Entering a new world
Just before the fall of the Berlin Wall René Pape and a friend drove across the border in an old Wartburg to the “Neue Stimmen” International Singing Competition in Gütersloh. He is now one of the world’s most acclaimed bass singers.
What if the Berlin Wall had not come down? What if he hadn’t won a “Neue Stimmen” prize? What if he had suffered stage fright? Given his popularity around the globe, such questions are in fact irrelevant when it comes to René Pape’s career. That may be why he has followed his own path with such success over the years – always straight ahead, always thinking of what comes next. And always with joy and enthusiasm for the music.
change.story: Mr. Pape, it’s such a great story: Shortly before the Berlin Wall came down on November 9, 1989, you got in your car, drove across the border into West Germany for the “Neue Stimmen” competition and won a prize. Is it true?
RENÉ PAPE: Parts of it are true. We suspected that the Wall was beginning to crumble, a time everyone remembers. The car wasn’t mine; it belonged to my friend and colleague Roman Trekel. And it wasn’t a Trabant, as some people say. It was a fire-engine-red Wartburg. And yes, we did drive to Gütersloh and enter the singing competition. The rest is history.
In retrospect, did the “Neue Stimmen” competition influence your path?
At the time, I thought of it more as testing myself against my peers – a kind of sports competition. It never even dawned on me that it was about presenting yourself to agents or catching the attention of some opera-house manager. In any event, for me that wasn’t a factor at all, because I was already working at the Berlin State Opera. But I did get to know a lot of people. It was simply another step in the right direction.
You come from a down-to-earth background, and today you’re a world-famous singer, with two Echo and two Grammy awards. How do you deal with things like that?
Well, the two Grammys are standing on a shelf. The two Echos are too tall, so I had to lay them flat. (He smiles.) Seriously, how do I deal with it? I’m fairly relaxed, and I don’t take myself too seriously – my profession is serious enough. And I like to have fun, even when I’m singing. I really enjoy my work.
There’s a point in most people’s lives when they meet someone who influences them greatly or who teaches them something they never forget. Was that the case for you?
The crucial experience for me was meeting Sir Georg Solti. He brought me to Salzburg in 1991 for The Magic Flute. It was the first time I ever sang Sarastro – and to sing it in Salzburg! It was a challenge and I’m very grateful to him for that. After that, of course, all the doors were open to me; I never had to audition again. Then there was Daniel Barenboim, whom I still work with. That relationship has had a major impact on my life – emotionally and intellectually, as well as professionally.
Do you ever get stage fright?
Stage fright? No, I got over that when I was a child. I sang in the Kreuzchor boys’ choir in Dresden. I grew up singing in the choir, even singing solo at an early age. The audience liked it, and so did my comrades-in-arms behind me and the choir director. That took care of any stage fright I might have had. Later in Dresden I sang for the first time on stage at the Staatsoperette in the musical Cabaret. That was my first encounter with the stage. I was about 12 years old, and I’ve been onstage ever since.
These days you have a full schedule, singing all over the world. How much time does that leave for family, friendships, love?
No matter what profession you’re in, friendship, love, relationships always play an important role. Of course, in our profession it’s difficult to maintain them. That’s why we run up such high phone bills. Now that we have Skype it’s easier. Your telephone bill can skyrocket if you talk to your family or loved ones multiple times a day from wherever you happen to be around the globe. But that’s what keeps you alive.
You are a very unorthodox opera singer. You have for example performed music from the German rock band Rammstein. How did that come about?
That was coincidence. A friend of mine, the producer Sven Helbig, had a friend, Torsten Rasch, who’s a composer. We had sung together in the boys’ choir way back when. The two of them had the idea to create a song cycle based on music and lyrics from Rammstein, accompanied by a symphony orchestra of a hundred musicians. They approached me and asked if I would be interested. I knew Rammstein, although it wasn’t what I listened to day in and day out. After some time, the project began to take shape. We held rehearsals, made recordings, even gave concerts, although unfortunately only two. Everyone thought it was truly extraordinary, and it was incredibly fun.
What advice do you give young singers who are just beginning their careers?
I think the number one tip is this: Have fun!
But there are surely also pitfalls?
Bad advice, false ambition, listening to people who haven’t a clue, people who want to exploit you, the wrong repertoire.
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