Most people who write about me claim that I’ve always been a successful artist, but in actual fact it was long doubtful whether I would study singing at all, and later on there was no real success on my horizon. During my first engagement in Saarbrücken I even toyed with the idea of giving up the profession altogether. I was stuck in the middle of a vocal crisis, sought advice from the widest variety of teachers, and none of them could give me any long‑lasting help. Some evenings I was barely sure if I would be able to make it creditably through the performance, and operatic temples like La Scala and the Met seemed just about as remote as the moon.
How it all began:
Music was part of my life from my earliest days, and I surely owe my profound love of classical music to my parents and my family. In the Bogenhausen section of Munich, we led fairly conventional lives in a rented apartment on the fifth floor of what was then one of many high-rise buildings constructed, among other things, to accommodate the many new arrivals, my family among them, pouring in from the eastern part of the country before the Soviets put up their Wall. My grandfather also lived in the same building. My mother, a kindergarten teacher by profession, looked after my older sister and myself, and my father worked for an insurance company. My father’s collection of LP recordings in the living room was exclusively devoted to classical music, including many symphonic works, Bruckner, Mahler Shostakovich and Rachmaninov – not exactly soothing, catchy or light music. Of course he also had Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, and there was also plenty of opera on the shelves. On Sunday mornings, my sister and I enjoyed listening to music, and we were welcome to make requests. Then we would take seats on the brown sofa – we loved that.
We also had a piano, and I got weekly lessons, starting when I was about eight, and frankly, I could think of things that were more fun. My grandfather, on the other hand, frequently sat down at the piano, mostly playing Wagner – very hard to play, by the way – and he would lustily sing along to his own accompaniment, doing all the parts, needless to say, including the women’s voices in falsetto (a vocal technique when men sing in what they call “head voice” like counter tenors). He must have passed along his enthusiasm for Wagner’s music as a gift to me.
My sister, who was five years older, and I were allowed to go to the opera fairly early along, because Munich's Bavarian State Opera also presented children's performances.
When I was in primary school, I joined the children’s chorus. We had a very enterprising choral director, who taught at several schools, and so one day we half-pints from all the various school choruses would all get together in Marienplatz, in the center of Munich right in front of City Hall, and sing Christmas carols for passers-by. On other occasions we would raise our voices in folk songs, such as “Springt der Hirsch über’n Bach” (“The Stag Jumps over the Brook”) or “Auf’m Baum singt a Zeisl” (“A Birdie’s Singing in the Tree”), in local Bavarian dialect.
When I moved on to secondary school, I joined the school chorus, here, too, an activity that went right through all my school years, not even pausing when my voice changed.
The last two school years were pretty important for me in two ways. First I was talked into doing a major in music, and secondly, I joined the extra chorus at Munich’s Gärtnerplatztheater, the city’s second opera house. And so, for the first time in my life, there I stood on the operatic stage.
With my secondary school diploma in my pocket, I took my parents’ advice and registered at the university in Munich to study mathematics. They wanted me to learn something “sensible”, “substantial”, something that I could later use to get a job like my father, who earned a decent income at the insurance company and was thus able to provide for his family. I wanted a family, too, and it was just as clear to me, that professional singing was a pretty chancy business, especially because a singer is dependent on his health, and the slightest cold would render him unfit for work. Besides that I had already met a few chorus singers, who would have loved nothing better than to have become successful soloists.
I held out as a math student for a couple of semesters, but the certainty that I wasn’t born to be a theoretician, a desk jockey, weighed heavier and heavier. I tried auditioning for a slot as a vocal student, and I was accepted on the spot. It took a huge amount of courage to make the fateful decision and say good-bye to the security of life as a mathematician. And so, in the summer of 1989, I began training to become an opera and concert singer at the Academy of Music and Theatre in Munich.
During my studies I had an opportunity to make a couple of appearances at the Bavarian State Opera in small roles:“Wurzen“, literally translatable as “dwarves”, was what these bit parts were called in the trade, parts in which they let us sing one or two sentences.
While I was still a student, I was cast in my first real operatic role at the Regensburg Opera, a provincial house in a medium-sized city about an hour and a half by train from Munich – I had to get special permission to do it, because I would have to be available for a grand total of 36 performances.
So there I was on stage as Caramello, the Duke’s personal court barber in Johann Strauss’s comic operetta “Eine Nacht in Venedig” (“A Night in Venice”), and for the first time I could taste the joy of singing and acting a real major role – apart from the pleasure of earning enough money to keep the tank full on my first green Volkswagen Golf. And if I needed any major repairs I had no problem paying for them from the good money I was making at BMW, where I worked part-time in the chauffeur service; I was allowed to wear a snazzy dark suit and drive one of the handsome 7-series sedans, completely fitted out with leather seats and whatever else anyone’s heart could desire. There, was, however, one condition: my hair was too long, and I had to have it cut short.
Immediately after my graduation in the summer of 1994, the ZBF (Zentrale Bühnen-, Fernseh-, und Filmvermittlung), a government-run employment agency for singers and actors, which also supplies talent to Germany’s publicly supported theatres, got me my first permanent engagement at the State Theatre in Saarbrücken in the westernmost part of the country near the French border. According to my contract I would be able to sing my first major roles while being routinely cast, like any other beginner in the profession, in whatever else came up on the performance schedule, including musicals and operetta. It was a kind of two-year journeyman’s period, in which I learned a lot of repertoire, began to get my sea legs on stage, and worked hard on my singing. After the first season, I noticed that I was having more and more problems with my voice.
In the summer of 1996 the State Theatre offered to renew my permanent contract, and I declined. I knew the risk I was taking, and I was more than a little uneasy over not being on a permanent roster anywhere, but I didn’t want other people making my work decisions for me any more;, I wanted to choose my own roles in keeping with the development of my voice, making sure I would be neither overtaxed nor underchallenged. This is all comparable to being a track and field athlete, who has to keep realigning his work to the current state of his training.
I was especially happy to get an offer from another medium-sized theatre in Trier, also on the French border, to appear in the world première of “The Glass Menagerie”, an operatic version of the great Tennessee Williams play set to music by Antonio Bibalo. Apart from the great classics, I had always been interested, even back at the Academy, in more modern works. This wonderful opera by the Italo-Norwegian composer was and has remained fairly unknown, and our performances received very little attention from the mainstream media.
But then I got a chance to sing at the Stuttgart State Opera, a major house with an outstanding ensemble and an innovative repertoire, which had just been singled out for the title “Opera House of the Year”. In November of 1997, I made my début there as the Arabian scholar Edrisi in the opera “King Roger” by Karol Szymanowski.
A little later, I began rehearsals for my first international production: Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” at the Piccolo teatro di Milano with the great stage director Giorgio Strehler. The work with this genius was an absolute privilege for me – and all the more was the sorrow of the entire company when Strehler passed away shortly before completing his work directing the production in December of 1997.
With the roles I sang in the following period in Stuttgart, I was able to lay the foundation for my later successes: the light lyric roles of Count Almaviva in “Il barbiere di Siviglia” and the secondary tenor role of Jaquino in Beethoven’s “Fidelio”. In the romantic Italian repertoire, I was given the leading tenor part of Alfredo in “La Traviata”. As I had thus far had no experience in this area, it was a great show of confidence.
I also kept working on my recital repertoire, and I was able to continue collaborating with my former professor from the Munich Academy, Helmut Deutsch. Besides the challenges of vocal delineation, I see recital singing as something like a dialogue between the singer and the collaborative pianist, one which lives, in a manner of speaking, from the “poetry of the moment” and brings out ever subtler details. Meanwhile Helmut and I have become close friends, we have given some beautiful concerts together from Edinburgh to Tokyo, from Schubert to Strauss, and we always look eagerly forward to the next joint project.
Then Alexander Pereira found out about me. He had been General Director of the Opera House in Zurich since 1991 and had made it his business to encourage young talent. He invited me to sing the role of Florestano in Fernando Paër’s opera “Leonora”; a little later I was offered a permanent contract. The biggest pous at the Zurich Opera Houser is the exceptional roster of singers, under the direction of conductors like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Franz Welser-Möst. There I was able to expand my repertoire over the course of the years by several important roles.
And in addition to my assignments in Switzerland, I still hat enough time to accept invitations to sing at other theatres or in concerts.
In 2001 William Mason, the enterprising General Director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago invited me to come to the United States for the first time – to sing Cassio in “Otello”.
The most important invitation was the one from Peter Ruzicka that brought me to the 2003 Salzburg Festival for the role of Belmonte in Mozart’s “Die Entführung aus dem Serail”, the directorial début of the young Norwegian, Stefan Herheim provoked a tempest of controversy which made it hard for us singers to put on good performances. Meanwhile, Herheim has become very successful internationally and was cheered even by the Bayreuth audience for his production of “Parsifal” at the 2008 festival.
The giant step in my professional life came about in February of 2006 with my début as Alfredo in “La Traviata” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. James Levine, the Music Director of the Met had asked me to audition in Munich and then recommended me. For me as a German it was a truly unique opportunity to sing this role from the Italian repertoire at the “Olympus of singers".
The fruitful collaboration with the conductor of the New York production, Marco Armiliato, would later continue with the recording of my first solo album, “Romantic Arias”.