In a wide-ranging interview, the Austrian bass-baritone talks about his life and his career
Inveterate opera buffs that we are – and I count myself as one – we don’t think twice about seeing something over and over again, especially when there’s a voice we want to hear. As someone in his 50th year of attending opera performances – yes, I know I’m dating myself – I’ve seen more than my share of Le nozze di Figaro. Mozart’s divine score never loses its appeal, and when you have an exceptional cast like the one the COC has assembled, it’ll be an unalloyed pleasure. I’m particularly curious to hear Austrian bass-baritone Josef Wagner, who’s making his COC debut. My friends in Calgary have already given me a heads-up on his terrific Figaro last season at Calgary Opera. Recently, I met Mr. Wagner at the COC headquarters on Front Street for an interview. I was curious why he chooses to sing in Canada, given his career is almost entirely European-based. That mystery was solved when he told me he’s married to Quebec soprano Marianne Fiset – “we have two homes, Vienna and Montreal.” Fiset was his Susanna at Calgary Opera last season. They met back in 2011 and got married last summer.
JS: Welcome to Toronto! Since you are “Canadian by marriage” this is probably not your first time in Toronto…
JW: I came to audition for the COC four years ago, although I don’t really know this city. I know Calgary and Vancouver more, as I was with Marianne when she sang there. And of course, we live partly in Montreal.
JS: Tell us your impressions of Toronto…
JW: I haven’t seen so much, as we rehearse a lot! I was at the CN Tower – you have to do that! I was at the AGO, and I loved it. I started with the European section. I wasted a lot of time seeing things that I would have seen in Europe anyway. But then on the other floor, the Canadian section was very impressive. All of a sudden I saw the Rodin sculpture…Wow! I didn’t know it is here.
JS: What is your experience at the COC so far? Have you sung with your colleagues before?
JW: It’s been great (laughs)…. No, really! I knew Jane Archibald before, we used to have the same agent. We also sang Magic Flute in Japan together, and we did Fledermaus in Geneva in 2008. I knew the names of Russell Braun and Erin Wall, of course.
JS: Have you sung in the Salzburg production before? How many Figaro productions have you done?
JW: No, not this Salzburg production. I was there at the time but I was in another production, La Finta semplice. This is my 5th production of Figaro. I did it in Salzburg, but in a German version in a different theatre.
JS: Has your interpretation of Figaro changed over the years?
JW: My interpretation? I adjust it to the staging that’s going on. A lot depends on the production. I did the one in Vienna with Arturo Marelli, which is a traditional opera buffa. The Calgary one is also traditional. This one here is the only “crazy” one, but it’s not crazy at all. It’s a new view of it, but it’s not pushing or shocking the audience.
JS: Have you done many Regietheater productions?
JW: I did a La forza del destino in Antwerp- Fra Melitone, that was typical German Regietheater. I don’t mind it if it makes sense, if it brings out some emotional, inner struggle that would not have come out in a traditional production. Melitone in this production is not a buffo character, but a fanatical preacher. It was an interesting interpretation. Talking about Regietheater, I did recently a Don Giovanni at the Volksoper directed by Achim Freyer – now that was a crazy production!
JS: You are labeled as a bass-baritone, but I noticed you also sing lyric baritone roles like Papageno…
JW: Oh yeah! I’d still sing it if someone asks me. Every baritone should be able to sing Papageno… it’s written for an actor. I also did Eduard in Hindemith’s Neues vom Tage, a high baritone.
JS: Let’s backtrack a little. I’d like to ask how you got into music and opera. I read that you were a boy treble. Were you in the Vienna Boys Choir? Were you a soprano or an alto?
JW: I was in the boys’ choir, but not the famous one. I was an alto. People say usually if you are a soprano, you become a baritone or bass, but it didn’t work for me!
JS: Do you come from a musical family?
JW: Only as amateurs… there are no professional musicians in my family.
JS: Then you studied at the Hochschule fur Musik in Vienna, with Kurt Equiluz and Paul Esswood. Is that how you got interested in oratorio?
JW: Yes, that’s where I came from musically. My first singing teacher, Gerd Fussi, was a concert singer mainly. He was very careful with me and we started slowly, with lots of Schubert and Haydn. I didn’t think I would become an opera singer back then – I thought I would be a concert singer, in my tuxedo! At the time, I also did parallel opera studies and I was lucky and got my start at the Volksoper.
JS: I understand you still have a teacher?
JW: Yes, Wicus Slabbert, a South African baritone. He’s my main teacher – I’ve been working with him for 17 years. He studied with Josef Metternich in Munich in the 60’s. I met him at the Volksoper. I was in a production there with him. By then my previous teacher, Karl Heinz Tuttner was 85 and had to go into an old people’s home. So I ask Slabbert if he would give me lessons. I’ve been working with him since then. That was 1999.
JS: When did you make your debut, and in what role?
JW: My first role at the Volksoper was Baron Douphol in La traviata, in 2001. I was 24. I sang lots of small roles. In the Magic Flute, I did Geharnischter. Started with lots of little things – that’s how it should start, to make your first steps, and sing with experienced colleagues. You do things you can completely accomplish, and you build up.
JS: Do you have a favourite role?
JW: So far it’s Jochanaan in Salome. Of course Giovanni is a favourite of mine too.
JS: You don’t sing Leporello any more?
JW: I still do it. I prefer singing Leporello, but I prefer (acting) Giovanni. As Giovanni you don’t actually have as nice music…
JS: Really? In the last scene of Giovanni, do you sing the high A?
JW: Yes, I do. It needs that…not that I want to show off. This final scene is why I love Giovanni!
JS: Do you have an idol?
JW: Not really… Well, it’s actually my singing teacher, Wicus Slabbert. I want to be able to sing as healthy as he does.
JS: I can understand why he would be your idol. Studying with Josef Metternich… that’s something!
JW: Exactly. I feel like I am in this tradition, you know. I don’t want to make myself big, but when my singing teacher dies, then it’s me. I think I’m the one he worked with the longest. Knowing what he passes on to me is from Josef Metternich, wow! When I sang Jochanaan, I did it from his score. He passed on to me a few of his scores he sang but doesn’t any more. Some Wagner things. He said to me: “You’ll sing it one day.” He strongly believes I’ll sing Wotan in my career at some point.
JS: Do you have any dream roles?
JW: Not really. Jochanaan which I recently sang is my dream role. I did it with Nina Stemme too! In the long run, I would love to sing some Wagner. I see myself singing Wotan at some point, a Hans Sachs maybe. I think I could do that. I don’t really have a career plan. I just try to do what I do at the moment, in the best way I can.
JS: In other words, you follow your voice…
JW: That’s it. It will lead me to something else. I sang all those small roles, lots of Mozart and Rossini. And then I sang my first Jochanaan. Now I will sing Das Wunder der Heliane in two years in Berlin.
JS: Wow, that’s a difficult opera! What role will you sing?
JW: I’m the bad guy, Der Herrscher.
JS: Tell us a little about the Winterreise that you’re going to sing here. How many times have you sung it?
JW: How many times? Not so often! I’ve only sung two or three times, because somehow since I am in opera, I’m not considered a Lieder singer, like other specialists, Christian Gerhaher, Matthias Goerne. I had a lucky coincidence. I met a pianist Christian Schmidt. He has a chamber music cycle, MusikabendGraz. He asked me if I would like to do a recital. We started with Winterreise, two years later we did Die schone Mullerin. Now when I am back in Austria I will do Schwanengesang, and Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel.
JS: Oh that’s a beautiful cycle, the Vaughan Williams! Interesting that you are doing Winterreise before Schwanengesang. Usually Winterreise is sung by older singers.
JW: Yes, but I’ve worked on it early in my studies, with my first teacher when I was 20. Then with Equiluz, and again with Robert Holl. It sank in. Three years ago I sang it for the first time.
JS: Did you do it from memory?
JW: Yeah I did. In Winterreise the songs are through-composed, not like songs with stanzas. Mullerin is harder to learn by heart as you have all these stanzas. But of course, Winterreise is much longer than an opera part!
JS: Who is your pianist?
JW: Rachel Andrist. We’ve worked through already last week. Now we will do it again. We are approaching it slowly.
JS: Where do you go after Toronto?
JW: I have Schwanengesang in Graz, then Matthaus-Passion in Musikverein in Vienna. Then I go to Marseille for Cosi fan tutte, as Guglielmo.
JS: Thank you so much for speaking with us, and toi toi toi for the upcoming Figaro.
Austrian bass–baritone Josef Wagner, who has his Canadian debut with Calgary Opera in January 2015, makes his COC debut in the title role of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro Feb 4-27, 2016. Tickets and details found at www.coc.
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