With his beard and penetrating eyes, Georg Nigl looks a bit like Hugo Wolf. In rehearsal, he sings, whispers, growls—Hans Neuenfels, the 76-year-old director of Manfred Trojahn’s opera “Orest,” can barely tame the extreme moods of the baritone, and the rehearsal is viscerally exciting. At breaks, the two get together for a smoke. The premiere of the opera will take place at Zurich’s opera house on February 26. Nigl was born in Vienna in 1972 and appeared on the opera stage for the first time in a boys’ choir when he was nine years old. Meanwhile, he has become an expert in playing men on the verge of the abyss, in productions from Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” to Wolfgang Rihm’s “Jacob Lenz.” These two parts made a “Singer of the Year” out of a college drop-out in 2015.  Nigl collaborates frequently with contemporary composers, such as Rihm and Pascal Dusapin. Besides his work in opera, he also performs songs; his latest project was a compilation of Schubert’s lieder accompanied by the pianist Andreas Staier at the Wigmore Hall in London.

VAN: You were acclaimed for your performance of Papageno at the Vienna State Opera recently, but you usually play broken characters—the humiliated Wozzek in Berg, the insane Lenz in Rihm, and now Orest, who has killed his mother and is contemplating further homicide. What interests you about these characters?

Georg Nigl: When and how the break happens. It’s usually caused by the environment, the father’s deeds, society’s impact on the individual. Orest comes from a particularly bloodthirsty family. His connection to Apollo, to the superego, the God, who tells him what to do; I think there’s a link to schizophrenia. I sense in Orest an artistically inclined person overwhelmed by power, murder, and death. He wants to dream but one wouldn’t let him!

I witnessed today how you and the director, Hans Neuenfels, work on this character. He would often take a long time to think things over; you, on the other hand, react very quickly.

I have an enormous trust in him. He leads me, but I lead him, too. We’re feeling our way through the dark together, it’s less frightening this way. What Orest experiences isn’t all too pleasant. That’s why it’s necessary to have a calm partner to hold on to. I feel very well protected by him.


And you go very far in your portrayals.

I once witnessed how Bartoli was supposed to lie down on the floor during a stage rehearsal and Flimm, the director, asked her whether it’d be OK. She answered, “I’m from a new generation of singers, I can handle it.” Then I thought, well, that can be topped… I’m not only interested in the beautiful. Entertaining people isn’t an important desire that I have. A scream is a scream, that’s it, it isn’t loud singing. It’s a necessity and must be understood as such.

You put a lot of emphasis on the text.

You understand every word I sing, because singing comes from speech. With Oskar Werner or Laurence Olivier, the great actors from the ‘50s and ‘60s, it’s almost like they’re singing, because they come from a tradition of theater acting where people spoke very melodically. They had no fear of so-called “pathos” back then. It’s a pity that that’s been banned from actors’ speech—it wasn’t a bad thing, you just had to know how to do it properly. Music has an enormous power in any case, no one can escape it. And then music brings about such an iridescence of the soul that singing simply springs forth from. I don’t say, “I love you,” I sing [he sings], “I love you as you love me…” These are existential feelings, and they make singing what it is.

Why do you enjoy singing on stage so much?

I like the dust and the light. As a very young child, I was an altar boy. Maybe it has to do with this, too: standing a bit higher than the others, the focus on you. It’s sexy, there’s something to it. But what I like most is the moment in the opera when you feel completely alone and—alone—shed a tear. If you manage to make people breathe with you at this moment, you remain alone, but you’re not lonely.

You said once that your mother used to walk with you through the Augarten [a Baroque park in Vienna] when she did her errands. You would pass the boarding school for the choir boys on your way…

I didn’t know they were the choir boys. There was this intoxicating sound, like they were angels, when the windows were open in the summer during rehearsals. And then there was a fence and you weren’t allowed behind it. So I said to myself: “I want to get to the other side.” There was something forbidden and enticing about it.

Then you performed a folk song and were admitted to the choir.

I became the first star singer among the choir boys, they called me by name during recording sessions. In the old days they probably would have castrated me. OK, my father would probably have objected but then again, back in the 18th century, who knows… I could sing soprano until I turned 17 and I did so countless times, of course, in “The Magic Flute.” Actually, I became a singer because I wanted to be Papageno! And now that it did come true, I find it hilarious…

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Papageno isn’t really a broken character, is he?

He is unbelievably complex, if you get past the surface. He guards his independence and still finds what he’s been dreaming of: the experience of love. The whole tradition of the Viennese suburban theaters is in there. Schikaneder, the author of the “Magic Flute” libretto and the producer of its first premiere—he also played the role of Papageno—was more of an actor than a singer. He went to Mozart and said, “I want a blockbuster, I want flying machines, children, animals on the stage.” As Papageno you get to be the playmaker, and that’s great, for sure. Papageno, Orfeo, and Wozzek are my favorite parts. A fool in love like Romeo doesn’t interest me at all.

Did your parents support your career choice?

My father was strictly opposed to it. He always stayed opposed to it, and so I had to defend my choice with the quality of my work. He was a tailor, opera wasn’t his thing. He thought, artist—that’s not a serious profession. He was a craftsman of the highest class, and I try to live up to that.

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You said once that your voice isn’t the “red wine” type. What does that mean?

I don’t have a full, deep, dark tone. I can pull this off, but I sing a lot of rhetorically structured music rather than the great legato passages in Wagner and Verdi… This kind of singing is alien to me. But hats off to those who can do it well!

You dropped out of the university in Vienna.

Yes, I’m a professor with a special genius clause [laughs]. It was too academic for me. It’s an interesting topic: we are all very creative as children, then we go to school and are told that one plus one equals two. Well, that’s probably true. Then again, two giraffes can also be three giraffes if one of them is pregnant. I was always the student who asked that kind of question. And I wanted to play, to be on the stage, to meet people! While I was still studying, I had a few encounters with Harnoncourt and he always responded to my questions with a hundred more questions. He would say: “Mr. Nigl, you always have to paint your own picture!” Speaking of fake news… This was an eye-opener: I’m the one who’s in charge of me!

What did you learn from your teacher Hilde Zadek, who is now almost 100 years old?

She is like a mom to me—a mom, a granny, a lover. Everything I’ve become as a singer is thanks to her. She never imposed a certain technique on students, she always played with different possibilities. I became a student of hers after a competition where a listener told me, “You don’t know how to sing, call Zadek, here’s the number.” Now that I’m a teacher myself, I know this: young people are too afraid to ask.

Afraid of asking what?

Afraid to expose themselves with the question. But you have to ask questions, all thinking begins with them.

I have a stupid question about the contemporary music: Why do you put yourself through it?

[He shows a picture on his smartphone] Look, Pascal Dusapin and I, almost lovers! The beauty of new music is that there are no references yet. When a tenor sings “Die Schöne Müllerin,” 30 percent of the listeners will still have Wunderlich on their minds. New music is naked, bare, which is super interesting. When I was 21, plays by Handke and Turrini were making waves in Vienna. But if you went to the opera back then, “Wozzeck” would be the most contemporary piece. So I asked myself, “Does it have to be this way?” Maybe there is a new Mozart hiding somewhere. I’d really like to meet him! Not that I’d expect him to start writing for me immediately…

Mozart could rely upon a common musical language of his time.

Yes, languages of today can vary widely, sometimes I feel like it’s too much for me as well. I have to enter the world the composer has created. Even when we speak about Monteverdi: I have to ask myself, why are these sounds there? It’s no different with contemporary music. I work a lot with Dusapin and Rihm, because I know their musical languages. I’m trying to connect with Trojahn’s language now, too. I can hear the Viennese school in there but also Weill, Wienerlied [traditional Viennese songs in local accent], chanson, and recitative singing. Before Orest starts to remember his murder, there is a piece of music as if from the beginning of “Tatort” [a German-Austrian-Swiss TV show reminiscent of “Law and Order”], I have to ask Trojahn if that’s what he meant!

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Do composers and audiences have a good relationship in your opinion?

To some extent, the situation is quite good—where people like Rolf Liebermann, Klaus Zehelein, Alfred Wopmann or Gerard Mortier have worked with the public and given listeners a chance to get interested. The relevance of contemporary music, from the global perspective, is, of course…. pffff! But if I wanted to compare myself with Madonna, I wouldn’t even need to start thinking about whether it’s relevant or not. If we manage to bring people into the discourse, no one will get rid of us. You have to get people to acquire a taste for contemporary music, like chocolate, so that they say, “Oh, I’d be curious to listen to this.”

What if they don’t want to, not right away?

It’s important to keep on torturing people with it. You have to! Everything that’s new and tries to bring about change is seen as avant-garde at first. You have to give these pieces time, you need to be proficient enough to examine them. Then you might suddenly understand what’s so wonderful about “Die Soldaten” [by Bernd Alois Zimmermann] or “ Jakob Lenz.” When I hear something for the first time, I have no reference point either. But one can turn around the question and shoot it back at the composer…

A common complaint is that contemporary music stands no chance when it has to survive on the margins of the great classical repertoire. Should one try to leave Mozart and Verdi out of the programs, for a change?

No. I have faith in success, too. It’s awesome when people stand in line forever to see a wonderful production of “The Magic Flute.” I see the danger of the new pieces, too: many artistic directors at opera houses want to have the world premiere. Then a review is published and that’s it. But it’s not like this with “Orest”this is the fourth production in six years. ¶

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