The morning after a concert—with the Freiburger Barockorchester, in Cologne—I meet the German baritone Christian Gerhaher for an interview in a hotel lobby. We keep talking in the car on the way to the airport, and then in the terminal. A concert in the evening means that no energy can be wasted during the day. In performances, there’s a palpable sense of burden for Gerhaher, though he’s been praised by Simon Rattle and Daniel Harding and compared to Dieter Fischer-Dieskau. He describes to me how hard it was to watch and hear himself in a recent documentary.
VAN: Is it hard to stand in front of an entire orchestra and sing?
Christian Gerhaher: Yes, I don’t do it very often. I’m not used to the repertoire, either. Eight arias in one night is a lot. Communication is harder than it is with my pianist [Gerold Huber], whom I’ve known for 28 years. But this orchestra is special. There’s no conductor, but it’s easy to stay together—I don’t have to concentrate or lead on entrances and pauses. OK, Mozart can be a little rough around the edges, what with the microscopic-level tempo changes, fast passages, lively dynamic changes, and: the inexactitude of the singing. If the singer doesn’t have a monstrously loud voice, the orchestra has to dial back the volume a bit, so sometimes it can be hard to hear one another.
Does singing in front a group like this change the way you see yourself—do you feel more like the frontman of a band?
No, not really. Standing up in front of a bunch of people who are starring at you is always more or less the same. Which means that I sometimes have a hard time getting up on stage, though of course it’s often enjoyable too.
Which do you like better, the stage or the recording studio?
I like rehearsals. There’s none of the nervousness of performances, where you’re afraid of failure—the very real possibility of failure. So many things can go wrong on stage. And broadly speaking, a recording is a performance too, because there’s an audience sitting in the back of your head. That makes them stressful. A recording is also a painful process in the sense that you can only ever show your abilities at a certain moment in time; you’re showing as far as you’ve gotten with the composition at that point, even if the impression is of a complete, whole interpretation. The result arises from maximum effort, but that effort has to be understood as something that’s constantly changing. Sometimes you regret that everything is so definitive.
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Other profiles of you often focus on a certain sense of responsibility in your work, which, it seems, can also become a burden. As a professor, did you look for a sense of responsibility in the students you chose for your vocal class?
No, I never intended to pluck the students whom I wanted from a group or decide what kind of people they should become. First of all, when you teach at a university, you should teach everyone. And secondly, you simply can’t predict how a singer will turn out. A person’s approach to art is his own business. When I was teaching, I would ask my students to follow me for 45 minutes, since, as a singer, you have to develop a certain flexibility. You have to be prepared to follow the whims of conductors, directors, and the repertoire.
You don’t broach the topic of character development with your students?
For God’s sake. They’re adults. For me that would be embarrassing and deeply awkward.
What about singers who get nervous or have stage fright—do you give them tips on how to handle it?
Does the joy of your profession outweigh the fear? Or is it a calling that you weren’t really in a position to say no to?
I definitely chose it, there’s no question about that. But there are hard times—like now. A lot of people don’t understand the responsibility. You could say, Well my God, it’s just a concert. But it would be bad if I started having routine concerts, if I lumped them all together. It’s the responsibility of performers in the serious arts to make a strict distinction from entertainment in any form. Of course, we’re allowed to have fun, and work with entertaining elements, but in essence the arts need to be a reflection on the soul; and the enjoyment comes from that. You can’t lean back and think, Entertain me. It can’t be decoration, and it can’t be entertainment.
Still, I keep seeing concert presenters, especially the private ones, work with programming or presentation strategies that try to “engage” or “communicate” with audiences in a frivolous way. We need to try and avoid that. It could mean that the soil that sustains the arts in our society dries up and stops nourishing them.
Is it getting harder for you to find good gigs?
I have to say, in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, it’s better than almost anywhere else. In the US, or in some cases England, musical life is sustained exclusively by sponsoring—pure success is the most important thing.
What’s worked for the last 400 years is when you see independent, risky art as an investment, not a subsidy. That can’t happen when the aim is to entertain or achieve quick success. By pursuing that aim, private concert presenters undermine and even endanger the essential, serious work of publicly funded institutions.
Presenters will say that they’re doing Mahler as if it’s the most audacious thing, and then it’ll be Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 on the poster, and for me, that’s not anything daring. You won’t find them doing more difficult works like his Symphony No. 6 or Symphony No. 7. But every orchestra in every mid-sized city needs the freedom to program works from the modern period right up to the most radical works of today, without feeling like it needs to justify itself. By thinking long-term, you give these pieces the time they need to become a part of regular concert life.
What does that mean for contemporary music?
It means that it bothers me when someone borrows elements from entertainment, then tries to smuggle them into the good, true, beautiful art forms. The intention is to profit; to be accepted, popular. I think that’s frivolous; it’s a real danger for our musical culture. I’ll give you another example. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has a fantastic collection of modern art. But when I look at contemporary art, I have the feeling that the radical edge I expect is missing. They’ve added materials, various elements, and references—but anything that has the potential to be disturbing gets a silver lining. If something’s rusted, they’ll plate over it in gold, so that it becomes attractive for buyers. Decoration and entertainment are the main characteristics of what isn’t art. You might think that’s a typically bourgeoise or orthodox view, but I look for something existential, questioning, in art, and not something decorative.
Is Gerhaher being bourgeoise or orthodox, or is he simply speaking from the heart? Sometimes I think that when he’s talking about music he’s talking about himself as well. I imagine that he’s like this in his private life—self-doubting in service of a deep refinement. We keep talking about entertainment; I try to steer the conversation towards Mozart.
There’s a certain tendency in pop music, songwriting, arranging, to look for a way out of mass culture through the simplicity of the folk song. That’s where you see the original singer “type.”
But the folk song has developed in that it’s become continuously more refined. I don’t think that going in the opposite direction—making a song more of a folk sore than it ever was—makes any sense, that’s just nostalgia. On the other hand, David Bowie or The Cure represent mature artistic outlooks, there’s nothing missing there, but backward-looking nostalgia won’t bring art forward. The Cure are an excellent example because they started out with pieces that sounded like folk songs and as they progressed, their new stuff gained a unique kind of severity, a contour, in a way that’s far removed from a folk song.
Mozart’s arias have a strong component of entertainment, requiring finesse as an actor. When you sing them, what is your artistic experience?
Mozart made huge strides in depicting affect—I think the level of psychological nuance in his work is unmatched. The arias are more even than the expression of a diverse, highly differentiated characterization; they aren’t homogeneous in and of themselves; they’re open to multiple interpretations; things fall into place differently each time. For example, in Leporello’s “Catalogue Aria,” [“Madamina, il catalogo è questo”] it’s impossible to say who the character really is: he runs through the list of his master’s lovers ironically, derisively, and at the same time, he’s self-involved; then suddenly he’s melancholy, resigned (“Voi sapete quel fa,” “You know what he does”).
And Don Giovanni sings three arias, but all of them exceed the boundaries of what an aria was at that time: a moment where time stops, so the character can reflect. Don Giovanni doesn’t reflect though, it’s total anarchy. He lives in the moment, and the arias illustrate that. The aria “Deh, vieni alla finestra” is a surrogate aria, a fake—it’s just a collection of experiences with his earlier affairs and has nothing to do with the situation at hand.
The other two arias don’t depict reflection either, they move the plot forward. In the “Champagne Aria,” where he invites people to a feast at his castle, he’s not imagining how things could be different. It’s the embodiment of a moment. It’s the same with “Metà di voi qua vadano,” which isn’t even considered an aria anymore, since it doesn’t have any kind of reflection on the past or the future, again Mozart uses it to bring the plot forward in that moment. Don Giovanni is disguised as Leporello and he’s turning the guests against him. That moment is full of such agility and comedy.
Isn’t it entertaining, too?
No, because entertainment is escapist. But Mozart doesn’t work within a happily-ever-after formula; in fact, he puts incredible weight on the most problematic things.
Is there modern or contemporary music that has an equivalent energy to Mozart’s in your opinion?
That’s hard for me to say. I can’t even say that I understand Mozart, although many people seem to think that I might. I don’t understand him to this day. But I don’t want to talk about understanding. I often sing music that has this perception of being disturbing, unpleasant, ugly-sounding, people sigh when they hear it. And with this music I’ll have the same moment of understanding that I have with a Mozart aria. Schoenberg’s “Book of the Hanging Gardens,” for example. It’s just as believable as Mozart—or maybe just as enigmatic.
Sometimes I think that even people with incredible experience as listeners and excellent taste are going too far when they judge a piece after the first time they hear it. We should try to maintain a stronger sense of wonder in the face of the possibilities and contents of art. Wonder is antithetical to set-in-stone judgements. Although maybe these judgments are a necessary phase before true enthusiasm can take shape. ¶
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