Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Freeing the Imagination: An Interview with Brigitte Fassbaender

[From OPERA, July 2014, pp. 829-835]

©Marc Gilsdorf
An interview with a retired singer might normally consist primarily of reminiscences, talk of foundations, teaching and the like. Things are a little different with Brigitte Fassbaender, who turns 75 this month. The former mezzo—whose singing career started with her engagement (aged 21) at the Munich Staatsoper at the beginning of the 1960s and lasted until her retirement in 1995—has now been directing opera for well over two decades, including a 13-year stint as Intendant at the Tiroler Landestheater in Innsbruck, where she produced some three dozen shows. 

That appointment came to an end in 2012, but further directing engagements are proliferating, many of them with a distinctly Straussian flavour: next year she’s in charge of a new Rosenkavalier in Baden-Baden, a Capriccio is planned for 2017 at Oper Frankfurt (where she staged a new Ariadne in the autumn); plans for Arabella in Leipzig in 2016 had to be abandoned—postponed rather than cancelled, she hopes—because of a clash with another of her duties, as director of the Richard Strauss Festival in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a post she has held since 2009 and which is contracted to run until at least 2017. To that we can add masterclasses and a week-long Lieder festival, the Eppaner Liedsommer, which she runs in the South Tyrol. She’s also recently served as presiding artistic spirit over a recording, using hand-picked singers, of all of Strauss’s songs and melodramas (for which Fassbaender herself is the reader). She describes it as a ‘personal gift from me to one of my life-long most beloved composers’; the box set (released on TwoPianists Records) was launched in Garmisch on the composer’s birthday, June 11. 

©Marc Gilsdorf
All in all, Fassbaender’s workload would keep someone half her age busy; and she speaks 
longingly about a time when she might be able to pursue her painting more, if something akin to retirement ever materializes. When she was profiled in these pages (August 1981, pp. 789-794), Susan Gould described her as a ‘cornucopia of paradoxes’, and it’s one of these paradoxes that seems to play some role in keeping her so youthful: an irreverence and an acute sense of the ridiculous bubble on the surface during our conversation, but do nothing to mask the fierce intellect and deep seriousness—and love of her art—that lie beneath. Added to this are an openness, and an absolute lack of snobbery, pretentiousness or any trace of the grand manner one might justifiably expect from someone who was, after all, one of the great singers of the second half of the 20th century. 

She loves being as busy as she is, but gives a characteristically self-deprecating answer when I ask what she liked best about her Innsbruck post. ‘I could sleep in my own bed for 13 years! Because, as a singer, you are two thirds of the year travelling and living in hotels, and this is horrible. My contract was for two productions a year, so I had a lot to do there.’ Besides opera, this included directing musicals (she also wrote the books for two, Shylock and Lulu), operetta and plays. ‘I had to take care of the ensemble, and I coached the singers technically—lots of them—and it was an enormous challenge to run such a theatre with 400 personnel.’ The discussion soon reveals a perhaps unexpected passion for a composer, Britten, whose operas she never sang in but which she clearly loves directing. ‘I did lots of Britten in Innsbruck—Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Albert Herring. It was unknown there, but they were amazed that it’s so wonderful: I think Britten is one of the greatest opera composers in the last century.’ 

In fact, there is not much that Fassbaender didn’t direct there. She singles out a production of Les Troyens as an example of the theatre’s level of ambition, but adds, ‘Strangely enough, I didn’t do very much Mozart: only Die Zauberflöte and Don Giovanni and Lucio Silla. I would love to do Così or something like that, because it’s so difficult. But what is more difficult? Everything is difficult in a way!’ She certainly speaks from experience regarding Lucio Silla: her 1998 touring staging of that work for the now-defunct Opera for Europe was, by her own admission, not a great success: ‘It didn’t go very well, because it was technically very difficult. In London [at the Shaftesbury Theatre] they didn’t get it together, so it was a disastrous performance.’ Her only other UK staging was Der ferne Klang for Opera North in 1992. ‘It went quite well,’ she says. ‘I love the opera and would love to do something like that again, but it’s very difficult in terms of audience: if you run a theatre you have to think of the “Auslastung” [the ticket sales]. It would be a dream to direct something else here. But I think it will stay a dream,’ she adds with a laugh: ‘one must have unfulfilled dreams in life!’ 

Either way, she’s happy to continue to be kept so busy after Innsbruck. ‘Especially at my age, it’s not so common that one gets asked. I just did this Albert Herring in Vienna, this Ariadne in Frankfurt. And there are interesting things coming, too.’ These include a new Rigoletto in Regensburg in the autumn, Yevgeny Onegin in Kiel early in the new year, La Bohème in Coburg next June and a Freischütz at Jennersdorf next summer, as well as a Paul Bunyan, already scheduled for Frankfurt in autumn 2016. But it’s next Easter’s Rosenkavalier at Baden-Baden, her third production of that work, that will perhaps be her highest-profile directorial engagement to date. It features a starry cast headed by Anja Harteros and Magdalena Kožená, and the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle—‘a wonderful musician’.  

There are few works with which Fassbaender is more closely associated than Strauss’s Komödie für Musik. Long before her Octavian became legendary, this was the piece with which she had what she describes as her first high-profile international engagement, a Covent Garden revival with Sena Jurinac, Lucia Popp and ‘this wonderful Ochs here, Michael Langdon’. (Of her performance on 11 November 1971, Harold Rosenthal wrote succinctly: ‘Brigitte Fassbaender, very young, gamin-like, handsome, sensual, and with a lovely rich, dark mezzo’.) How does she approach a piece that she has such a famous history of singing in herself? ‘I waited a long time before I felt I could direct it, because your imagination is so occupied with these old, traditional productions, which I had done all these years all around the world. But then something happened that freed my imagination. I saw Ruth Berghaus’s [1992] production in Frankfurt. This was a shock, but a very healthy one.’ She’s especially pleased that Berghaus’s designer for that production, Erich Wonder, has been lured out of retirement to work with her on the Baden-Baden production.

‘I could leave behind all these traditional obsessions and think totally freely about it, feel free from this traditional way of doing it, without betraying the piece. I come from that tradition, but I maintain that you must have new ideas and that it’s legitimate to have new ideas—without destroying the piece.’ But it’s clearly also about balance: ‘there was the tendency, especially in Germany, to make everything like trash. And that I don’t like: you don’t need to. But they’re turning back the wheel in a way. They want to see the piece again, and not just ugliness on a rubbish heap, or in a station. Der Rosenkavalier Act 2 in the Bahnhof? That’s not for me!’ 

At the beginning of her career, she was lucky enough to have worked with several people who were close friends and colleagues of Strauss himself: Karl Böhm, Rudolf Hartmann—‘all those old Nazis!’. But when asked which directors she particularly enjoyed working with, she begins with Günther Rennert, the Bayerische Staatsoper’s Intendant from 1967 to ’76, when Fassbaender’s career arguably reached its apogee—she was made Kammersänger there in 1970, at the time the youngest singer ever to receive the title in Germany. ‘He was wonderful, and I loved to work for him. And I knew and worked with all these famous directors in my time, real opera directors, like Ponnelle and Götz Friedrich. And the young Otto Schenk.’ 

She also speaks highly of Kurt Horres, and describes his Munich Werther as ‘still valid, still very acceptable’ (a recording of her incandescent performance in it, opposite Domingo, is available on Orfeo). ‘But I missed working with people like Neuenfels and Konwitschny—I would love to have worked with him. We know each other, and he asked me if I would come back on stage under his direction: just a small part which he wanted to do as a main part, in Jenůfa or something, and I said, “No, I can’t come back.” Also, Vienna asked me for the old Countess in Queen of Spades. But I never wanted to get old on stage. Sure, you can sing at 80 like Mödl did, but that’s not for me.’ 

When asked about conductors, she mentions three: ‘Giulini, Kleiber and Kubelík—he was a wonderful conductor. But they are only examples of this great league of conductors I was happy to work with. There are others, I worked with them all. Even with Stokowski. It was only once and it was funny, because he looked like a very old woman; he was deaf and blind but still very keen. And when I got introduced to him, he said, “Fassbaender, Fassbaender … didn’t we work together in 1911?” There had been a famous singer in Munich called Zdenka Mottl-Fassbender, and he’d worked with her as a young young Korrepetitor in Munich.’ 

On the whole, however, Fassbaender’s feelings towards conductors might best be described as ambivalent, and when I ask if her new role means a new attitude towards conductors, her answer is brief, and accompanied by a big laugh: ‘It hasn’t changed a lot, my impression of conductors, no.’ She continues: ‘There are some very nice ones. But, nein nein, it is still notable that conductors don’t understand a lot about voices, so their ideas of how a singer is cast or shall react or sing is far away from my ideas. So, there we have to fight together always.’ Does she feel that this contributes to the difficulties facing young singers? ‘There are so many young singers around today, for many it seems it’s not worth taking care of one, because ten others are waiting. So people use them and throw them away. Only very rarely does a singer have the responsibility for himself, and the concentration and the discipline to say “no” to totally false offers. It’s the singers’ mentality in a way, because they always think they’ll never get asked again if they ever say “no”. In a way it’s right to think like that. But if you have a rare talent and a wonderful gift, then you have to wait for your time.’ 

In her own career, when did she learn how to say ‘no’? ‘I had my father [the baritone Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender], who was a teacher, and he knew what it meant to make a solid career. He always told me that it takes ten years in a fixed position in an ensemble to build up a career step by step. Not singing the main parts immediately at 21 or 22. And I started at 21, so I sang every Page and every Magd, whatever there was, together with bigger parts coming up. But the main parts, like Octavian or Eboli or Carmen, I sang in my late 20s or early 30s, when the voice was totally matured.’

There were still plenty of offers that Fassbaender did turn down. ‘There was a time when I could have sung the Italian parts all around. Like Amneris, and Eboli. I sang Eboli a lot, but for Amneris and Azucena I said “no”.’ She recorded Azucena in the studio with Giulini, of course, and did tackle Amneris—‘only once in Munich, with the young Muti: a wonderful, very successful experience’ (also captured on Orfeo, also opposite Domingo). She discovered afterwards that Giulietta Simionato had been in the audience: ‘A horrible, horrible moment! If I’d known beforehand I wouldn’t have sung a note. But then I got asked to sing it all over. But I stopped it, because I felt it’s not my way of working, to jump in every other night somewhere else in this really challenging part; and I wanted to keep the voice fresh and young for the Lieder singing. They offered me Kundry and Ortrud and all this, and I always said “no”.’

Having grown up watching her father on the stage, did she ever envy other voice types their roles? ‘There are two soprano roles I’d love to have sung: Tosca and Fidelio. They are two poles of a woman’s life, in terms of character and emotions. But I’m not a soprano; I’m a mezzo-soprano and am very content with all the parts I sang. In a way I would love to have been a tenor, but I was content. A part is what you make it.’ And the fact that Fassbaender’s mother was the actress Sabine Peters also clearly influenced her artistic make-up: ‘I always felt more a singing actress on the opera stage than a singer. I didn’t want to be called an opera singer; I was always ashamed to be called an opera singer. I was not interested in singing a Marschallin; I was much more content with Octavian, because, acting-wise, it’s much more interesting. And I didn’t want to sit around in the dressing room for a whole act!’ 

At this point I bring up something Fassbaender said in an earlier interview: ‘We Octavians get some very peculiar fan mail.’ She elaborates in somewhat forceful terms. ‘Some of these fans … first of all, they are not fans: they are freaks. They get confused between the private person and the person on stage. They think what one does on stage in this travesti, this must be something interesting in your private life as well. So you get obscure offers,’ she says with a laugh, ‘and many, many invitations for lunch, love letters and even people threatening suicide when they don’t get a response. So I had a lot of this, and after performances, some would follow my car when I went home, and I’d have to do like they do in the films to shake them off. They came to my house in the night, surrounded my house, walked through the fence and looked into the windows. Even once, they pinched something from my garbage and sent it back in the mail. Or they broke into my car—one year when I sang in Bayreuth—and pinched my score. But really, it’s strange, these things—spooky, horrible. But it’s over. Although there are still one or two! But I bet it happens to every Octavian. And it happens a lot to singers.’ It’s not all bad, though: ‘some of them are really nice and intelligent and not burdensome,’ she takes care to add. 

When the conversation gets on to the state of opera today, Fassbaender doesn’t mince her words either, even if those words are leavened by a humour and warmth that is difficult to translate onto the page. ‘No, it’s not in a healthy state,’ she says unequivocally. The first problem regards casting. ‘Could you imagine a career like Margaret Price’s or Sutherland’s these days? And this is something unhealthy. You must not look like a model on stage. Singers are not made looking like models. They must have a certain physiognomy. The dramatic singers, for example, they must be like that. I don’t like the “perfection” and the superficiality: only the packaging is interesting now. And that’s how most young singers sound now. I can’t immediately recognize a singer any more. They lose their absolute vocal personality, their timbre, because they want only to be as beautiful as possible—or as loud as possible or as high as possible. And this is a pity, although it has always been the same in a way.’

Second: ‘Now I also feel when I work with young singers, as a director or in masterclasses, that they’re not disciplined, they don’t have the concentration. They play around with their Handy and they sit at night surfing the Internet. They don’t have any time to concentrate on the profession and learn. Young singers are not prepared enough when they arrive at a rehearsal, because they don’t have time for it, and they don’t get enough sleep because until four o’clock in the morning or whatever they’re on Facebook.’ 

The third problem on the list is perhaps less expected. ‘They all drink water—by the litre, only water—which can’t be healthy, because every second young singer I know has something called reflux. This is the modern singer’s disease. And I’m sure it comes from drinking water all the time.’ And what did she drink as a singer? ‘Not water,’ she answers with a laugh. ‘Water too, but not only! We didn’t drink such a lot. It wasn’t necessary. Now they do it on the concert platform and they put it on their chair. This looks awful; this was unthinkable in my time.

‘I’m also playing with my phone and looking on the Internet,’ she admits, ‘but I’m not obsessed with it: it’s not my whole life. And this I miss a bit: the real knowing about the seriousness of this profession. It’s not hard work to get an opera singer: to get an artist is hard work, to become an artist. And if it’s a fantastic talent, I really try to influence and take care of somebody like that. I don’t give private lessons. I have only a handful of young colleagues who I sometimes coach. Most of my work is done in the masterclasses.’ A formal teaching position is something she tried and didn’t like: ‘I was for eight years at the Musikhochschule in Munich, but it was not my way of teaching. I’m no civil servant.’ 

As the conversation comes to a close we come back to directing, and what her further ambitions in that regard are. A return to Salome is one, to revisit and develop the concept she explored when staging it in Innsbruck. But finally it’s back to Britten: her ultimate dream is to tackle one of his works at Glyndebourne, where she sang only once (Clairon in Capriccio in 1990)—‘but my father was there very involved at the beginning of Glyndebourne, and that was something life-long for him: he loved it’. If someone at the East Sussex festival is listening, maybe that particular dream won’t remain unfulfilled. 

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