The voices of singers tend to call forth abstract, flowery adjectives. But when you hear the baritone Matthias Goerne, it’s easy to point out the specific moments that distinguish his art. As Wotan from Wagner’s “Ring,” he sings about the castle of the gods as if it were a tender memory from Schubert’s “Winterreise.” In Hanns Eisler’s song “Der Sohn II,” he lends a flat, cynical timbre to a text about a child’s hunger that makes the listener’s stomach ache. Goerne was born in 1967 in Weimar—what was then East Germany. At our meeting in his dressing room in the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, he wore jeans with a blue and white striped shirt, spoke with a pronounced sophistication, and switched to English from time to time if he gathered from my facial expression that I hadn’t understood an expression or term.
VAN: You often sing alongside famous pianists: Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Yuja Wang, Daniil Trifonov. Is there a specific reason why?
Matthias Goerne: The reason is that they simply play the piano better. Their technical approach is completely different.
An experienced accompanist surely makes up for the technique with other qualities.
You can’t compensate for lack of technique. Of course, musicality and creativity are important, but there are pieces that the average accompanist only manages through tricks. The framework for working is more tense and narrow. Even the word “accompanying” isn’t really correct: I expect a pianist to read the score and to play, and that we come together on the basis of similar musical tastes and disposition. A pianist shouldn’t be behind the singer, they shouldn’t be listening to me and then adjusting to me with that delay.
You expect a pianist to have their own interpretation.
Absolutely, and solo pianists are much better suited to making their own mark on a piece.
In 2017, you recorded the role of Wotan in Wagner’s “Ring” with Jaap van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. It sometimes sounds like you’re singing an intimate lied.
Of course. Just because it’s Wotan, doesn’t mean you have to sing in a monochrome fortissimo the entire time.
Sure, but you still hear that a lot.
It can slip into that quite easily if the orchestra and conductor are too loud. You get to a point where the body and the diaphragm—the focus on a certain physical area of resonance—only allow a single color. And everybody just gets used to it.
In Wotan’s Farewell [at the end of “Walküre”], there’s a wonderfully lyrical middle section. The score says pianissimo. What does that mean? Not that each individual player is pianissimo, but that the total sound of all one hundred musicians needs to be pianissimo.
Opera is theater, and 90 percent of its effectiveness depends on the beauty of the singers’ voices and whether you can understand what they’re saying. The orchestra has to create a soundscape where the voice can be heard in different facets. You can’t always be a trumpet, which bores its way through the orchestra’s sound with steel. I also don’t believe that Wagner thought to himself, “I’m writing for a kind of voice which only four people in the world have right now.” That can’t be right.
Were you happy that the “Ring” with van Zweden wasn’t staged?
Yes. It was my first time doing Wotan, so it was fantastic that I could concentrate completely on the music, the language, and the structure.
In one 2011 interview, you said that “between the unfettered Regietheater madness on the one hand, and the old moth-ridden productions on the other, there’s barely anything sensible happening in opera.” What makes a “sensible” production?
A sensible production is one that manages to justify the importance of the piece in our time; that reveals its spiritual, intellectual core; that says something to us. The relationships between the characters, the humanity, the symbiosis of acting, is what really interests people.
But most of what you see in the theater is a totally outdated, antiquated kind of “performance,” which has next to nothing to do with theater. There are these one-size-fits-all operatic gestures, a bit of costume, makeup, lights and dry ice. Then the music starts and everybody says, “This is how an opera should be.” I don’t think so. But I don’t want the other extreme either, where the stage set for “Tosca” is just a dishwasher, a grill, and maybe a sofa. You end up with the impression that the director doesn’t actually think the opera he’s directing is any good.
Most operas are so old now. Many operas—in my view at least—no longer have enough substance for the questions posed by our society.
“Tosca.” The music is unbelievable, but it’s rare that the theater is convincing.
What should we do with such operas?
Don’t play them. There’s so much that shouldn’t be played. It would be glorious if we could all decide together not to play some operas for 25 years. A new generation of directors would have the chance to engage with them without having ever seen them live.
You mentioned stereotypical operatic gestures. How do you avoid making them?
In the end, only with a good director. But it’s so often the case that you sing in bad productions. And then it’s better to do much less: no gestures, just a certain demeanor. I’ll stand very upright, and immerse myself in the music and the character. This [raises his hands in front of his face] or this [reaches out with his right arm] says nothing. I find it very embarrassing. It’s an incredibly stupid form of complacency.
Another opera cliché you avoid is the exaggeration of consonants at the end of words. That makes a surprisingly big difference for the listener.
Music is, after all, an extension of speech. It is first and foremost characterized by sound, and not by articulation or exaggerated speech. Of course it’s important to speak clearly, but according to the phrase. In a song like Schubert’s “Meeresstille,” which is soft and flat like throughout, an over-pronounced T sounds like a fortissimo.
I have to trust that the sense of the word, and of the sentence, is still there even when you don’t hear the T so clearly. You understood the sentence before it. I just think the consonants should be in keeping with the line and color of the music. If a consonant has the effect of a sudden percussion hit, it’s not right.
Do you like to hear your own recorded voice?
Sure, I know exactly how it should sound on a recording, and I’m satisfied when it sounds the way I’d imagined. There are of course things where I’ll think: I could have refined that more, it’s not 100 percent there. But essentially it’s a prerequisite for your development as a singer and an artist to love your own voice, and to know it well. I can’t comprehend when singers say, “I don’t like to listen to recordings of myself.” Well, if that’s really the case, then there’s something wrong with the singing.
Doesn’t that have something to do with the fact that your voice sounds different inside your own head?
There’s a discrepancy there of course, but you have to learn: if it sounds this way to you on the inside, then it sounds that way on the outside. You practice, make a lot of recordings, and at some point develop a technique for it. It’s like a sensor that has to be calibrated: then I know what it feels like, how it sounds to me, and how it sounds for others.
You recorded four CDs in 2017, including Wotan and some of Bach’s Cantatas for bass. How do you go from one to the other?
It’s a question of time. When I sing Wotan, the muscles in my vocal cords are very strong. In order to change the muscular structure, I need to stop singing for five days, and to speak less. After that, something light, like a Bach cantata, is good—something which doesn’t go too low or too high, but which meets the voice with a certain suppleness.
How do you rate the strengths and weaknesses of the younger generation of singers?
Time and again, there are excellent people who are artistically strong and enjoy long careers. Then there are plenty of serious talents who only sing for a relatively short time. I’m concerned by that—they have a phenomenal physical disposition, are discovered, sing concerts and after six or seven years don’t have a voice anymore.
Why is that?
Their voices erode. They build their careers the wrong way or have the wrong motivations, want to be famous or to be perceived as glamorous. You risk a lot going into certain repertoire with a voice that’s not yet structured and resilient enough. You sing it very well at first, and then you’re constantly asked to sing the same repertoire, and it leads to a real dead end. Then the only way is to start all over.
When a rare natural talent has a short professional half life, then I find they are taking an irresponsible approach to their gifts. You can’t always blame the managers or conductors or theater directors—these are young adults, not children. They need to know the risks; they need to want to know them.
I’ve been singing for 30 years now. I think that’s because I know when to be careful. It would become complicated at some point to sing lieder if I sang Wotan every month. The dose makes the poison.
You’ve recorded a number of pieces by Hanns Eisler. Did you view him in any special way, growing up in East Germany?
No, it’s just that you’re more likely to have heard of him. I came across his music as a student in the library and found it interesting that he’d written so many lieder. It seemed important to him that he be understood in a direct, concrete way. It reminded me of Schubert, who died very young and who wrote over 600 songs—they had the same unconditional desire to express themselves in language. Through his songs, I got a sense of the way Eisler thought.
Are there any lieder composers who don’t really appeal to you?
Brahms for example: I recorded a Brahms CD, and find a lot of things wonderful. But the lyrics he used are in large part meaningless. The music is phenomenal, but the text can be very sentimental. Nah, nobody needs that. I mean, I’m ambivalent: you have the essential works, like the “Lieder nach Gedichten von Heinrich Heine” and “Vier ernste Gesänge,” and then there’s so much that’s neither here nor there. ¶