Written by: Mansel Stimpson
Returning to the role of Florestan in which he made his Covent Garden debut in 2007, Endrik Wottrich talks to Mansel Stimpson…
The German tenor Endrik Wottrich is a professor in the Hochschule für Musik in Würzburg where he studied as a youngster. It’s not unusual for an international singer to find time to teach, especially when this is taken up late in their career. In Endrik’s case, however, he commenced teaching in 2002 only ten years after making his own operatic debut. When we meet at Covent Garden, I immediately become aware that he is a forthright man, one with strong opinions, and this is reflected in his response when I ask about his reasons for teaching at a time when his international career, not least as a noted Wagnerian, might have discouraged him from taking on extra duties.
“It was my frustration at seeing young people who are born with a wish to sing or perform burning up in this business because they have not been guided correctly. Misguiding starts in the conservatories where they are not told about the realities of this profession. It’s certainly not fun, although it can be that here at Covent Garden where the people are great and friendly because they have reached a point in their careers where they no longer have to prove how big they are or use their elbows because of their insecurities. Here it is wonderful, but to get this far you have to go through a lot. In many fields today, and not just with singers, we have too many people fighting for too few jobs. And it all links up with politics and a society which gives too much to a few who are actually fraudsters, bankers for example, and thus takes away money that should be spent on others. Taxpayers have to pay for those bonuses to bank bosses and everyone else gets less and less. To maintain their standard of living they have to struggle and that endangers our cultural life as well as destroying what we call family values. That’s because if you work in a career job today you cannot really have a family. Even when I am able to help my young students to get a job they earn very little and if you don’t have a chance to put some money aside to protect your private life you will never take this job. If we don’t somehow change the pattern now, I don’t see how we can still have opera companies that function in ten years’ time.”
Being an opera singer leads Endrik to express his dissatisfaction with much of life today in ways that lead back to his concern for the future of music and theatre. Nevertheless his castigations are broadly based and rooted in his dismay at societies, not least that in Germany, where discipline and old-fashioned values have been discarded. “We need to defend our culture. People used to enjoy cultural institutions such as theatre and opera: they met, they communicated and they enjoyed experiencing city life through these cultural activities. But what we have now is more and more people sitting alone in front of a computer or a TV screen bombarded by stupid messages about what they should buy – and that at a time when in any case they are not earning enough to afford all that stuff. The society that we have now stems from the attitudes of the generation who made their mark in 1968. I believe that they demonised everything that was once considered beautiful and by questioning the value of everything encouraged people merely to satisfy their needs – hunger, sex, whatever, and nothing with a vision or a bigger frame. It gets worse and worse and we realise that without a certain kind of pressure that comes from education, environment and tradition you produce animals not people. Unfortunately the human-being is not born noble and needs to be kept in shape. At least I feel that the people that I see in London are more aware, much more than those in Germany. Once I was kind of proud about the press we had, but now English newspapers are far superior to those in Germany where everything has been levelled down to fashion, looks, sex and make-up: more than that there is not. We have no brains left.”
The same critical stance evident here was already present in other contexts when Endrik was young. Despite doing some singing as a child, it was the violin that he favoured over his vocal studies as a student. “Opera came to me when I was about eighteen, not earlier. Until then I had zero-interest in it because of the horrible kind of singing you heard with too much vibrato when opera was done on German television. I was aware too of the kind of fake performances you would encounter in bad opera productions. If opera is done with total dedication and with a combination of the heart and the brain then it becomes really exciting. Admittedly for a composer such as Rossini you need high energy and a glowing temperament and with that it’s fine. But when you come to Beethoven, to Mozart, and especially to Wagner, you can’t actually express what the composer wants unless you have the brains for it. Early on when I heard Wagner I loved the orchestral parts but I hated it when the singers opened their mouths. It was much later when I heard really good early recordings that I realised that it could be the most exciting thing in the world. If you hear Siegfried with Lauritz Melchior, it sounds great, but today it often sounds horrible. And similarly with Puccini or Verdi: if you listen to Franco Corelli or the young Mario Del Monaco it’s a totally different world because it’s so intense.”
After his initial studies in Germany, Endrik went to America and attended the Juilliard School of Music. “I was hoping to hear more about technical approaches to singing because that is so important for anyone pursuing this career. You need a very solid technique and a perfect knowledge of what is going on in your body. That’s more difficult to learn than technique for the violin since you can’t see it – you just have to sense somehow everything which is inside you and it’s a bitch because it’s constantly changing. Although I was looking for technical information in New York I did not find it. However, what I liked very much about Juilliard was the fact that there were so many talented people there and that made for a very inspiring environment. Also it was wonderful to be in New York at a time when I could hear artists such as Pavarotti, Mirella Freni and Vladimir Atlantov at the Metropolitan Opera or in Carnegie Hall.”
It was on his return to Europe that Endrik’s career got going. He was heard by Daniel Barenboim and from 1993 to 1999 was a member of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin (that his debut the year before took place at the Weisbaden State Theatre was to give him a little stage experience ahead of Berlin). In 1996 he made the first of many appearances at Bayreuth and, despite having appeared as Tamino and Alfredo, he would become very closely associated with the operas of Wagner. “It’s a joke but if you are a German singer and sing in operas you are destined to be a Wagner singer! It so happens that unlike many other German artists I do perform in other languages too, but this business being as ignorant-minded as it is I get pigeonholed. However, I will shortly be doing Saint-Saëns in Berlin, Samson et Dalila, and perhaps that will wake them up to that. We shall see. Much as I love Wagner I would like to do other things too including the verismo repertory. I could easily do Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana and at some point I would like to risk Canio in I pagliacci. I am careful but, of course, my dream-role one day would be Otello. But for now it’s Saint-Saëns and that is quite hard work.”
By the time that we come to discuss Fidelio and Endrik’s return to Covent Garden as Florestan, I have heard from him a number of additional criticisms of the music world as it is today. He laments the fact that lighter singers often get taken up more readily than heavy tenors and heavy baritones who need more time to develop and to mature. Also in his field of fire are conductors who, failing to distinguish between what works in a room and what is needed in a large theatre, discourage the projection of big, healthy voices needed to get across to the audience in an opera house (“they even object to strong pronunciation of a consonant claiming that it might disturb the line”). Endrik is equally critical of too many rehearsals, instancing the way in which when it comes to a big concert work the artists are so often required to go over the piece in the morning of the day of the performance regardless of the fact that then they can’t give of their best for the paying customers in the evening.
Given all these concerns on Endrik’s part, concerns which he is keen to express, one notices all the more how his face lights up when he comes to talk about Covent Garden, both his experiences in 2007 and during the two days of rehearsals prior to our meeting. “It was, and is, exemplary: the way people are treated here and the way they interact. It is classy and it has style but it’s wonderfully human too. As for this revival, my Leonore this time is Nina Stemme whom I know and love having done a few productions with her, and I know also very well some of the other singers such as Kurt Rydl and John Wegner. We are like a family who travel the globe. The Chorus came in for the first time today and I was amazed at how energetic they were. The orchestra I haven’t heard yet but I loved them last time.” Endrik was also looking forward to working with Kirill Petrenko as conductor regarding him as being comparable in his admirable musical and personal qualities to Antonio Pappano who conducted in 2007. However, it has been announced that due to back problems Petrenko has withdrawn. Mark Elder and David Syrus have taken over the run.
Like the Queen of the Night, the role of Florestan is a famous one regardless of the fact that the character is present for a limited time. Here we have to wait for the second of the two Acts before encountering the singer. But when he does so it is with a long aria often thought of as exceptionally demanding and from then on he is a key presence. “First, I must say that this aria is difficult, yes, but not more so than, say ‘Celeste Aida’. To play Florestan you need a heavier kind of voice but must also be able to sing in a very high tessitura – that’s what makes it difficult. But the idea of it being extremely difficult stems from singers who scream their heads off in the part. Such singers are miscast because you have to sing it like Mozart, albeit in a heavier way. The real challenge that I find in this aria is posed by the beauty of the long prelude which precedes it. At that point I almost don’t want to hear a voice because that could seem an intrusion into something so beautiful in itself. The voice must not disturb it and you need to sing almost instrumentally. So you need a brain to manage it, but that makes its appeal to me even stronger.”
Although we tend to think of Mozart and Beethoven as inhabiting two entirely different worlds, Endrik stresses that they are not in reality so far apart. “Beethoven did open up to the early romantic music in his late string quartets, but these two composers breathe the same air and there is definitely something of Mozart in Fidelio. Some people regard it as a bad opera and problems do arise if the Overture is presented in a heavy dramatic way that makes the lighter duet for Marzelline and Jaquino that follows seem incongruous. But if you perform the Overture correctly, not too heavily but with a lighter touch, the problem disappears. Beethoven was closer to Mozart than to the Romantics but there are conductors, some still alive unfortunately, who give a Wagnerian heaviness to Beethoven. I love the ‘Choral’ Symphony but in Germany whenever there are big celebrations it is abused by that heavy approach. Even Germans think that this is what German music is, and it’s not. When you do that you end up with a stupid soldiers’ march and it has nothing to do with Beethoven.”
As for the climax of Fidelio with its release of the prisoners when tyranny is overcome and brotherhood proclaimed, Endrik regards the great prayer to God ‘O Gott! o weich’ ein Augenblick’ as one of the most memorable moments in all opera. “It is incredibly beautiful and the climax of the work.” Here is to be found the kind of inspiration that only art can provide and this is what Endrik sees as being so vital to counteract to some extent the ills of the world which he has touched on. “Whether it’s Fidelio or the Ninth Symphony, we should be happy that there are some people who can offer us a vision. Such visions make it clear that art is not a luxury – because a vision like this can tell us where we could go and for what we might strive.”