy a performance. You clearly love the stage, for all your doubts and non-positivistic principles. Do you feel an adrenalin kick, a desire to be on stage?
Yes, of course. Sometimes it has to do it itself. And it really does. It must be a sort of killer instinct, an auto-erotic feeling where you suddenly know and say to yourself: “I’m brilliant!“ There is an element of that, too. Self-doubting alone won’t get you anywhere.
Do you suffer from stage fright?
Yes. Devastatingly. I’ve had some ghastly experiences. Lots of people say that a Lied recital is more difficult, because you’re alone on the stage. But I feel much more exposed on the opera stage.
Have you ever taken acting lessons?
Yes, very early in fact. The mother of my pianist had an acting group which I took part in. As a schoolboy and young student. The first play I was allowed to take part in was Edward Bond’s “The Pope’s Wedding.“ I had just one line. And I think about it frequently even now. It went: „Get up in seven hours.“ I learned an awful lot for my productions in Frankfurt and elsewhere from my friend, the actor Michael Autenrieth. What I really love is working with the language in dialogues and recitatives. In the “Fledermaus“, where I sang Eisenstein, it was divine. We had a lot of fun with it in the rehearsals. And if you can engineer it so that you can get it the rhythm down to a tee, then it’s like music. Then it can be a real joy. Part of being stage-struck, though, is that it’s not all vanity. There can be an element of self-perception, but that’s more part of the rehearsal process. Later, during the performance, it’s definitely more than just your own ego. That’s why it is important not to identify with the role, to come back to Diderot. And for me, it’s important to be aware that, as a peformer, you’re also part of the audience. You should avoid going on stage with your own feelings, but you shouldn’t avoid coming back down from the stage with your own feelings.
On your new album offers a cross-section of Schubert Lieder, familiar, unfamiliar, rare, early, late, ballads, hymns. Is there an overall concept behind it?
That’s difficult to say. Every one of the Lieder is an individual ”Nachtviolen“ – nobody knows what that is supposed to be, but everyone has an idea about it. I simply wanted to sing every song that I particularly love. I asked myself: What is essential for me to sing? It was a very long list to start with. And it took me a while to cut it down to a overall dramatic structure.
So there is a very definite order and sequence, an interlinking?
Yes, of course. There is. But the most important thing about this album is that I’m not telling a story.