In the opera world, good tenors are always in demand. And when that tenor is a bona fide Wagnerian with a rich, ringing tone, grounded in solid technique, combined with the requisite acting chops and an engaging stage presence, it makes one sit up and take notice. Such is the case with Austrian Andreas Schager, who has established himself as one of a handful of the foremost Wagnerian tenors in front of the public today. Although he made his professional debut back in 1998 as Ferrando in Cosi fan tutte, he didn’t sing his first Wagner until 2009, in the relatively light lyric tenor role of David in Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg at the Tiroler Festspiele Erl. It was quickly followed by Florestan in Fidelio and Erik in Die fliegende Hollander, and he was on his way.
In 2013, his appearances as Siegfried in Götterdammerung at the Berlin Staatsoper, BBC Proms, and La Scala, all under the baton of Daniel Barenboim, turned him into an overnight sensation. This was followed by critically acclaimed performances of Tristan, Parsifal, Florestan, Max, Erik, Rienzi, Menelaus, and Apollo in major houses, including a highly-praised Parsifal in the all-important Bayreuther Festspiele, a role he’ll reprise this summer. Schager has engagements six years into the future, with his 2022-23 datebook almost full. It is our great good fortune that we’ll get to experience his Siegfried in the Canadian Opera Company’s Götterdammerung, which opens this week at the Four Seasons Centre.
Few opera fans would likely realize that the Austrian tenor is no stranger to Toronto, having sung here on previous occasions. Way back in 2004, he sang Tamino — his first — at the now-defunct Opera Mississauga, in four performances of The Magic Flute that took place at the Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York — “It was my first Tamino. I had never sung this role but always wanted to do it.” At the time, his last name was spelled Schagerl, with the “l” which he later dropped. I attended one of the performances. His bright tone and engaging stage persona were a pleasure. Given his lyric, if robust sound, I would not have guessed that thirteen years later, he would return to Toronto as our new Siegfried.
Ten years later, when Schager returned to Toronto to sing in the 2014 New Year’s Eve Bravissimo Opera Gala, he was hailed as the newest Wagnerian heldentenor discovery. To show his versatility and in keeping with the typical audience-friendly, easy-listening style of these galas, he eschewed Wagner and Strauss for three Italian operatic chestnuts, “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci, “Che gelida manina” from La boheme, and “Nessun dorma” from Turandot, singing with rich, ringing tone, complete with a big high C in the climax of the Rodolfo aria.
His most recent appearance in town was just a month ago, on January 1, as the surprise guest in Salute to Vienna at Roy Thomson Hall. He was already in rehearsals at the COC but made a cameo appearance: “Conductor Matthias Fletzberger is a good friend of mine — we’re from the same area in Austria, and I’ve worked a lot with him.” He treated the audience to Franz Lehar’s “Freunde, das Leben ist lebenswert” from the operetta Giuditta. You can watch this very performance on Youtube. And here’s a clip of Schmiedelied from Siegfried conducted by his friend and colleague Maestro Fletzberger.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Herr Schager last week. To my surprise, he suggested that we chat in late evening, after a strenuous three-hour rehearsal of the very intense Act 2 Götterdammerung. He sang tirelessly at the rehearsal, with a beautiful, bright, ringing sound, the perfect timbre for Siegfried. At the interview afterward, I was careful not to overstay my welcome and cut into his time, joining other cast members for a bit of unwinding at the Hilton across the street. In our forty-minute chat, he reflected on the remarkable trajectory of his career, a combination of a beautiful voice, hard work, with a bit of luck thrown in for good measure. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation:
JS: Welcome back to Toronto! I was lucky to have heard you way back in 2004, as Tamino here. And then the 2014 Bravissimo opera gala. Wonderful to have you back, this time to sing Wagner.
AS: Before I came here, I was in Rome for Tristan, and in between, I sang Tamino! It’s a very healthy thing for the voice. I’m in the ensemble in the Staatsoper Berlin, and of course, nobody will give me Tamino now. So I asked, please give me two or three performances. It’s like balm for the voice. It keeps the voice focused and clear and straight, and the orchestra isn’t as big.
JS: I found a funny story about you, stepping in to replace Canadian tenor Lance Ryan in Act One of Siegfried with Barenboim. Tell us about that…
AS: That was in 2013. Barenboim invited me to do one performance of Götterdammerung – it was a great honour. I had a musical rehearsal, and the next day I had a staging rehearsal. I had only until 4 p.m., because at 6 p.m., I had to be at the Philharmonie to sing First Armed Man in The Magic Flute, with Sir Simon Rattle. Well, 10 minutes before 4 p.m., the opera company asked, “Mr. Schager, please help us – the opera house is full and we have no Siegfried! Can you jump in? We’ll send somebody to sing the First Armed Man.” I was in street clothes singing on the side of the pit with my score. As I had no idea of the staging, the stage director mimed. But he did not know how to do the hammering in the Schmiedelied (The Forging Song), and I had nothing to hammer with. What should I do?! At that time, Lance Ryan came…
JS: Why was he late?
AS: He thought the performance was for 6 p.m. It was at 4! It really can happen. I have to say “thank you” to him because it began my career. I know Lance Ryan very well. He’s such a gentleman, very professional. It was his bad luck but my good luck!
“HERE AT THE COC, WE HAVE A DREAM CAST.”
JS: What’s your impression of the Four Seasons Centre, and the COC?
AS: It’s a beautiful house, with a fine acoustic. The Mariinsky 2 is by the same architect (Jack Diamond) — I sang Götterdammerung there with Gergiev. Here at the COC, we have a dream cast. Thanks to Barenboim, I’ve worked with the biggest singers – Nina Stemme, Irene Theorin, and now I have Christine Goerke. It’s fantastic!
JS: Do you come from a musical family?
AS: I come from a farming family, from Rohrbach an der Gölsen, in Lower Austria. We love music of course, but we were very poor. There were five children at home. After the war, my parents decided to build a farm. They felt that when you have a farm, you’ll always have something to eat. They began with one cow, for the milk, also pigs and chickens, everything they needed to feed the five children. They built a house with nothing, just their hands. They made a very good example for us. It was clear that the work had to be done — there was no Saturdays or Sundays! This way of thinking and working has helped me a lot.
JS: Sounds like you believe in hard work…
AS: Yes, I believe in hard work. I don’t separate work and spare time — to me, it’s all together. When I’m here, of course, this is work, but it’s also an exciting holiday. I get to see other countries, other cultures, talk to so many nice people. I have this attitude from my parents.
JS: When did you make your professional debut?
AS: It was 1998 when I sang Ferrando in Cosi fan tutte. Originally I studied to be a teacher in Vienna. A friend asked me to go with him to visit the Wiener Singakademie, the choir of the Wiener Konzerthaus. I’ve always love to sing, at home, during work, in the summer…
JS: Are you the only one in your family in music?
AS: Not really. My oldest brother was the first. He has a wonderful bass, not in opera but folk music. He was quite successful in his time; he had recorded five LP’s. Music was always in our family. We had not much money, but money for the music school was always separated. It was the priority.
JS: Tell us a bit about your first encounter with the music of Wagner. From Ferrando to Florestan, Tamino to Tristan, and Steuermann to Siegfried — that’s a remarkable transformation!
AS: Yes, you’re right. But I also sang a lot of operetta, for seven years, Wiener Blut, Zigeunerbaron… Then I came into the Wagner repertoire in 2009 because of a very lucky constellation. I auditioned for Maestro Gustav Kuhn of the Tiroler Festspiele Erl. He was conducting Beethoven 9th in Salzburg. I did my audition. The next day the tenor was ill, and Maestro Kuhn asked me if I could jump in. Luckily, I had learned the part a few weeks earlier. It was one day before Christmas. Then he asked me if I could sing David in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg next year in Erl. Of course, I said yes. That was the first time in my life I came into contact with Wagner’s music. With David, I recognized that it’s very good for my voice.
JS: I understand 2012 was your breakthrough year. Can you tell us about that?
AS: In 2012, I sang my first Siegfried, in Halle, with Karl Heinz Steffens. Steffens is close to Barenboim and told him you have to listen to this young man. Barenboim invited me to do one performance of Siegfried. That’s where that funny story with Lance Ryan came from. I also sang Tristan, Max, Rienzi, all in one year, and my career developed.
JS: Have you sung Tannhauser?
AS: Yes, in Antwerp and Ghent. This autumn I will sing it at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. I’ll jump in to sing Götterdammerung for Thielemann in Semperoper, and both Siegfrieds at the Staatsoper, and Götterdammerung at the Mariinsky with Gergiev. Lots of requests!
JS: Do you prefer singing the young Siegfried or the mature Siegfried?
AS: The young and the older Siegfried are the same character, of course. For me, the best school for singing the young Siegfried was my childhood. I grew up on the farm, and Siegfried grows up as a young boy in the woods; he sees his face for the first time in the river, he plays with the animals…
JS: You’ve done many of the Wagner heldentenor roles. What else is left? Do you have dream roles?
AS: There are two Wagner roles I haven’t sung – Stolzing and Lohengrin. I will sing Lohengrin next year in Vienna. Stolzing is the only big Wagner that’s missing.
JS: Any Italian things? I heard your Che gelida manina,Vesti la giubba and Nessun dorma at Bravissimo…
AS: No, there are many singers who can do (the Italian repertoire) better, but not so many singers can do the Wagner fach well.
JS: So Otello never tempted you?
AS: Of course, I have three or four requests to sing Otello. Barenboim just said – I’ll get you in touch with Domingo and you’ll learn Otello. But when you start with Wagner, all the big houses will cast five or six years ahead. They will cast first the big roles. There are not many who can sing Siegfried, Brunnhilde, and Hagen. When they make a new Ring, they think who will be able to sing it in six years. I am booked ahead six years — 2022 is almost full, and now I’m booked into 2023.
[bctt tweet=”Any singer who says I’ll never sing at the Met, or Vienna, or La Scala is lying — Andreas Schager ” via=”no”]
JS: Any possibility in North America? The Met?
AS: The Met asked me to do Siegfried in 2019, with Christine Goerke. Of course, it is a great honour to sing at the Met. Any singer who says I’ll never sing at the Met, or Vienna, or La Scala is lying…
JS: I checked your schedule, and you’re now almost exclusively a Wagner singer, with a bit of Richard Strauss. What are your thoughts on singing Wagner?
AS: His music is its own universe, and stands outside the other composers. Wagner created a totally new style. To understand the music that came after Wagner, you have to understand his music first. For me, Wagner’s music takes everything of you. You begin to listen to it, first, second, third time, and you may not understand it. Then you dive in and it gets richer and richer. The more I hear his music, the more I’m in his universe.
JS: I want to thank you for your time. Sorry to make you talk after such a long rehearsal! And toi toi toi for opening night!