Andreas Scholl is one of the best-known German countertenors. His popstar potential can be measured by the fact that he was the first countertenor to be a guest at Last night of the Proms and on a few late-night talk shows. He’s played a key role in shaping the countertenor renaissance of the last 30 years. Loved and valued worldwide for his unique voice and soulful music-making, he’s now sharing his knowledge as both a teacher and a conductor. 

I reached Andreas at his home in Kiedrich, less than an hour outside of Frankfurt. In a video call, we spoke about what Bach means for him, and why letting ourselves be affected by music—and the fascinating androgyny of countertenor music in particular—makes us better people. 

VAN: What excites you about conducting?

Andreas Scholl: It’s a luxury. Of course, people aren’t letting me conduct because I’m some great conductor—it’s because it’s a curiosity: How will he do it? I stand for something in how I see and sing Bach; can I convey something of that with an ensemble? Can I make that audible?

My first project was two Bach cantatas: “Himmelskönig, sei willkommen” (BWV 182) and “Herr gehe nicht ins Gericht” (BWV 105). Initially, it was a huge disillusionment. I think all singers believe they can also conduct. Especially if you’re halfway decent at breath control, technical things in Baroque music—like an upbeat and so on—are relatively easy to access. But then I realized very quickly, “Wow, this is a huge challenge.” It’s very complex, especially with Bach. There’s more than just the upper voice and the bass; there’s so much going on in the middle voices. 

How do you draw on your experience as a singer when working on a piece as a conductor?

As a singer, you develop your own convictions over the years. Some conductors come to the rehearsal two days before the concert and say, “I’d like to have these embellishments here, and for you to hold the fermata like this.” It confuses more than it helps. As a singer, you often go on a sort of autopilot, even in the concert. I’ve talked about this a lot with other conductors, especially Ton Koopman. He said, “As a conductor, you always want your soloists to be happy; you don’t want to unsettle them. If you insist, and you notice that they’re trying really hard but it’s not working, you’d better say: ‘Leave it as it was.’ Otherwise, in the end, it damages the whole performance.”

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What’s important to you as a conductor?

I’ve done the “St. John Passion” with Philippe Herreweghe, with René Jacobs, with Sigiswald Kuijken, with Ton Koopman… With Sigiswald, I was sitting there and suddenly heard things in the strings that I hadn’t noticed before. It all comes from the violin. My first “St. John” with René Jacobs was like an opera; it went completely attacca. I thought it was brilliant. Now that I’m preparing the piece, I see it’s composed exactly like that, of course. The transitions are very clear. I’ve observed a lot of conductors make tempo changes, [but] it actually has to be one tempo. The Evangelist can accelerate, but then the chorus will pick up the pace, and so on.

René Jacobs did it like a hunt. At the end, there’s this chorale, “Ach Herr lass dein lieb Engelein,” which represents the resolution. This is the catharsis. Everyone goes out and you’re just exhausted. That’s written in the piece. This approach of, Now the aria is over, let’s turn the page, doesn’t work for me. René Jacobs stood there before the concert and said, “You must sing and play as if your life depends on it.” Fifteen minutes later, he was drenched with sweat, but his face had a real fanaticism and enthusiasm. You follow his eyes and face and the pulse is clear. Sometimes, on a human level, it’s a bit difficult, because this fanaticism, this obsession with music is so strong. Many conductors have that. 

Do you take a similar stance with your musicians?

If the chorale is serving as a commentary, each and every singer in the choir and every colla parte player in the orchestra has to think, wish, and act out the text. It’s not a question of reliving it; you don’t have to be religious to sing religious music, but you do have to have that belief in that moment. The chorale from the “Christmas Oratorio,” for example, “Wie soll ich dich empfangen und wie begegn‘ ich dir?” There’s this miracle of: Something incredible is happening here. It’s unbelievable. And if I sing about it, then this greatness and this incomprehensibility has to come through in the sound and in our faces. 

Of course, I have a much more direct connection to the choir and to the soloists, because that’s the language they always speak. However, if an orchestra has previously worked in similar settings, then it’s not unusual for them, either. Anyone who has heard a passion in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church has suffered, and was grateful at the end that Jesus gave his life for us. That’s the theology that ties it all together and that needs to be communicated. Whether it’s a modern orchestra and countertenor or an alto and a baroque orchestra is irrelevant. 

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In an interview you gave when you became a professor at the Mozarteum, you said that countertenor singing is a metaphor for humanity. What did you mean by that?

I was inspired by a book by Dominique Fernandez, Porporino, or the Secrets of Naples. It’s the fictional biography of a castrato. There’s a scene between Mozart and the young Porporino where the question comes up: Why do people run to the opera and want so badly to hear men sing the most heroic roles? The cliché at the time is Caesar as a bass or, later, the heroic tenor: The longer you can hold a high C, the more masculine you are. It’s a cult of manliness as measured by strength. In singing, the countertenor can’t keep up with the tenors and baritones. Maybe the castrati could, we don’t know exactly how they sounded, but there’s this inherent contrast. And Porporino says, “It’s the desire to be human that we want to see onstage.” 

We all know of our moments in which we repress part of our personhood, because we worry too much. If I react like this now, how will it be interpreted? And it’s often very simple, positive impulses that I want to live out. I’m happy to see someone and want to show my affection. But if he’s a man, how long can I hug him? Neither sex is living out their full potential. This is how the castrato lives out being human onstage. And that can trigger us, touch us to the core, if we don’t reject it. 

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How do you see the development of countertenors in the last 30 years? 

The competition among countertenors has become much greater. Many who got by as countertenors—if you can call it that—in the ’90s would find it difficult to do so today. The level has risen sharply. Singing the notes cleanly is not enough. It’s about the artist’s personality, about portraying and embodying a role. People don’t just want an angelic, ethereal sound; as my teacher Richard says, “Even as a countertenor, you have to sing with balls.” There is no such thing as a universal countertenor, anymore than there is such a thing as a soprano who sings everything from Wagner to Guillaume de Machaut. We have specializations now. 

At the same time, it’s important to try to remain universal, to be open-minded and have as wide a repertoire as possible. Virtuoso castrato arias with coloratura and vocal acrobatics are just one aspect of baroque singing. There’s not only John Dowland’s lute songs, or just Italian early baroque with lighter, agile voices. There are a lot of categories. We now clearly have countertenors with soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto ranges, and a development towards both lyrical and more dramatic fachs.

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What tenets are most important to you when teaching? 

I always say to my students: “Don’t artificially castrate your voices to conform to an ideal sound. Use what’s in your voice to the max to represent and embody what you’re singing.” 

You can’t expect anyone to go through the years of meticulous training that castrati received, but I also see a greater sense of impatience from students today, which is also due to the short lifespan of social media. You’ve barely finished your first semester and you already need to post videos of yourself on YouTube. It’s important to mature at a calmer pace. When I studied at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, I had so much enthusiasm and joy over the fact that I didn’t have to prove myself to anyone. That’s why I was able to develop as I did. If I’m already living as a quasi-professional, the development of the voice is actually much slower. It’s best done in an environment where you can experiment without pressure. This acceleration in the university system doesn’t take artistic development at all into account. The Bologna system was also introduced in Basel, and it squeezes music studies into the same corset as, say, economics. The Schola Cantorum has moved away from its foundation and origins. 

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For you, what is a concert ultimately about? 

Transformation. People should leave a hall different from when they entered. This happens through experiencing something collectively, not by consuming what is happening onstage. The concert is a ritual, a sacred, spiritual ritual. It doesn’t have to be Christian or belong to any religion; when we listen to Bach, the shared experience is communion with Bach. Something happens to us. The simplest effect: music as a distraction. “Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.” As long as the music is playing, everything is fine. In the context of something like the “St. Matthew Passion” and its exploration of death and suffering, I can become so emotionally affected that I’m brought to tears. And that means that music has removed a barrier. I become permeable. All the people who leave the hall take that energy with them and spread it out through society. That’s why a loss of culture is risky in times like a pandemic. ¶

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