German Bel Canto

Richard Wagner constantly worried that he was making excessive demands on his artists. This we know from sources including a long letter he wrote to Albert Niemann on 21 February 1861, before the Paris premiere of Tannhäuser. When the singer requested a cut, fearing he would not be able to do justice to the phrase “Pitié pour moi” (“Have pity on me”), Wagner replied: “Think only about the second finale and throw yourself into it with all your heart and soul, as though after this finale you didn’t have to sing another note.” The third act (with the “Rome Narration”) would then no longer be a problem. In similar fashion, Wagner expressed himself in letters to Mathilde Wesendonck on the difficulties of “realizing” the role of Tristan.

What about those roles occupying the no-man’s land between bass and baritone – the Dutchman, Wotan, Amfortas and, especially, Hans Sachs? They call for voices with a dark-bass foundation – voices with gravitas – that also have the energy to hold out long passages in the upper register – e’ and f’ – as well as delivering “barren stretches of sung-speech” (Ernst Bloch). Whereas most mid-19th-century composers wrote for singers with whose capabilities they were familiar, Wagner wrote not only “music of the future” but also for “singers of the future”.

The dramatic art of the great singer Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient came as a revelation to the young composer, and under its influence Wagner sought “in his vocal writing to develop a vehicle for flexibility and conviction of utterance that simulated heightened speech”. (David Breckbill, in The Wagner Compendium). In his recollections of Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, his first Tristan, Wagner described such a mode of delivery in his typically emphatic manner, though without going into detail on the questions of vocal technique he had dealt with in various early writings. Those essays dating from between 1834 and 1837 – “On German Opera”, “Pasticcio” and “On Dramatic Singing” – bear witness to the young conductor’s suffering under the conditions then prevailing in theatres. In 1872, after a long period of preparation for the first Bayreuth Festival, he could still remark: “If today I seek out singers for a passably correct performance of my own dramatic works, it is not so much the ‘scarcity of voices’ that alarms me as my fear of their having been utterly ruined by a method which excludes sound pronunciation.”

“Sound pronunciation” really means conveying the sense of the words in singing and, ultimately, exemplary performances in the purest German style! Wagner identified the difficulties facing the development of a German style in the language itself. “A language having mostly short and mute vowels, extensible only at the cost of intelligibility, hemmed-in by consonants, highly expressive but with consonants heedlessly heaped together regardless of euphony: such a tongue must necessarily behave quite differently with respect to singing than those previously mentioned.” He concluded that the Italian style of singing was not applicable to German. “If we attempt to adapt our language to this vocalism, the result will be a distorted mass of unintelligibly articulated vowels and consonants, which, without being understood as language, will only serve to obstruct and garble the singing.” The proper development of singing on the basis of the German language “can succeed only through constant practice at vocal works in which the ‘singing’ conforms entirely to German speech. This ‘singing’, in contradistinction to Italian long-drawn vocalism, will be characterized by an energetic spoken accent and therefore admirably suited to dramatic delivery.”
By “energetic spoken accent” Wagner did not mean the declamato of sung speech (Sprechgesang): “In my opera there exists no distinction between so-called ‘declaimed’ and ‘sung’ phrases, but my declamation is singing nonetheless, and my singing is declamation.” To realize this principle, he considered the most important task to be “placing singing in the correct relationship to the uniqueness of the German language...whereby it goes without saying that no actual degradation of vocal mellifluousness is allowed to occur”. The prerequisite for the “German bel canto” of which Wagner dreamt was the symbiosis of Italian vocal mellifluousness and a delivery that conveyed the true sense of the drama.

Following the composer’s death two opposing stylistic developments came about. Under the aegis of Cosima Wagner, a text-centred style of delivery evolved – the Sprechgesang that Shaw described as the “Bayreuth bark”. In contrast, a “bel canto” style developed over the course of decades in London and New York – expounded by singers such as Lilli Lehmann, Lillian Nordica, Frida Leider, Lotte Lehmann, Kirsten Flagstad, Jean de Reszke, Heinrich Knote, Lauritz Melchior, Emil Fischer, Anton van Rooy, Friedrich Schorr and Alexander Kipnis. The characteristic features of this style were tonal beauty and purity, undistorted vowel colours and the use of the so-called sonorants: liquid (“l” and “r”) and nasal (“m” and “n”). René Pape belongs in the company of the “Wagner bel canto” singers: he embeds the words in the sound – and makes word-music as Wagner intended.

Approaching Wagner

René Pape in conversation with Jürgen Kesting

At the beginning of 2010/11 Met season, under Valery Gergiev and with a largely Russian cast, you sang the title role in Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov – a part that once belonged to the likes of Adamo Didur, Fedor Chaliapin, Alexander Kipnis and Ezio Pinza, later to Boris Christoff, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Martti Talvela. As a native Dresdner, you probably learned Russian at school.

Yes. During the GDR years all schoolchildren had to learn Russian, as was also the case in the other eastern European countries. Out of spite against the “Communist Big Brother”, I totally rejected his language. Everything that came out of the Soviet Union was repugnant to me. The Red Army was impossible and inhuman in the way they acted – not only right after the war but all the way up to when they pulled out in the 1990s. That leaves an impression on a young person. But if I’d known that one day I’d be standing on the opera stage, and even singing as a soloist in Russian, I’d have probably taken my Russian lessons somewhat more seriously. At least it’s a help that I can read Cyrillic.

A famous Boris was George London, who inspired your recording Gods, Kings & Demons. London was acclaimed in Bayreuth as the Dutchman and Amfortas. Can you imagine following a similar career path to his?
George London was one of the greatest performers and at home in a wide range of repertoire. But he was more of a bass-baritone, and I’m a basso cantante, and so he could sing parts like the Dutchman, Amfortas and Scarpia, which because of my vocal type I probably will never perform on stage. As far as variety of repertoire is concerned, however, my path could well resemble London’s.

Among the few singers who worked with Wagner and also made recordings was Lilli Lehmann. A soprano celebrated as Brünnhilde and Isolde, she once said that only those who know how to sing Mozart can also sing Wagner. What’s your view?  

I can only agree with Lilli Lehmann. In interviews I’ve often said that Wagner singing should be based on the vocal technique that goes with singing Mozart – and, of course, the reverse is also true. Wagner should not be sung in a constant fortissimo and con tutta forza, while Mozart should not be purred. The key, in my opinion, is finding the right balance. Of course I also wouldn’t want to listen to a Lohengrin who sings the whole performance in the most beautiful mezzo piano of his first phrases and doesn’t bring any dynamic shading into his delivery.

When Beckmesser has “mis-sung” on the Festival Meadow and then Stolzing delivers the Prize Song, the people “softly murmur”: “Who’d have thought it? What a difference the right words and the proper delivery make!” Ever since they were first performed, Wagner’s dramatic works have provoked controversy over how they should be sung. Is there a special approach to Wagner for you?

No, not really. For me the language and treatment of the words are every bit as important as the music. That’s not only true in my mother tongue. An opera isn’t made up merely of vocalises; there’s also a libretto consisting of words. I regard conveying this dramatic text to the listener as one of the singer’s most important responsibilities onstage, and even more so in the recording studio. Here the action has to be made manifest, even visible, solely through singing. That’s especially true in performing the song repertoire.

Wagner didn’t leave behind any systematic singing method. A central tenet – formulated in Opera and Drama – holds that the model, or the style, of Italian singing cannot be adapted to the German language. It’s obvious that Rigoletto or King Philip demand a different style of delivery and characterization than Hans Sachs or Amfortas. What does this mean for you in practice?

For me there isn’t a major difference – only between the languages. As already mentioned, Lilli Lehmann was right in her assertion about the connection between Wagner and Mozart. That also means that there’s a connection between Italian and German singing.

When Wagner called for a “German bel canto”, he was referring not to the style but to the method of vocal or tone production. What does the singer have to take into account in order to realize what Wagner meant?

I think it’s easier than many people think. You simply try to sing with bel canto melodiousness, but in another language. Ultimately Italian is also not without consonants; they’re just used differently. It’s necessary to sing a sustained line, inserting the consonants to articulate the text but without allowing harshness to intrude. That’s the best way to achieve beautiful German singing.

In your recording of “Wotan’s Farewell”, it’s already audible by bar 13 that with the long sustained notes on “wohl” you let the vowel “o” at the end of the phrase continue to resonate in the liquid “l”, in other words embedding the word in the sound. What significance do you attach to the treatment of consonants, particularly the so-called sonorants “m”, “n”, “l” and “r”?  

To achieve clearer textual intelligibility, it’s important to really allow the sounding consonants at the beginning or end of words to resonate – in other words, without exaggerating, to prolong them somewhat by slightly shortening the following or preceding vowels.

One can hear that you take special care over the dynamic gradations between piano and forte, in other words the messa di voce. Does this derive from the instincts of a “bel canto” singer?

In order for the delivery not to seem one-sided or even boring, it’s very important to find dynamic gradations. This is a part of “natural speech”. The composers wrote out everything precisely in the scores. An additional benefit is that this approach allows you to conserve your voice and energy in order to tackle big roles securely.

Just as a high baritone can become a Wagner tenor (as happened with Lauritz Melchior and Ramón Vinay), a bass can become a Heldenbariton, or heroic baritone. But how? What does the singer have to beware of? What are the dangers? Wagner stipulated that a singer should never perform a role that he isn’t up to physically (as regards volume, tone and breath control), technically (concerning flexibility) and mentally (in terms of expression).

From my own vocal experience, I can only agree wholeheartedly with the master. I don’t see myself as a Heldenbariton at the moment, and I probably will never be one. But whatever Fach a singer may undertake, it really is crucial that he never starts shouting.

...Sing with the voice you have, not with the one you wish you had...

That would be the beginning of the end. Sadly, there are too many examples of singers ruining their often magnificent voices through misplaced ambition and/or bad advice.

In terms of volume, the demands of roles like the Dutchman and Daland, Sachs and Pogner are similar, but not in terms of the tessitura. Where do the particular difficulties of individual parts lie? In the exposure of the high register (Dutchman)? Does the length of a role like Sachs, more than two hours of singing, represent an extreme challenge? And what about holding out up in the high register in parts like Wotan and Sachs?

The Dutchman and Sachs are, of course, very demanding parts, the first, as you suggest, on account of the exposed high tessitura, the second on account of sheer length. To be able to get through you have to approach them very economically. You have to pace yourself very carefully so that at the end you still have enough strength left for the closing monologue, which lies in an exposed register. That’s easier said than done, as any of my colleagues will agree. A critical point is the tuning of the orchestra, which is getting higher and higher. That makes it increasingly difficult for a basso cantante to master these roles. In Wagner’s day, I believe, it was simpler. But we live in the here and now and have to cope with it. I would only recommend to every orchestra, conductor and, not least, instrument maker not to ignore this issue, which is a really important one for us singers.

Can you imagine singing Hagen or Alberich?

No. I’ll leave that to my colleagues who can do it better.

An eternal dilemma: the dream roles are frequently offered to a singer when he’s still too young or no longer young enough. Are you expecting or hoping to record Meistersinger and the Ring, or at least Walküre?

I’ve already recorded Meistersinger, the roles of the Night Watchman and Pogner. When someone offers me Sachs, I’ll decide whether I can record it or not. I’ve already recorded Das Rheingold, and Die Walküre will surely also soon be in the plans.

How does one stay young as a singer – so young that one doesn’t let things get into a routine?

Staying young is important to me. I also consider maturity on the stage very important, and routine for me isn’t necessarily a negative word. In my career I’ve learned that a certain routine can be helpful. One is very secure onstage, something that is also transmitted to one’s colleagues and sensed by the audience. Unfortunately, there’s also the other kind of routine, which consists of nothing more than the schematic, lacklustre rattling off of a part.

Do you learn from recordings? For example getting familiar with the length of a role or discovering how colleagues deal with specific technical problems?

Yes. This helps me not only to learn about the length of a part and to recognize technical problems, but also to grasp harmonic connections, phrasing and different tempi. And, not least, to hear how one should perhaps not do it. Sometimes I listen to recordings simply because I like them. Maybe one learns most by following Hans Sachs’s advice: “Do not scorn the masters.”

2/2011