by Matthew Gurewitsch
René: two syllables. Pape: likewise. As in Papageno? "Ja, or Paparotti," the bass quips with gruff, deadpan irony. A Dresden native, Pape is one of the rare Kreuzianer (scarcely one per generation) to have graduated from the city's renowned boys chorus to a career as a singer. From his start as a soprano, he descended, step by step and without any traumatic break, to the lowest rung on the vocal ladder. He joined the ensemble of Daniel Barenboim's Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin in 1988, soon branching out as a guest artist on the international circuit, where at age thirty-seven he reigns as one of the most sought-after artists of the day.
That name -- is it French? "It's funny," Pape replies. "Just today I was looking on the internet. The name comes from North Germany but also occurs in France. I can't figure out if there's any connection to the Huguenots. I want to try to find out more. Going way back, maybe I'm a count."
As recently as the turn of the millennium, Pape was frankly relieved when an interviewer could speak with him in German. Late last winter in Paris, between performances as King Philip in a revival of Graham Vick's austere production of Verdi's Don Carlo for Opéra Bastille, he preferred to exercise his English. In little more than a year, it has gained hugely in assurance and nuance, partly because it is the language he speaks with his companion, the rising French artist and photographer Jeanne Susplugas. In speech as in song, Pape's voice is distinctive: a trim bass, lightish in color and weight, effortlessly focused and projected. In a repertoire of notable diversity -- from Haydn's Creation to Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand, from Rocco to Escamillo, not to dwell on the Mozart and Wagner that are still the best-known arrows in his quiver -- it has proved an instrument of striking beauty and adaptability. His tall, slender frame and alert bearing enhance the favorable impression. His face, with its broad bones and shrewd, almond-shaped (but blue) eyes, seems vaguely Asiatic, perhaps Tatar. His darkish brown hair, clipped short, looks as stylish as it does sober. A hint of a mustache and matching goatee add a touch of the theatrical.
Pape's dramatic immediacy and ear for language electrify even so reputedly static a role as Wagner's Heinrich, in Lohengrin, even in so genuinely static a production as Robert Wilson's for the Metropolitan Opera. His Raphael, in The Creation, leavens awe with a twinkle of archangelical good humor. "I am Alpha and Omega," he sings as the Voice of the Lord on Franz Welser-Möst's recording for EMI of Franz Schmidt's oratorio Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln (The Book with Seven Seals), his two brief, stately interjections crystallizing all the awe and comfort of the Book of Revelations. Amid the Armageddon of the Verdi Requiem, his still, visionary concentration on the monosyllable "mors" (death) causes as profound a shudder as the massed chorus in full cry. In strictly vocal terms, he is an artist of amazing efficiency. As colleagues brace their feet shoulder-width, with all the grace of the big boys of track-and-field, Pape stands on the smallest possible base -- feet together, arms close in -- and releases sound that flies like a javelin. At the Met, stepping out in his first Escamillo, he gave the toreador song a fresh flash of joie de vivre by leaping off a table on a sustained E above middle C. That isn't his top note; in the duet with Don José, Pape sailed up to Fs and a thrilling G. Still, E is high ground for a bass. In Lohengrin, where it is the bass's first note, flung out over woodwinds and brass playing at forte and fortissimo, Pape makes it blaze.
By widespread agreement, Pape's King Marke -- emotionally naked, yet utterly dignified -- was the glory of the Met's 1999 Tristan und Isolde. In the Met's latest Fidelio, his wily, Brechtian Rocco registered musically and dramatically as the peer of Karita Mattila's incandescent Leonore.
That basses seldom receive top billing is a simple fact of operatic life. Yet critics seldom fail to single Pape out, and his ovations regularly equal (when they do not surpass) those of the leads. Still, Pape has a bone to pick. "The Three Tenors have ruined the landscape," he complains over supper at Aquarius, a vegetarian storefront in the Marais (Pape's choice), washing down a gratin of tomato and potato with chocolate soy milk before a cigarette break outside in the drizzle. "I meet people, and they say, 'What do you do?' I say I'm an opera singer, and they answer, 'Oh! You must be a tenor.' Record companies only record tenors and sopranos. People think that's all there is."
Bryn Terfel, anyone? Thomas Hampson? But one can see Pape's point. Has any classical bass since Ezio Pinza truly broken through to a mainstream audience? Pape dreams of a season split between Don Carlo at the Met and Kiss Me, Kate. "I know that on Broadway you do eight shows a week," he shrugs. "I'd do it for fun once." ("So In Love," one of Cole Porter's dreamier numbers from the show, is already in Pape's repertoire.)
True, Pape has recorded a good bit: Haydn oratorios and Die Meistersinger with Georg Solti; Le Nozze di Figaro (live on DVD), Fidelio, Lohengrin and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 with Daniel Barenboim; Mahler's Symphony No. 8 with Colin Davis -- to name only the major entries in his discography. A solo album has yet to materialize.
But when rules exist to be broken and even countertenors can now make the charts, Pape might just be the next big thing. And why not? Last December, in the Met's New Year's festivities, he sang Lancelot's "If Ever I Would Leave You," from Camelot. In fact, he sang it straight to the evening's emcee, that unflappable loose cannon Dame Edna Everage. Wholly in the moment, he swept her up out of her chair into an embrace unattempted in the dress rehearsal. "If I were younger," the lady ad-libbed, "I'd run away with him." (Bocelli, watch out. Surely he who can melt that heart of stone can conquer the world.)
Inevitably, Pape's repertoire is weighted to authority figures -- kings, fathers -- at some considerable remove from himself in age and temperament. The Old Hebrew of Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila is such a part, and he has a fondness for it as the first role he learned in French, Susplugas assisting him with the diction. He also enjoys Frère Laurent in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, between performances of something more substantial. Pape's agent knows not to give him too many nights off. "One production isn't enough," Pape says. "Three is too much." (In 1995-96, his first season at the Met, he alternated as the Speaker in Die Zauberflöte and the Night Watchman in Die Meistersinger. Last season, the pairing was Rocco and Escamillo.)
A basso's career unfolds like a ballerina's in reverse, from the illusion of maturity to the reality. But Pape has not always chosen or been directed to act his character's age. His twenty-six-year-old Sarastro at the Salzburg Festival in 1991, in the production directed by Johannes Schaaf and conducted by Solti, entered not as the ancient of tradition but bearing a live falcon on his fist, a hunter-chieftain in the flush of his powers, recalibrating the dynamic of the fable, by no means for the worse.
At the same tender age, Pape sang his first King Philip, in Basel, under the deconstructionist director Ruth Berghaus. "You never knew why she wanted what she wanted," he recalls, "but if you asked, she always could explain -- so you understood, even if the audience didn't." For the sleepless king's great nocturnal soliloquy in the grey of dawn, Berghaus had Pape enter through the auditorium and over the orchestra, trailing a quilt.
"The audience laughed," Pape remembers. "Just think of the mood you're in for this aria! But then I sang, and everyone went crazy. All in ten minutes. For sure, I was shocked on opening night. I didn't expect anything like that. And the same thing happened every night."
Between Berghaus's vision and the current Paris production, there was another Don Carlo, by Herbert Wernicke at Salzburg, and with it a fresh start. "At twenty-six, you don't have the knowledge you should have as a person, you don't know what the character should be, you just try to make nice music and do what they tell you," Pape says. "Now I feel everything more. At the beginning of my career, there were other things on my mind. More has happened in my life. In some ways, my private life has been like a mirror of the stage. So it's hard not to live parts like Philip too much. The same with King Marke. When I sing Marke, I'm really down at the end. Marke and Philip -- those are the two roles that have moved my heart the most until now."
James Conlon, who has worked with Pape on Tristan as well as Don Carlo, has been impressed by Pape's hunger to explore. "I did my first Don Carlo at Covent Garden in 1979, when Boris Christoff was doing his last King Philip. Christoff rehearsed like a maniac. He'd stay after rehearsal, then we'd go to the piano, then we'd go to dinner, his wife and I. He never tired of doing things differently -- a monument of an artist. A man at the end of his career as if it were the first day.
"That's not something you encounter very often. René is already a celebrity. So when we got started, I said, 'Maybe you're used to doing the part this way, but maybe you could do it this way.' But he didn't want to do a carbon copy of what he had done before. He said, 'Wait, I've only done this opera once.'" (Berghaus was another life.) "'Tell me everything. I want to hear everything.' The seed is there for an artist like Christoff. If that attitude is as sincere as it seems to be, imagine what this man will be able to produce over the next twenty-five or thirty years. That's very exciting. And there's another thing I find extraordinary. I know of almost nobody who has a) a voice of that caliber, b) the extraordinary diction, not only in his native language but in Italian as well, and c) that kind of acting talent. When he shows up onstage, he is King Marke, he is King Philip, he is Rocco. You don't just say to yourself, 'Oh! There's René Pape.'"
Change as it may in time to come, Pape's approach to Verdi's harsh, lonely monarch could scarcely grow more convincing or complete. The elements of the portrayal meshed perfectly. Though Pape sees no obstacle to playing Marke as a man in his prime, he gave Philip the stiff gait and stooped shoulders of age, yet in the auto-da-fé, he let his dress armor bear him up, a triumph of military discipline over the frailty of the body. The brave, pleading hand of a Flemish ambassador he shook off icily, granting nary a glance. In the awesome confrontation with the Grand Inquisitor, he drifted off into the distance as the king wrapped up his own agenda, like a lonely dragon. His legato in the apostrophe of Posa as "strange dreamer" was velvety and gentle. Fortissimos -- staggering in their impact -- were eruptions of tremendous emotion, not just of sound.
The summer before, in Luca Ronconi's time-lapse production of Don Giovanni in Salzburg, Pape's Chaplinesque, uncorrupted Leporello pulled off the considerable feat of stealing the show from Ferruccio Furlanetto's rake. The singer shuttled back and forth from the Festspielhaus and on excursions into the mountains with Carmen blaring on his car stereo. The memory returned in Paris when Pape described his technique for learning a new part.
"I have no special technique," he protested, proceeding to lay one out. "Mostly, I listen to a record, if it exists, to get into the music and see how huge the part is. Then I look at a score -- just at my part. Then I start studying -- not singing, just transferring the visual image into my mind. It helps later if you forget something. You remember the layout of the page and your notes, and that helps a lot.
"Then I start singing for myself. I start with a coach-pianist -- which in the States is usually one person but in Berlin might be two, especially for an Italian role, where there's an Italian coach for language and sound and a musical coach just for the notes."
Some singers shun recordings while learning a role, paranoid about imaginative contamination. Others devour all the recordings they can, hoping for shortcuts to inspiration. Pape fits neither mold. "When I was younger, I couldn't afford all the CDs, so I'd just get one. Now I have five or six recordings of Don Carlo, but mostly I just try to find the best interpreter. But really, mostly I don't like what I listen to. From the beginning, I'm looking for my own way. I listen to a record to get the whole idea of the role and the sound. But from the beginning I try to do it better in my voice and technique and imagination."
In the wake of Pape's King Marke, at least one New York critic is dreaming of Pape as Hagen, the gloomy prime mover in the tragedy of Götterdämmerung. Within the Ring, German audiences recognize a subset of roles for a "black" bass (such as Gottlob Frick -- or Pape's Grand Inquisitor in Paris, Kristinn Sigmundsson). They call them the Bösewichter, or villains: the giant Fafner, in Das Rheingold and Siegfried; Sieglinde's brutish husband, Hunding, in Die Walküre; and Hagen. Pape indeed does sing Hunding, memorably. But he does not fit the general profile.
"Hagen?" he cries, incredulous. "Never! Never! My voice is nothing like that." Next year, in Berlin, he will reprise his Wagner repertoire: Fasolt, Fafner's amorous brother; Hunding; Heinrich; King Marke; and Pogner in Die Meistersinger, a role he has recorded live with Solti and the Chicago Symphony and performs this season with San Francisco Opera and the Met. Would the mercenary ship's captain Daland, Senta's father, in Der Fliegende Holländer tempt him? Or Hans Sachs, the fatherly cobbler and philosopher-poet in Die Meistersinger?
"Maybe someday," Pape says. "Not now. No more old men for a while!" Count Moor, in Verdi's I Masnadieri, is on his agenda for London next year -- an exception to that rule. In the Russian repertoire, he has received at least one offer for Pimen, the warrior turned monk in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. Great casting: Pape would convey the part's grave, mystic radiance to perfection, but his sights are set, no less suitably, on the greater acting challenge of the tsar -- "someday." More immediately, he feels the pull of the archdemons of the French and Italian repertoire, though his signature in blood has yet to appear on contracts for Faust, Robert le Diable or Mefistofele.
Mozart, meanwhile, remains a pillar of his repertoire. Though still better known internationally for his Sarastro, he is by now deep into the da Ponte operas. On this score, too, Berlin will get a full picture next year, as Pape returns to the part of Mozart's Figaro and graduates (happily not forever) from Leporello to Don Giovanni. He brings to the part of that champion of seduction physique du rôle, potent allurements of timbre and phrasing, deep reserves of theatrical mischief, not to forget his nimble Italian. The management was hoping, as well, to rope Pape in for Don Alfonso, the grey-haired cynic who pulls the strings in Così Fan Tutte.
"Another old man," Pape scowls. "I said no."