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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

ZERO IN | Mozart In His Soul: Meet Mauro Peter

By Joseph So on February 2, 2018

On the occasion of his North American debut, the Swiss tenor shares his thoughts on singing Mozart, hiking in the mountains, and Roger Federer. (Photo: Franziska Schrodinger)
On the occasion of his North American debut, the Swiss tenor shares his thoughts on singing Mozart, hiking in the mountains, and Roger Federer. (Photo: Franziska Schrodinger)

Among the many visiting artists in town this opera season, I was particularly looking forward to meeting Swiss tenor Mauro Peter. I’ve had the good fortune of hearing him a couple of times in Europe. The quintessential Mozart tenor, Peter combines a warm and beautiful sound with a patrician bearing, making him an ideal Tamino and Belmonte. When I found out that he would be making his North American debut right here in Toronto, in Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Abduction from the Seraglio), an interview was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Meeting Mauro Peter for the first time, one is struck by his imposing height. He certainly gives the lie to the idea that tenors are short — no elevator shoes for Mr. Peter!  But his trademark beard, often seen in photos, was missing — “it was shaved off for Belmonte!” laughs the tenor. And his luxuriant head of curly hair was also cut short — “to fit into the wig.”  What has not changed was his easy smile — broad, spontaneous, complete with perfect teeth, something I’d call “a million-dollar smile.” “Well, I’m still working on the million dollars,” quips the good-natured tenor. With that little pleasant exchange, we got down to business.

At 30, Mauro Peter is already singing lead roles in prestigious houses the likes of Covent Garden, Paris Opera, Bavarian State Opera, Salzburg Festival, and La Scala. Tamino is his signature role, but he’s also a noted Ferrando, Belmonte, and Don Ottavio.  A committed recitalist, Peter is a frequent guest at the Schubertiade Vorarlberg, and has sung Die schone Mullerin at Wigmore Hall. Despite the current parlous state of the recording industry, Peter already has three song discs to his name — a live recording of his Wigmore recital, plus Schubert’s Goethe-Lieder and Schumann’s Dichterliebe, both on the Sony label, with his mentor, the great Helmut Deutsch at the piano.

If you are not familiar with the Mauro tenor, there are plenty of video clips of his singing on Youtube. Here’s a gorgeously sung “Heidenröslein”.

And this one, of Beethoven’s “Der Kuss.”

We met for a chat at the COC headquarters on Front Street, on a bright if cold January day. Even though we had only about fifty minutes, thanks to the cheerful and animated Mr. Peter, who speaks fluent English, our wide-ranging conversation moved at a fast clip:

Welcome to Toronto. I’m sorry it’s so cold — it’s unusual even for us!

When I came I expected it, so I brought a big coat! I almost would be disappointed if it’s not cold! [Hearty laughs] But it’s a challenge for us singers when the air is so dry.

When did you get here? Is this your first time in Canada?

I got here before New Year’s Eve. Yes, professionally this is my first time in North America. I was one week in New York just for fun, had nothing to do with music.

What do you think of Toronto so far? 

It’s great!  It’s so different when you are from Switzerland! I said to a colleague that I have an apartment on the 28th floor. He said “only 28th floor?” For me that’s huge! People are very nice here.

Well, we Canadians are very polite, lots of “please, thank you, and I’m sorry…”

The Swiss do also! There’s even more formality in Switzerland.  If you go to a store, everyone is very polite — “…if it’s not too much, I would like to have this…” It’s a lot of formality, but I Like it.

You live in Zurich and the Zurich Opera your home theatre?  Are you still a Fest artist there?

Yes, I am. This year is a bit tricky, I only do a recital there.  Next year I am going to do more.

Then you must know some Canadian artists there. Claire de Sevigné, for example?

Claire yes, although we never sang together before.  And I also knew Jane Archibald, from 2015. We did Zauberflöte in Paris for the first time, and then my first Abduction in Toulouse last year she was my Konstanze.

I read that you were born in Lucerne?  

Yes, but I live in Zurich. Lucerne is 50 minutes away by train. Switzerland is a small country; for us an hour on the train is a long time!

Tell me a little about your upbringing. Do you come from a musical family?

My parents are not in music, but we are a musical family. We did a lot of music together. Always sang. Always classical music; also Eric Clapton – my father plays the guitar. My parents both sang in the choir when they were young.

What was your earliest memory of classical music? 

It was in the Lucerne Boys’ Choir. When I was 10, we did a Christmas concert on short notice. We had to learn a lot of stuff. I remember that concert was such a joy.  I enjoyed singing in the choir. I sang in the choir [as a tenor] until I was 20 and then I had to stop. The voice was getting too strong.

What made you decide to go to Hochschule in Munich rather than in Switzerland?

That’s a good question! The focus on opera is very big in Munich and in Germany, but not in Switzerland. They’re starting to have more collaborations with opera houses now. Basel has a wonderful institution to do concert, but I am more into opera and theatre. I knew in Munich they have this wonderful academy of theatre where they work with professional orchestras and conductors, and students have the possibility to sing on the big stage. It was in Munich where I met my teacher, Fenna Kügel-Seifried, and we instantly connected. She’s the one who taught me singing, and she still does. I go to her for check-ups.  I have a good team behind me, people with good ears. My agent, Oliver Kretschmer, is also very musical and has a good ear.

You made your operatic debut as Ferrando in Cosi fan tutte. When was that? Who was your conductor?

In 2009 in Bad Reichenhaller, it was Thomas Mandl. When I came to Munich as a young tenor, I wasn’t as developed. Fenna said to me — “in five months you’ll sing Ferrando.”  I thought what? I can’t do that! I sang the second aria and thought I’d never get these high notes, it was too much pressure. I went to her. She said “sit down, I have some ideas” and she proceeded to show me how to sing the high notes, to make it light. She said, “don’t worry, you have the notes, just do it ‘slim’ and it will come.”   I think I managed to sing a decent Ferrando five months later, but I was nervous!

I’m curious, when you were a boy treble, were you a high boy soprano?

No, I was an alto.

I’ve heard a theory that high boy trebles become low voices as adult singers, and vice versa — don’t know if it’s true!  What is your working range?  Do you sing a high C?

Yes, as Andres [in Wozzeck] you need a high C.  Once I had to sing a low A-flat in a song. But that’s with piano. I can sing a low B-flat.

Mozart tenor roles don’t have high C’s

No, but I sang it in a song.  In Sonnetto del Petrarca by Liszt, there’s a D-flat.  I have a C — it’s not a problem. I slim it out and don’t sing it like Corelli [laughs]

Do you sing Richard Strauss? 

Only in Lied, so far, but it may be an option in some years. Very carefully. I still think I am a Mozart tenor, where my voice feels the most comfortable. Even though Mozart is difficult and gives me a hard time, it’s a different kind of demand.  I want to be a Mozart tenor for a long, long time, but I am not against developing the repertoire to widen the horizon. Something like Flamand [in Strauss’s Capriccio], or Nemorino [in L’Elisir d’amore]. Still very cautious. I always say I have a palette of colours. I would like to have some additional colours, but I don’t want to lose the colours I already have — that’s the most important thing for me.  Some of my Mozart colleagues think — “I’ve done Mozart, now what’s next. where can I go?”  I think — what’s wrong with Mozart? Singing Tamino in a big house is a challenge. You don’t have to sing it too dramatically, but you have to be in touch with your voice and your body.  I think it may be a mistake to think that “I have a loud voice, and I want to do bigger things.”  Give yourself time! You can learn a lot with Mozart.

When you get older, you can start singing the mature Mozart tenor roles — Tito, Idomeneo.

Yes, that’s an option too. I do the arias now, with Basel Kammerorchester, and in Graz in April.

You seem to be a committed recitalist, dividing your time equally between opera and Lieder.

Yes, I try. Opera is more demanding time-wise. It’s also something very close to my heart.  If you have the possibility as a lyric tenor to sing Lieder, opera and oratorio, I really think you should embrace that and not just go opera or Lied.

Well, you have certainly studied with the best, like Helmut Deutsch! 

Helmut Deutsch has given me great advice — don’t be afraid of dramatic moments. We were doing An die ferne geliebte. Don’t overdo it, but don’t be too timid.

Do you have a favourite Lied?

[Pause] This is always a difficult question for a singer!  It has to be “Die liebe Farbe” from Die schöne Müllerin.

I see that you sing in the Schubertiade. Did you ever meet Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau? 

No, I didn’t — it was too late. I didn’t have a chance to meet him.

When you were a student, did you have a singer you admired?  Did you have an idol? 

Idol…that’s a tricky question! I don’t want to imitate someone. But if you are a lyric tenor, you have to talk about the big names like Nicolai Gedda, Peter Schreier, Fritz Wunderlich. All of them.  I was also inspired by Domingo, by Brigitte Fassbaender and others. I like a lot of voices, but I try to find my own way.

Tell me about your COC Belmonte — are you going to sing “Ich baue ganz”?

Yes. I am going to sing everything. We are also doing the second aria — the A and B version. Often it is cut, but we don’t have any cuts. I sing every note that’s written for Belmonte.

I am so happy to hear that! The last time this opera was done locally by another company, “Ich baue ganz” was cut, as were whole chunks of the score, replaced by dancing.  

It is a hard aria to sing, I have to say!

I love the nobility of the aria. Abduction has gorgeous music, but its story is problematic in society today.

Yes, but I have to say our director Wadji Mouawad has a very interesting and good approach. He found a way to deal with this. There’s a lot of added text. We did a run through, and it worked. It’s kind of a retrospective thing. Belmonte is not the nicest character, I have to say. Of course it’s nice that he goes on a journey to get his girl back, but when he arrives, he says to her — “nice to see you, uh, did you cheat on me? Is my honour intact?”  That’s quite a rude question after two years! What a strange thing to say.

Which Mozart tenor character do you like the most?  Tito? Idomeneo?

Yes, but I like Tamino also, his naiveté, and his journey, of a boy growing into a man. I also like Ferrando — it’s a silly game but they all play it. Belmonte for me is also interesting. He’s a bit arrogant; he has servants; he’s used to being treated as a prince. In this staging you see the connection to Konstanze, which makes her even more interesting. In this staging, you realize that after a long time (2 years) people change. Belmonte wants to continue with Konstanze where they left off, but there’s no possibility of that, not for Konstanze, and not for Belmonte.

What do you do for fun? 

Meeting friends […] going to the movies. When I do something for fun, it’s mostly meeting friends. In the summer, I go hiking in the mountains. I watch a lot of sports and try to do a little more myself.  I started getting into basketball; I want to see a Raptors game!  Roger Federer — I am crazy about him, it’s almost an obsession [laughs]  When he won the Australian Open last year I was in Toulouse singing Abduction, I think I was almost more nervous about his match than my opening night.[Big laughs]

You say you like movies. What’s the last movie you saw that you liked? 

The last really good movie, let me think. I watch a lot on Netflix. Some you see to distract yourself. I really liked a movie with Tom Hardy, not very well known, it’s called Locke. It’s brilliant, only him for his journey in the car. He messes up his life, and tries to solve his problems. The way Tom Hardy plays this role is exceptionally good.

Sounds like you like Arthaus movies….

Not only that. I am a big fan of Gladiator too! I also liked La grande bellezza, an Italian movie.

What’s the best piece of advice you have been given, advice that guides you in your career and your life?

I have had lots of great advice, but the most important one, the most connected one was before I met the people I am working with now. I went to a teacher in Zurich, to see if I was able to study music, if my voice was good enough. I went to this big teacher, just to do one lesson, to get his advice. Jakob Stämpfli, a big name in Switzerland. I sang something from Die schöne Müllerin and Ferrando’s aria. He said, “go for it!”  But the most important thing is you have to burn for this profession, to embrace it, to want it with all your heart. And to find a teacher who has the same fire as you. That was the most important advice. And I found her [Fenna Kügel-Seifried]!

What are your future plans?  What are your dreams? 

I am doing it now! The things I do right now are what I dreamed of doing. I had different stages of dreams. When I started, I dreamed of singing solo. I thought that would be great. And then I thought — it would be so great to go to this opera house and that opera house, to see the world. That was my dream five years ago and that’s now a reality. I am living the dream!  I sing in Munich, Salzburg, Toronto, Milano, London, Paris. My dream is to continue to grow. The most important thing, the goal, is to get the best out of my voice, as a musician, as a singer. That’s always the highest achieving goal. That would never change. The goal is to always improve. Of course, that’s a hard thing, you have to dig deep sometimes. I have work, people love me, I get paid well, it’s ok, right?  In sports, they have to re-invent themselves at a certain point. They have to dig deeper, to go a step further.

LUDWIG VAN TORONTO

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Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
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