Who or what was the biggest musical influence in your life?
I grew up in a family where my mother played the piano and made me join the church choir as a child. I decided at a young age that I would like to learn violin in as well, and it gradually dawned on me that music was my life so I went to study both the violin and voice in Würzburg and later at Juilliard in New York City. However the ultimate influence, above all else, on my eventual career choice and musical life was and is the music of Richard Wagner, specifically Parsifal, which in the end became part of my existence in more ways than one.
What made you want to pursue a career in opera?
By chance, I heard a recording of Don Carlo with Plácido Domingo and Montserrat Caballé on the radio, and it moved me so much that from that moment I wanted to become a tenor. Years later I met Domingo in Bayreuth and told him that he was to blame for my becoming a singer. He, surprised and amused, replied quickly: ‘Then I am proud that I am guilty!'
If you had to single out three career-defining moments what would they be and why?
1. I was incredibly lucky to start straight at the top, as a beginner with Daniel Barenboim. So I was instantly singing in live radio performances, CD recordings, television and so on, not aware of the huge responsibility and the pressure. As a beginner, you have no idea what this profession is like and how the ‘performance' machine can use and abuse you. I also think many people in the business do not fully understand singers' needs, and this is part of the reason that so many of us lose their way. I was fortunate and survived.
2. My most unfortunate career-defining moment was when I sang Parsifal in Bayreuth, where I had already made successful appearances as Walther von Stolzing and Erik. I argued with the director, Christoph Schlingensief, who insisted on his own, very peculiar and solipsistic vision of the piece. His production was a mishmash of satanic rituals, orgies, garbage and hundreds of video projections, while I tried as much as I could to keep to Wagner's intentions. The German media, which solely advocates provocative opera productions, criticised me harshly for arguing with Schlingensief. I was too naïve at the time to calculate what the consequences of disagreeing with him might be. I'm still proud of what I did, and that I stood up for Wagner's music, but in the end I lost not only the love of my life - Katharina Wagner - but also my conviction of the good in most people, which I assumed prevailing in my early life. Schlingensief died of cancer in 2010. That whole period was very unhappy.
3. I'm not interested in a just ‘glamorous' career. My main aim has always been to sing well, and to meet the demands of the composer, whose works I am interpreting. So I am always extremely happy to have the opportunity to work at the Royal Opera House as I believe it is the most wonderful of all opera houses. It is the most civilised, ambitious and warm-hearted place I have worked at, and I am delighted that I have been able to sing three times here, in Fidelio (twice) and in Der Fliegender Holländer. For me, working at the Royal Opera House has been career-defining, as here I am in an organisation that meets my expectations as to how opera should work. Wolfgang Wagner tried to create a similar ambience (though with less English sophistication!) at Bayreuth, but following his death things are no longer the same.
You are about to sing the role of the Drum Major in Wozzeck for The Royal Opera. How difficult is it to make your mark when the character has less ‘stage time' than Marie and Wozzeck?
Look, I am only the Drum Major…no more. Whether I'm singing Tannhäuser or Florestan or Siegmund is not the issue. Here I am a drunk, macho, vulgar He-Man and it's fun. I try to be as good as I can, but opera is not a platform to compete (not since Mozart!) – it's to deliver a message, which the composer wants to convey. I am just a little cog in the wheel in this, and here I'm a naughty one! It's challenging because it's excessive.
Some people see Wozzeck as being a difficult work; what would you say to persuade people to come and experience it in the theatre?
It is actually a very romantic, sad opera with a very strong plot. As we advance into times where many in society suffer from poverty and exploitation, this opera becomes more and more relevant to contemporary life. Abuse of people, sometimes demonstrated in mob rule, blackmailing and so on, increases as an economic situation worsens, so the situation of Wozzeck isn't so different to some of the things going on at the moment. Let's hope Wozzeck stays an opera for now – it's a horror story, and one wouldn't wish the hero's fate on anyone! But I guess today it might still be an incentive to go…to get goosebumps!
Simon Keenlyside has sung the title role many times, and Karita Mattila is singing Marie for the first time. What's it been like working with them both on this revival?
Simon and I have not worked together before. He comes across as a very decent, nice person with no vanity and is very likeable, so it's easy to work with him. Karita I have known forever, as we also performed in Fidelio together at Covent Garden when I made my debut here in 2007. She is a perfectionist and tries to get every note for the role of Marie right, which must be quite a chore. She is a very hard worker and a hundred per cent reliable – a total professional. I love working with her as well. The conductor, Mark Elder, also works incredibly hard to perform the piece as it is written. The high standards of all the artists involved in this production and the very detailed and pointed staging by Keith Warner contribute to what makes this Wozzeck special. Seeing Keith again after our time in Bayreuth some years ago is a joy.
What's next on the horizon?
I have a recital in Moscow with my wonderful pianist Simeon Skigin. Shameless as I am, I recommend a recording of Liszt Lieder that we have just released. After that, I will be working very hard to learn two new operas for next year. The first is a Braunfels opera in Bonn, which I accepted because it has a very talented German director Jürgen Müller whom I wanted to work with, and the second is Die Soldaten in Munich with Petrenko conducting. Montreal will later see me as Samson, which I did very successfully in Berlin two years ago.
You're stranded on a desert island but are allowed one musical score. Which would you take with you and why?
Since I have an iPad where basically all scores fit in, I would bring my iPad – assuming I have solar panels with me! However, if I had to choose a hard copy, I'd pick Wagner – probably Tristan und Isolde, the saddest story of them all. Here, love is exposed as a hormonal trick (in this case a love potion) played on Tristan and Isolde. An understanding of love in the deeper sense comes with wisdom and age (this is shown in the case of King Marke), but the younger characters don't understand much of this yet. I believe in the one, true love, and thus I assure you my life is as sad as Wagner knew that love can make it – but I am grateful to understand what this wonderful composer meant. The joy of knowing love and music outweighs the suffering of the human life.
Wozzeck opens at the Royal Opera House on Thursday 31 October - top price tickets are only £65