René Pape is just settling down in his Berlin hotel room to talk about becoming King of the Gods, when he is interrupted by the Devil. The malevolent cackle gets too insistent to ignore, but luckily it’s just the ring tone of Pape’s cell phone, set to a bit of Gounod’s Méphistophélès – one of the German bass’s signature roles. Pape is a creature of the stage, so having a little ironic theatricality follow him around is only right. But the singer is also a man grounded in regular life. When not thrilling audiences the world over, he relishes time spent at home by the river in Dresden, cooking to relax.
Pape has been a member of the Berlin State Opera since 1988, and – as he turns off his phone to discuss the King of the Gods, aka Wotan, his latest Wagnerian challenge – he is in the German capital for runs as Prince Gremin in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and as King Marke in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The latter role is woven into the fabric of Pape’s life, with the expressive power and dramatic truth of his interpretation having devastated listeners for the past decade – in Berlin and Paris, at England’s Glyndebourne and New York’s Metropolitan Opera (his stage home away from home), as well as on record for EMI.
The bedeviled Wotan of Der Ring des Nibelungen is a role Pape was born to play. Having sung several Ring roles over the years, the 45-year-old singer’s voice and dramatic sensibility are now perfectly seasoned for Wotan. Pape makes his role debut in Das Rheingold at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala (May 13-29), the kickoff of a 2010-13 Ring cycle co-produced by La Scala and the Berlin State Opera, with Guy Cassiers as director and Pape’s longtime podium mentor Daniel Barenboim conducting. In the fall, after making his Metropolitan Opera role debut as Boris Godunow, Pape will return to La Scala as Wotan for Die Walküre.
Over the next several weeks, installments from an interview with Pape – about Wagner, Wotan, and his life as a singer – will appear here.
Q: What does Wagner’s Ring mean to you, as a singer, as a German?
RP: This music is very close to me, of course – before Wotan, I was a Giant in Das Rheingold and Hunding in Die Walküre. The Ring is one of the world’s great masterpieces; it belongs to everyone. But as a German, it does feel special to sing in my native language. Wagner’s German is not the German you speak every day – it’s a unique Wagnerian language. He was his own librettist, and he wrote in a very Romantic, poetic style. It’s extremely rich, and I love expressing myself in this kind of language.
As for Wagner the person, I don’t spend time judging him. That is, I don’t interpret his lifestyle or his craziness. I just interpret his music. That is enough.
Q: Who is Wotan?
RP: Wotan is a leader with a lot of problems! He wants power; he wants love. But he can’t have it all. In Das Rheingold, he gives his power away. So, he is sad and lonely and unfulfilled – something I identify with. I’m kidding, but there is something about Wotan’s plight, wanting control and love, that I think most of us recognize; we see how hard it is, perhaps impossible, to have both. Vocally, the part lies perfectly within the compass of my voice, and in terms of my career, 45 is the ideal age to sing Wotan. I can express him with my voice and with my view of his character. But I’m still rehearsing, still studying the role. Once we start stage rehearsals, more will come to mind.
Q: Which Wotan interpreters influenced you most?
RP: George London, Hans Hotter, Theo Adam, John Tomlinson – Tomlinson was always the Wotan when I was a Giant or Hunding. Hotter’s voice was wonderful and his interpretation was too, but it was his pronunciation that really stood out. You could understand every word Hans Hotter sang. I listen to various recordings while preparing for a role, but I am not just listening to that specific role. Issues of timing, tempo, and diction are important, but I don’t want to copy. I am trying to absorb the overall atmosphere. The subtleties of atmosphere in these recordings fascinate me.
Q: George London has been a key inspiration for you – your Deutsche Grammophon solo recital recording, Gods, Kings, & Demons, which includes a Wotan aria, was in part an homage to his Gods and Demons album.
RP: Yes, George London was an amazing artist. He was able to sing so well in so many languages. He was a great Boris, a fantastic Méphistophélès, a superb Wotan. I’m friendly with his widow in New York, and he really is an idol of mine. I’ve always admired the way you could follow him no matter if he was singing in Russian, French, or German. It is always vital to deliver the text and the story, not just the sounds. Opera is drama above all.
Q: Has Plácido Domingo been an influence in a different way?
RP: Yes. I have sung Wagner with Domingo in Berlin, Munich, and New York. He is great. Perhaps you can’t always quite understand his German, but he never shouts or barks, as some do with Wagner. Domingo always sings beautiful, lyrical lines. I strive to sing lines like that but with the diction of a native German speaker. It’s funny. I remember listening to my grandfather’s cassette tapes of Domingo back in East Germany. My grandfather was such a fan. He would’ve thought it was incredible for his grandson not only to meet Domingo but actually to work with him. I think it’s incredible.
Q: Is the physical challenge of singing Wagner – not only the parts themselves but the sheer time you spend on stage – daunting?
RP: Well, you don’t just push a button and have Wagner come out, that’s for sure. We singers are not machines. And voices are changing as humans evolve. The keys are going up – orchestras are playing higher. You have to tune yourself in to Wagner, so to speak. You also need a certain measure of endurance to be onstage as long as you have to be for, say, Parsifal. But ideally I want to sing Wagner like Mozart and Mozart like Wagner. That is, I want to sing Wagner with more cantabile, and I want to sing Mozart with more, shall we say, testicles.
Q: You started out singing Wagner with a legendary Wagner conductor, Georg Solti, and you have since sung the composer’s music with Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Valery Gergiev, and James Levine. But you have been especially close with Daniel Barenboim. How is he special as a Wagnerian?
RP: Like Levine, Barenboim is one of the greatest Wagner conductors you could ever hope to work with. He understands the works forward and backward – and in eight different languages. He knows every single note from memory, so at every turn he is with you on stage and with the musicians in the pit, creating something new every night, like an artist. He offers both deep support and a constant challenge. He and I have worked together since 1991. At this point, we understand each other almost without thinking.
It’s true that Barenboim has a deeply philosophical view of Wagner’s music, but he’s very much a musician. He knows that everything is in the score and the text; they tell you everything you need to know, the style, the emotions, the motivations. Daniel also realizes that although you have to travel back to Wagner’s time in a sense, it’s also just as important to come to the music with a sense of today.