The Pape Variations

In Boito’s Mefistofele, Faust refers to the title character as the “strange son of chaos,” a justified moniker given the context of Goethe’s source material and original vision for the character of the devil: sophisticated though he may be, he is an effete nihilist, a supernatural being that believes the world to be lost and without meaning beyond a passion for materialism.

René Pape is the sort of person for whom the term “Mephistophelean” was invented. Beyond his own signature performances of the devilish triptych (most notably Gounod’s Méphistophélès, a role that he has sung in several incarnations at the Met), he can’t help but evoke a bit of Beelzebub when he jokes. First there’s the deadpan delivery, which ekes through a slight accent and a dark speaking voice, followed by a grin that curls across his erstwhile stony face just as soon as he realizes you’re believing his sarcasm to be gospel truth. Then his eyes light up.

But save for the occasional moment of mischief, Pape is far from a strange child of chaos in real life. “There was a time you take everything with you, but then there’s a time when you have to leave it,” he says of compartmentalization. “You have to separate it because you figure out that this takes too much energy of yourself in your private life.”

There was a time early on where the bass wasn’t so disciplined. But, while he can’t say how he learned to forge a work-life balance, such a balance still managed to happen. “I told myself it’s just interpreting great music,” he explains. “I’m not King Marke in life, and I’m not King Philip in life, and I’m not Mephisto in life, and I’m never Don Giovanni in life. I’m never Leporello in life. You go to the theater, you change into a costume and makeup, and you interpret the character. You can’t take that home. There was a time I felt like [I could do that], but it’s too, too painful. You cannot live with that all life long.”

While bookstores now teem with tomes on how to have it all, no amount of paperbacks or Kindle bandwidth can match personal experience. It becomes apparent from chatting with Pape over the course of an hour that he could read a lifetime of articles that state that a stove is hot, but won’t accept such as reality until he touches it himself. (“You learn a lot when you’re on the road,” he says.) There again, Pape is also a man who is unapologetically up front with his humanistic qualities, as when he famously told Playbill in 2006, “Other people take cocaine. I’d rather smoke. . . . I am not worried it will hurt my voice, and I’m not planning to quit.”

Mephistopheles, by nature, may be a character who thrives on imbalance and on chaotic nothingness, but perhaps the motto that best exemplifies Pape is “everything in moderation—including moderation.”

Born in Dresden in 1964 to a hairdresser mother and a chef father who divorced when he was still an infant, Pape grew up with dichotomy in the former German Democratic Republic. A state with rigid rules monitored by the now-infamous Stasi, he found a sense of liberation early on in music, fostered by his grandmother with whom he spent much of his childhood (his maternal grandfather was also a tenor who specialized in operetta). He recalls playing as a child in the ruins of the bombed-out Semperoper; his first musical loves were Bach and Schütz.

He remembers a concert version of Götterdämmerung that he attended at age 8, and sitting just in front of the singer performing Hagen. “He was shouting towards me and over me,” Pape recounts, widening his eyes and approximating the reaction of his younger self. “Of course, you don’t know that you will be in that profession [at age 8], but it impressed me.”

He must have had some inkling that he would work in music, however, because he enrolled in the Dresdner Kreuzchor, the all-boys’ choir of Dresden’s Kreuzkirche whose history spans back over seven centuries. From there, he never considered any other profession. The Kreuzchor learning curve was a steep one, involving a great deal of works for church services but also folk songs, motets, madrigals, and the like (Pape even made his operatic debut at the Dresden Conservatory as one of the Three Boys in Die Zauberflöte). The 12-hour days and grueling tour schedules fortified in Pape both a love of singing and an early, keen awareness of the lifestyle of a performing artist.

“It’s a great thing to do this,” he explains. “It’s very helpful when you have a solo career later because you’ll always remember to be on a team. You are a part of a bigger thing. That’s a good thing to learn.”

He moved slowly into the bass roles that have become his signature today, singing tenor parts at 15 and lighter bass repertoire at 18. From ages 16 to 23, he worked with his only voice teacher, Heidi Petzold, a former singer and professor at the Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber in Dresden. Petzold instilled in her pupil a technique that keeps the voice, as he explained to Opera News’ Stephen Hastings in 2005, “compact and focused, without pushing—just relaxing.”

Following the East German system, Pape auditioned for a spot among the country’s numerous opera companies, then ranked into three categories (A, B, and C) according to prominence. His depth of expression and tone and preternatural sense of legato earned him offers from two of the country’s A-houses in Dresden and Berlin. “They asked me to be in a kind of studio or Young Artist Program for another three years, to be treated like a student again,” Pape says of his hometown company. Conversely, Berlin’s famed Staatsoper Unter den Linden proffered a full membership in its ensemble. “I studied seven years already; I wanted to move on,” Pape said of the choice.

At this point in his biography, Pape’s personal journey intersects with the scope of his native country on the whole as the Berlin Wall toppled on November 9, 1989, just over a year after Pape moved to the capital city. The young bass was 25, still a beginner. He was still working with the Staatsoper, developing his repertoire partly through the guidance of tenor Erich Witte. And it was partly thanks to this “beginner” status that Pape didn’t feel a major disruption in his career during the bumpy road to German unification.

“I was happy like everybody else that the Wall came down. At the time, we didn’t think about what will be after that, but it was such a great, great thing,” he says. “We were happy that it was over without knowing what will come.”

While there were doubtlessly many issues with living in the East German state, culture was glorified. Musicians were guaranteed work, choirs enjoyed a greater amount of prominence, and the country housed 56 opera companies. “Everybody had work. It’s another story how to pay these massive ensembles,” Pape says. “But we were happy. We could sing. We could make music. We could make people happy. That was a good thing for us.”

Asked countless times over the last two decades about coming of age in the Wild East, Pape has become an expert diplomat in responding. He hedges carefully, saying, “It’s not an easy picture to give.” He is quick to acknowledge that while not everything—from oranges to classical recordings—was readily available, “none of us were living under a bridge.” He emphasizes that his childhood, save for an early indoctrination into the performance world, was normal.

Things became increasingly more interesting during the unification of Germany, particularly in Berlin, which became one city hosting three significant opera houses. State money from the German Democratic Republic that funded the East’s Staatsoper and Komische Oper became a moot point, while the West’s Deutsche Oper Berlin (reopened after World War II mere weeks after the Wall went up in 1961) received the bulk of the West’s cultural funds prior to 1989.

“West Berlin was an island,” Pape says, noting the geography of the former East and West Berlin’s place in it. “It got a lot of money from the West German government to be a peak in this Communist surrounding. Then the Wall came down, and the Berlin government, the Brandenburg government, had to deal with three houses and all the costs.”

Perhaps it’s this ability to rationalize that has helped to make Pape one of the more pedigreed interpreters of morally complex bass roles, including King Marke in Tristan und Isolde, the title role in Boris Godunov, and Filippo II in Don Carlo—all of which he has sung at the Met, and all of which were represented on his 2008 debut recital disc for Deutsche Grammophon, Gods, Kings, and Demons.

And though there is a great deal of sense in Pape’s demeanor, a matter-of-fact way of answering questions without indulging, his sensibility comes out in performance. Characters in Pape’s hands (and voice) are imbued with a sense of impeccable, if not impossible, three-dimensionality, vulnerability, and emotional honesty. Boris Godunov is tragic rather than despotic. Marke is resigned. Filippo grapples with his own authority and the rebellion of his wife’s heart. His Wotan, when bidding farewell to Brünnhilde, is a father first and a god second.

“René possesses one of the most impressive voices of this generation of singers and he has an incredible ability not only to express words in his native German but also to make the text an incredibly important part of the whole performance of his role,” says conductor Valery Gergiev, with whom Pape has worked extensively (following a recording under Gergiev’s baton of Parsifal, he can be heard as Wotan, with Jonas Kaufmann and others, on a new Die Walküre,, both albums available on the Mariinsky label). “He gives you the feeling that you are not only listening to a beautiful voice,” adds Gergiev.

It was first under another conductor, however, that Pape caught his initial break when he met Sir Georg Solti in 1990 in Vienna at a concert. He auditioned for the maestro, and the following year he was cast as Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte—the youngest Sarastro in Salzburg history.

“I always say it was my first seven years and his last seven years,” he says of his time working with Solti, with whom he worked on numerous concerts, opera productions, and recordings. “He was such a terrier, fresh born, jumping on his podium. I was in my mid-20s and I felt always older than him because he was so full of energy, even in his 80s.”

Following the Salzburg Zauberflöte—and thanks to a combination of the Solti connection, his own talent, plus a bit of luck—Pape never had to audition. While he has since moved back to Dresden as his home base, the singer remains on the roster of the Berlin Staatsoper and has been a regular fixture at the Met since 1995, appearing onstage at least once every season. While the size and scope of roles at the Met has changed, one thing has remained consistent: a wellspring of Wagner. He returned to the Met last month, and remains there through March 8, to sing Gurnemanz in the company’s new production of Parsifal, directed by François Girard (the production also reunites Pape with his compatriot and frequent costar, Jonas Kaufmann, in the title role).

“Yes, he’s talking, talking, talking,” Pape explains of his character’s loquacious tendencies, comparing him also to Sarastro as both are leaders of all-male societies. “Of course, the music speaks for itself. Wagner was a genius in how he composed works so that you understand it: he leaves enough room for singers and the audience to breathe. It’s not always loud, it’s like this: you have a peak of loud music and it goes down again. Sometimes you have a chamber music aspect.”

If one criticism is constantly lobbied at Pape, it’s that he’s too young to be singing the roles that he’s singing. Filippo II and Sarastro came at 26, King Marke at 27, and he sang Boris for the first time at the Met at 46 (the real Boris Godunov became tsar at 47). Age has never been a deterrent for Pape, however. In fact, it’s the repetition of roles over the years that he finds keeps him in shape as a singer.

“First you say, ‘Ah, great! Wagner!’” he explains of the cycle. “You sing Marke. You grow up from the Night Watchman. . . . Then after a couple of years, you say, ‘Oh, again?’ Then you say, ‘OK, I will not sing it so much anymore.’ Then there is a point you think, ‘Oh, I should sing Marke again.’”

Pape enjoys the up-and-down relationship he has with the composer, likening the experience to that of an athlete’s. “You go, you take it, you do it, you leave it, you do it again, you learn a bit in between. Your voice changes. Your perspective changes.”

Does the interpretation change? He shakes his head. “But you add things,” he says. Citing Marke as an example, he breaks down his process as first thinking about the person, and then being able to meet the expectations of the score. Next, he moves outward, turning to text and plot. He cracks another Pape-esque smile as he discusses Wagner’s cuckolded king. “If it were me, I would have gone by myself rather than sending a much younger guy.”

The ability to set such personal predilections aside goes back to Pape’s keen capability of compartmentalizing, to being René Pape offstage and King Marke onstage, with never the twain meeting. “In the beginning you really feel like you are not René Pape, you are King Marke with the name René Pape,” he says. “And then there’s a time where you leave that in the theater.”

Pape is a singer adept at straddling two worlds at once: East and West, New York and Germany, choral work and solo performances, life onstage and offstage. Gods, Kings, and Demons was recorded with his hometown orchestra, the Staatskapelle Dresden, under Sebastian Weigle. Meanwhile, his second album for the yellow label, Wagner, came courtesy of the Staatskapelle Berlin (a nod to Pape’s second German home) with the Staatsoper’s own Daniel Barenboim and featured selections from Die Walküre, Meistersinger, Lohengrin, Parsifal, and Tannhäuser.

Unsurprisingly, he will never be content to be known “just as” any type of singer, even a Wagnerian. “I’m glad to not be struck in one drawer, as the German René Pape,” he explains. “You can also have the Verdi one,” he adds, before trailing off, indicating that the house of Pape contains many rooms.

In each, however, he is meticulous. For Gods, Kings and Demons, he worked with language coaches to perfect his French, Italian, Russian, and Czech. He shrugs it off as part of the perfection, before acknowledging that he’s “a little bit” of a perfectionist.

“The bass voice, people say it’s mature, it’s on its best when you turn 40 or something like this,” he says, going back to the topic of age. “But I also sang Wagner roles in my 20s and early 30s. I started my career very early, so it means also I was ready a little bit earlier as well. I never forced anything. The voice grows in the high and the lows; it’s an automatic process. I never sang the wrong repertoire in the wrong time.”

Certainly there are some roles that become revisited more often than others. His copy of Gounod’s Faust is well worn, but Bizet’s toreador had two runs before Pape shelved the score. “I did two productions and I said, ‘All right, it was an experience for me doing Escamillo. It was fantastic, it was great’—and then I went back to my normal repertoire.”

It’s possible that the lack of packaging himself as any one singer has allowed Pape to focus more on the internal than the external. There was a time that he spoke of singing Hans Sachs. After studying the role, however, he found the tessitura—or, rather, maintaining such a pitch for five hours—was not for him.

“I shouldn’t make myself crazy,” he sighs. “You spend those years, you study and study, your family is suffering, and for what? Two performances a year? And the audience says, ‘Ah, you shouldn’t have done that’? No, I’d rather stay away and leave it to others.”

These conversations, he adds, are always helped when you’re having them with the right people. “If you have professional people surrounding you, you always discuss things,” he says. “My agent was always right and, thank God, I’m very lucky to have had good people surrounding me.”

That list also extends to conductors. From Solti—for whom he took a break from Don Carlo rehearsals in Berlin last fall to sing in his centennial concert in New York and Chicago—to Barenboim to Gergiev, Pape has a sense of familial loyalty. He’s especially proud to speak of how Gergiev saved the Mariinsky Theatre from destruction when the Iron Curtain fell in Russia.

“If he is there, it’s always good, it’s always on top,” he says of working with the maestro before adding about Russia in general, “It’s a kind of anarchism and I love that. Reminds me of the old days of East Germany. And they grew up with music. You can feel that in their souls. And then you feel it also when they play, when the orchestra plays.”

It’s a conversation in that sense, he says, between artists and, ultimately, between artists and the audience—a talent that he cites specifically in Barenboim. “We follow each other . . . I think a good conductor is a good leader but also needs good musicians, singers, to give it back and to inspire him like he inspires us.”

He pauses for a moment, in his thoughtful way. “I like to be organized. But sometimes I think in our music life everything is so well organized, you need a little kind of revolution to be able to create something. Art needs unorganized things. Every moment is a unique moment. You need moments for spontaneity.”

Olivia Giovetti

Olivia Giovetti has written and hosted for WQXR and its sister station, Q2 Music. In addition to Classical Singer, she also contributes frequently to Time Out New York, Gramophone, Playbill, and more.