Q & A: René Pape on Robert Wilson, Lip Synching, and Smoking

Playbill, 11 May 2006
By Vivien Schweitzer

Fresh from singing King Heinrich in Robert Wilson's controversial production of 'Lohengrin' at the Metropolitan Opera, star German bass Rene Pape will sing Gurnemanz in a very different Wagner production 'Parsifal' starting May 12. He talked to PlaybillArts recently about a major upcoming role debut, the Kenneth Branagh film of 'The Magic Flute', and his favorite tenors.

Q: You sang in Robert Wilson's famously static Met production of 'Lohengrin' in its premiere, in 1998, and again last month. Was it different this time?

I know Bob Wilson well and he is a genius. I like Wilson's aesthetic very much and the production is beautiful, but he didn't think how much we would suffer. You can't bypass the physical limits of singers. We are friends so I've told him this. He doesn?t know how difficult it is to hold a stick for an hour; it hurts! I tried to fulfill his vision, but I am the one singing. So this time I changed. I did things Wilson wanted but in my own way. I don't give a shit at the end of the day what the stage director tells me. I need to sing and deliver music to the audience and make them happy, which is the most important thing. I don't care whether it's Bob Wilson or another director; I want to satisfy the audience.

Q: You are singing Sarastro in Kenneth Branagh's upcoming film of 'The Magic Flute'.

Yes. The film will be premiered at the Cannes festival in 2007. It will be in English, with a new libretto by Stephen Fry. It's very different acting for the camera than onstage. Onstage there is a huge distance between you and the audience, unlike when you are right in front of the camera. We recorded the soundtrack separately, so we lip synch on film. It's not easy to do and I am working with a professional lip-synching coach. Film is fun and a different world. Though it's tough for singers as we are night people?and for movies you have to get up at 5:30 a.m.! I am not a morning person, but your body adjusts.

Q: Tell me about your vocal influences growing up.

I had a lot of tenors as idols, such as Giuseppe di Stefano. I love the way tenors sing. Beniamino Gigli is another favorite. Then of course there's Luciano Pavorotti, who I've sung with, and Plácido Domingo. I also like some of the younger ones, such as Rolando Villazón and Juan Diego Flórez; they have beautiful voices and are exceptional tenors who I really adore. I also listened to basses like Ezio Pinza, George London, and Cesare Siepe and learned a lot from them, but I don't want people to say I am copying them.

Q: I heard rumors that you smoke.

Yes, I smoke. But do you think it's healthy to eat fat-free food then five burgers with ten ounces of French fries then run into a fitness club like New Yorkers do? You think this is healthy? Do you think sugar-free food is healthy? Europeans are much healthier than Americans. Other people take cocaine. I'd rather smoke. Of course I won't smoke on stage as it disturbs my non-smoking colleagues and I don't want to do that. But I am not worried it will hurt my voice and I'm not planning to quit.

Q: What do you have coming up? Any new roles?

I will record a solo album this October with the Dresden Staatskapelle that will be released next spring on Deutsche Grammophon. I can't give you details, but it will include Italian, French, German, and Russian arias. I have a solo recital in negotiation, but it won't be in New York. I'm looking forward to singing Hans Sachs in 'Die Meistersinger' for the first time in Berlin in the spring of 2008. This is a big step for me.

Q: What's your favorite role?

I always say that my favorite role is the one I am doing now. I like all of them, or I wouldn't sing them. You have to be able to sing and act a variety of roles. You have to get behind the character and if you do that there aren't so many difficulties. I'm used to singing kings, old men, young men, clowns, and devils. I never get nervous when I perform and I never have. I've been onstage since I was 12.

Q: What advice would you give to young singers?

Just follow your inspiration. Don't copy anybody or try to be like anyone else. But if you don't have a really 100 percent great voice you should be aware that you might have to do something else or sing in the chorus. There's a lot of luck involved in this profession. But experienced singers should be honest with young singers and tell them, "Your voice is quite pretty but you will never make it, so find something else to make yourself happy." You have to be 100 percent sure that you want this life and that you want to suffer.

Q: How would you describe your voice?

Don't make me describe my voice! I just want people to be happy, that's my goal. I want people to go to the opera and enjoy the performance and forget their own problems. My voice is pretty much settled now. When you turn 40 it doesn?t change much. I try and sing a bit every day, but we singers have to save our voice: it's not like an instrument you can take out of the box and play. The vocal chords are limited and you can't sing every day.

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