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I don’t think I’m alone in thinking of the word “lieder” when I hear the name Christian Gerhaher mentioned. To say that he’s got an extensive back catalogue of recordings is an understatement, and on the 16th of November he’s releasing another one of early-Romantic operatic repertoire: “Romantische Arien” with the The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. We’ll find Schubert and Schumann alongside Weber and Nicolai – as well as two excerpts from Wagner’s "Tannhäuser". It was, incidentally, in “Tannhäuser” where yours truly first heard Christian at the Royal Opera House in 2010.

Operafocus met the acclaimed baritone at the Oslo opera house, the day before one of his lieder recitals, this time exclusively of Schubert. We spoke about lieder, opera, singing and of course the upcoming album.

Why did you choose to do an all-Schubert recital?   

- Singing German language-based songs, there are quite a lot of choices of composers but I have three favourites; these are Schubert, Schumann and Mahler. Schubert has composed more songs than anyone else did and the quality is fabulous and he was practically the inventor of the art song. So if you are singing German language-based art songs, or lied, you can't hide from singing Schubert. Not only because it’s necessary but also because of the special beauty of his music and because of this special variety of styles.

- The recital will show Schubert’s many styles fabulously. For example, the last group of songs lasting twenty minutes has many styles in a very compact place and will start with “Wehmut”, which is of a recitative-based, all-declamatory style of which we don't find many examples in Schubert's work. “Wehmut” is followed by “Der Strom”, which has very, very advanced piano music and sounds like a Schumann-song. Then comes one very simple song, “Der Hirt”, which is practically never done and is related to the last song of this group, “Der Sänger am Felsen”. They’re two songs which are very easy in their composition, that are strophic songs but with a piano introduction, that is like a reminder of Scarlatti sonatas. 

- Then you have the next song, “Schiffers an die Dioskuren”. This is a style also a little bit declamatory like the first “Wehmut” but it´s very advanced harmonically as well as melodically. Then a very seldom performed song, “Nachtgesang”, very much related to the Goethe-Nachtlieder. You can go on through the other three blocks of the programme and find various styles – not only the “Winterreise”-,  “Schwanengesang”- or the “Mullerin” style. He was really the genius of German art song, so one can't hide being a singer of art songs by not doing Schubert. It’s just impossible. 


You’re releasing an album, that I’ve had the pleasure of getting an advanced copy of, featuring early romantic arias. I have to say that I hadn’t heard most of these before…

- Me too! he shoots in. – You’re right, there are practically no well-known pieces apart from the two from “Tannhäuser”. 

Why these choices? 

- It’s difficult to make an aria album as a singer. What I definitely didn't want, and the first idea of making such an album came about around 2004, was to make a compilation of arias to show off or to present myself in front of a head of music. This was, for me, to be honest, too boring. The other thing is what do I really do best? Sing in German.

- There are so many arias that I already knew by Schubert, and also others, which are really near to me. I wanted to do this and the idea was how to combine it all. The theme was to have early romantic music until “Tannhäuser”, which is the end of the early Wagner, combined with the German language and then you have a special field of possibilities.


- The speciality of this time in history would be Lortzning, Marschner and Otto Nicolai, of whom we chose one aria, who were practically the main composers of the time of the Deutsche Spiel-Oper. I already knew this music a little bit and I came to know it even better – but I must say that this music is nothing for me.

- I think these composers had dramatic ideas, as for example dark subjects like “Der Vampyre” by Marschner. Practically all of them had medieval subjects with odd, ghostly and scary themes. In these operas those ideas are combined with old-fashioned, well-known and formed opera work with recitative and arias in Rossini or Donizetti style – because Italian opera was a big influence at this time in Germany and Austria. However, it doesn't work if you have a theme that is not like normal themes of nobility or myths, but odd themes like a vampire.

- Imagine you have a vampire aria. It’s an opening aria and the recitative is OK. It’s free and you think, “OK, this is nice! It’s astonishing and powerful…” – and then comes an aria in this formal tradition like Rossini or Donizetti which you have combined with this text of blood and violence, which is a bit ridiculous!

- So I think that the thing then was either to prepare an advanced romantic opera style as Schubert did, a little bit related to the early Verdi which has special new forms of light ensembles or aria blocks.  Or it was to develop - and this is the other possibility that was interestingly done and was the winner – a new kind of declamation.

As we all know, Wagner did.

- But, at the same time as Wagner, Schumann invented another kind of declamation. Schumann’s idea was to have a lot of changing emotions. Any note could make a reverse feeling and could show you a very different emotion. It’s very compact music and is working from tone to tone.  This specific pattern it is practically the opposite of Wagner, which was showing a new kind of emotional intensity. It's a different way of using the text, which resulted in very, very long operas!


Being both a lieder singer as well as doing opera, do you approach them technically in a different way? 

- Lieder and opera is different technically, but then so is singing Mahler to Schubert or Schoenberg from Schumann. The main difference is the question of colouring. When you are working together with an orchestra, which is polychrome, you don’t have many possibilities as a singer to show different colours with the same effect and result. You can, but you must handle it very carefully. The main possibility of interpretation for a singer when working together with an orchestra is the dynamic variation.

- When you are working together with a piano, which is a monochrome instrument, you can use more dynamically effective colouring. For example, if you are singing more brightly together with the piano, it can give the feeling of being softer and more piano. The colouring is the most important difference to when you are singing lieder with piano.

- Another thing is that only very few opera roles last ninety minutes, as a song recital does. No opera that I am doing at least, maybe Hans Sachs is bigger than eighty or ninety minutes. This is really a lot of stuff. If you sing with the same potency and power as you are doing in an opera, you would probably get into some problems during a song recital. For example, tomorrow’s programme is full of technical issues. For instance, it´s overall very high because Schubert mainly wrote for the tenor voice. You can't transpose it too low because it will be drowned by the piano, the sound is murmuring and is not brilliant any more.

- In short, the colouring and economics are a bit different.      

Did you say that you are doing Hans Sachs?   

- No, no I’m not. I was just mentioning it as for the length. Most opera roles are maybe an hour or less but seldom more than an hour. “Tristan und Isolde” is huge, but even “Salome” is not more than an hour. “Wozzeck” is merely forty minutes!

Could you see yourself doing Hans Sachs in the future? 

- The role is very interesting, I think, but I'm a lyrical singer, which means I have a voice that lends itself to singing lyrical and not so much to a character part as I would need for the role of Beckmesser. Sachs is a rather lyric than a heroic part but it is an enormous part and has certain difficulties in terms of loudness and range. If you are a bass or bass-baritone you have problems with the last scene to get through the high parts and as a lyric baritone you may have to push a lot for the low parts. 

- I don't know, I would like to do it but not in the next fifteen years – and even then I'm not sure. Maybe at the end of my career if a possibility arises, but if it doesn’t then that’s OK. It's not necessary for me to do it.


You’ve done some very critically acclaimed Wolframs around the world and next year I see you’re doing Verdi’s “Don Carlo”. Would you say you have a preference in terms of language when you do opera? 

- “Don Carlo” is an attempt. I sometimes sing in Italian, for instance “Cosi fan Tutte” and “Le nozze di Figaro” and will be doing “Don Giovanni”, but I don't know if my technique is really appropriate to sing Italian operas like Verdi. I have some ideas if I do well. Opera houses have expressed some ideas but I will have to see how well I do.

- What I'm very interested in is now French repertoire. I'm so fascinated by Debussy and by "Pelléas et Mélisande". His roles are just marvellous. Maybe one advantage of singing French is that this language is very complicated but it is also very, very regulated. It doesn't allow some words, doesn't allow some possibilities of translation and things like that. It means that you don’t have as many possibilities of pronunciation as you do in other languages, like German or English.

- When I was teaching I noticed that the native German speaking students were practically unable to sing proper German, nearly in the same way as the foreigners. This means that to sing in your own language, especially in German but also in English, you must know the rules. The most important thing you have to know is that the pronunciation rules in singing is different to the pronunciation rules for speakers. You can’t sing as you speak because it sounds too harsh and you have to, in a way, re-translate from heard language to an understood singing language. If, for example someone is singing...

             Listen to Gerhaher illustrate

- This is, technically, even more complicated to sing because you have to make a little diphthong which is not real dialect. You have to flatten the vowel. That means, in German and English, if you're asking any English singer how to pronounce something everyone will tell you differently. This makes it difficult. In French it's not that common to get so many different versions.

- The French art songs, the melodie, is very fascinating to me. I’ll try to get a lot of this into my repertoire in the next years.

I read that you’ve done master classes with, amongst others, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. How would you say he influenced you as a singer?

I adopted his technique when I was a student and I think to imitate is not the worst way to learn to sing if the imitated object is not the worst. There are many singers who are saying Fischer-Dieskau is awful, but I can't take those singers seriously. Fischer-Dieskau was one of the greatest artists of the last century and, in my opinion, maybe the greatest singer of all. Not because of the particular beauty of his voice but because of everything he did. His work is huge, immense and incomparable to any other singer. Nobody could do what he did and this is why he's the greatest singer of all – even more so than Wunderlich or Caruso.  He's still my idol and I am a kind of epigon: a follower of less quality.

- He had brightness and lightness of the voice and both is at present a little bit in danger of being destroyed, which is a shame. Now you get a lot of darkened, big and meaty voices which gives the impression of lots of testosterone and virility. This is not my kind of singing. Singing for me is not a way to show off masculinity, it's a coming together of ideas and sensuality.

Some, especially dramatic, singers adopt the Melocchi method of lowering the larynx… 

- Yes! This is technically certainly not my preference. You put your voice in a kind of jail and this jail makes it too dark to project. Then you have to press your voice into a mask which makes the voice very bright but is not in any real condition to produce colours and to produce highly dynamic variations. Also, it's not possible any more to produce one very important thing - especially for the male voices; a floating and light combination of high and low register. 

- The most important thing to me is to project in a natural way and not by forcing the voice into a mask. This word mask is really awful. If I may show you what I mean...

             Listen to Gerhaher illustrate



I noticed from your biography that you’re educated as a doctor? Would you say you’re particularly cerebral in your way of approaching music? 

- No. Well… not consciously. Maybe subconsciously sometimes. What I’ve learned from that is to not look for one truth. This is also very important when it comes to singing because there are teachers who pretend to know how it physically works to produce a tone, with the knowledge of some muscles. Being honest, they didn't talk to any of these muscles, they didn't ask how they work and how exactly in the combination with this other muscle it creates sound. How can anyone tell me how it really works to produce a tone? It's not possible and most importantly: it’s not of interest.

- This is my real belief, that an idea of sound is the most important thing. Not the way it works to produce sound, which is mostly not derived from a literature intuited sound but vocalised sound. It's a reduction of complexity and it's understandable that complex situations are complicated for people to handle. The more complex a situation is the more unbearable it becomes. Reducing the complexity and simplifying complex situations doesn't produce an intuitive sound.

Do you teach?

- I used to. When I studied medicine I wasn't allowed to study music at the same time, which is a pity. I tried to get some knowledge I didn't get as a student and then I was teaching for four years in Munich. This was very important for me, as it was a little bit like finishing a diploma in singing. I now want to go back to teaching, especially the interpretation of lieder.

What was your teaching method? 

- It would depend on how they sang. My opinion is that technique is not anything methodically prior to interpretations. Any technical possibilities derive at first from musical ideas and then maybe they develop and grow more potent and versatile. The main thing, in my opinion, is to follow the musical interpretation, also technically. The technique is dependent on the musical idea and not the opposite.

You don’t come from a musical background, so what turned you onto singing? 

- Per chance! I was learning violin as a pupil and my ideas were bigger than my opportunities, he laughs.

- Then a friend of mine pushed me into a choir because of the nice girls there and I immediately detected some kind of ability that felt very near to me. I immediately got interested – and not only to show myself off. I detected the coincidence of idea and the sensitivity of sensual feeling. The coming together of body and imagination and this is a wonderful feeling – if it works – but to be honest… the more I sing and the more experience I get, the more seldom it happens to be really happy on stage.

“Romantische Arien” is released today, November 16th. Amazon.de