You never know quite what to expect when you arrive at the Royal Opera House after a stage rehearsal, but on this occasion everyone looked rather dishevelled – the chorus was wielding machine guns and the male principals, in dusty dinner jackets and black ties, looked as though they’d had a night or two on the tiles. The reason for this? Tim Albery’s new staging of Wagner’s Tannhäuser which is unveiled on Saturday 11 December – the first time Wagner’s opera about pilgrims and sins of the flesh has been seen in London in over twenty-five years.
I’m there to interview German baritone Christian Gerhaher, not only one of the world’s most accomplished Lieder singers, but seemingly every casting director’s choice for the role of Wolfram, given that he has sung it to great acclaim in Frankfurt, Madrid, Vienna and Munich.
He is about to reprise that role in London so as we start chatting I ask him why he wanted to pursue a singing career, “Maybe because I couldn’t become a musician – I was too dumb. Somehow I detected that my voice was something I could handle relatively easily. You know, singing is not only about thought and technique, but a very central physical thing as well. Singing has always been a spiritual and physical pleasure for me – from the first moment I started.”
Christian didn’t go to music school and despite the opinion of some professionals that you shouldn’t start developing the voice too early had his first singing lesson at the age of nineteen in Munich, and then began taking lessons more frequently and at this time predominantly focussed on vocal chamber music, and singing Lieder. At this time he was studying medicine, but took one year off in order to focus on his singing that was increasingly becoming a major focus of his attention.
“I was studying under Paul Kuen and Raimund Grumbach and working with Friedemann Berger on Lieder and at the same time I also got to work with Dietrich Fischer-Diskeau, so it was at this point that I decided that I wanted to become a professional singer. It was not an easy decision because nobody was screaming ‘Yes, you should do it – and you will get lots of work’, but it was a long-term decision I took, so after finishing my medical exam two days later I was in Wurzburg singing opera on a fixed contract for a year.”
Opera, however, was not something Christian wanted to sing on a continuous basis so once his contract expired he turned his attention to performing Lieder and concerts, “which is really what I always wanted to do.”
It was his debut at the Schubertiade during his first year of turning professional which proved to be one of the most important moments of his career as this was when he first received international recognition but given his dedication to the art of Lieder singing it comes as a bit of a surprise that he cites singing his first Wolfram in Tannhäuser as a major milestone in his development as a singer.
“This was four years ago in Frankfurt and for me was a kind of arrival, and by that I mean that it was a combination of the role, and singing Wagner for the first time that came together and cemented the direction in which I was going. I could consciously develop how the German language was put into a kind of sound. Also my voice developed and got bigger by singing Wolfram, and singing on stage became more natural for me, and I put that down to this time in Frankfurt. It made me content.”
Four years on and Christian is in London to reprise the role of Wolfram in Tim Albery’s new staging, so talk turns to the staging and working at The Royal Opera. “I’m enjoying working with Tim. He’s a very nice, educated and smart man. His language abilities are great which is very important for any vocal work, and he thinks literally. He puts on stage what is written in the sung music and is present in Wagner’s notes and uses his abilities very well and in doing so creates perfect relationships between the characters on stage which results in great drama, especially in Act Two.” I mention the machine guns, “Well yes, but we are used to that in Germany with Eurotrash theatre or regietheater. But this doesn’t stress me out as the pictures that Tim and his designer Michael Levine have created stage pictures that are beautiful and wonderful. I am really very happy to be here.”
Looking further ahead Christian is due to sing Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus and Pelléas in Frankfurt and Posa in Don Carlos in Toulouse and Munich, and will also appear in a new staging of Monteverdi’s Orfeo in the Bavarian capital which is also his home town. Wozzeck is also on the horizon but as it’s a few years away he won’t be drawn as to where this will take place. I ask if there’s any more Wagner on the horizon. He thinks for a moment, “Maybe Amfortas, but I’m in no hurry.”
Christian Gerhaher sings Wolfram in Tim Albery’s new staging of Tannhäuser for The Royal Opera which opens on 11 December. Semyon Bychkov conducts and the cast also includes Eva-Maria Westbroek (Elisabeth), Johan Botha (Tannhäuser) and Michaela Schuster (Venus). www.roh.org.uk