INTERVIEW | Benjamin Appl: The Artist And The Teacher

By Joseph So on July 15, 2022

Benjamin Appl at the Prinzregententheater Munich in 2020 (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Benjamin Appl at the Prinzregententheater Munich in 2020 (Photo courtesy of the artist)

After a two-year postponement due to COVID-19, the appearance of baritone Benjamin Appl at the 2022 Toronto Summer Music Festival (TSMF) was finally a reality. But, before we got to hear him in Toronto, there was a totally unexpected twist. Shortly after he landed and on extremely short notice, he graciously agreed to jump in for the indisposed Canadian baritone Tyler Duncan to perform Winterreise at the Elora Music Festival, reunited with a long-time colleague Erika Switzer at the piano.

All this with just 48 hours before his scheduled TSMF gig!

Those of us who attended his Toronto Liederabend on July 11 were treated to a marvelous performance of Schubert’s great song cycle Die schöne Müllerin. Together with the impeccable pianism of Wolfram Rieger, they were a great team and it was a performance to cherish. Appl’s beautiful lyric baritone and engaging stage presence left a very strong impression on the audience, which rose to its collective feet to give the duo a resounding ovation.

A dozen lucky young singers and pianists in the TSMF’s Art of the Song program got to experience another side of the baritone’s artistry, as a master teacher and mentor. Appl just turned 40 last month, still a young age for a classical singer. Yet he has already amassed a formidable dossier as a teacher. Since 2016, Appl has been teaching at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, the very institution where he got his own training. So far, he has given masterclasses in Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, United Kingdom, the U.S., Vietnam, and now Canada.

In preparation for this interview, I sat in on a class on Wednesday to get a better idea of Benjamin Appl the Pedagogue. In a three-hour session without a break, he put five Art of Song young singers through their paces. It was interesting to see Appl in action, with a teaching style that’s a felicitous mix of aiming for excellence and quiet encouragement. After such a lengthy class, I was rather apologetic in making him talk some more. But the trouper that he is, we dived right in:

LvT: Welcome to Toronto! Is this your first visit?

BA: I have been to Canada twice before but not to Toronto.

LvT: So is this your first time singing in Canada?

BA: No, I sang in the opera Owen Wingrave at Banff Centre in 2012, and Kindertotenlieder there with Johannes Debus in 2013.

LvT: What’s your impression of Toronto?

BA: I love it here. I think Toronto is a very exciting place, very civilized, people are incredibly nice. For me from the outside, it’s a very livable city.

LvT: Have you done any sightseeing?

BA: Niagara Falls, and Niagara on the Lake. I find the nature very beautiful, and the towns have a nice feeling of community. This week is very tight, I don’t have any plans other than teaching. Then I’ll go to the art museum.

LvT: The audience loved you last night.

BA: I thought the audience last night was very appreciative, very attentive, and very open minded. It was a wonderful experience.

LvT: Well, art song audiences in Canada are quite knowledgeable, and well behaved.

BA: Yes, well behaved, but also open minded, that’s something I like. There were people there who had never gone to a German song recital before, so it’s always wonderful to introduce this art form.

Clockwise L-R: Benjamin Appl at the TSMF masterclass, with Christina Thanisch-Smith, soprano; with Camila Montefusco, mezzo (Photos: Joseph So)
Clockwise L-R: Benjamin Appl at the TSMF masterclass, with Christina Thanisch-Smith, soprano; with Camila Montefusco, mezzo (Photos: Joseph So)

LvT: Last evening’s David Lang work was commissioned with your voice in mind, but I have to say I was surprised how low the tessitura is for your lyric baritone.

BA: We talked about this, and it was something he wanted. He really made the point that he liked to have it that low, to make it sound creepy and insecure, like someone who can’t really reach, or sing much, but comes from speaking.

LvT: Ah, so the low tessitura is part of the drama! That’s very interesting.

BA: The musical language is very different. It’s actually not so much a piece of singing; it’s more of reciting, of finding strange colours, very different colours than Die schöne Müllerin. I think it generally works. If he tries to compose in the style of Schubert, musically the same way, I think it will not work. It’s good that he went in a different direction.

LvT: What are your thoughts on singing new music, versus singing something that’s almost two hundred years old?

BA: I think it’s very important for artists to be open to contemporary music, because that’s how we can build music history. If we don’t do that, there would not have been Beethoven or Mozart. We have our time and we have to find our music, music that we hope will be sustainable, not just now but into the future.

LvT: Do you sing a lot of new music? I noticed you have recorded Luciano Berio.

BA: I do quite a substantial amount. Luciano Berio — that was just his arrangement of Mahler songs. I’ve been working a lot with György Kurtág, for four years now. I’ll sing a symphonic piece with orchestra in September that he wrote for me.

LvT: Singing two cycles back to back, Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin — maybe it’s an unfair question — which cycle do you like more?

BA: The one I am singing at the moment!

LvT: When I was a student and learning these two song cycles, I’ve always got the impression that Die schöne Müllerin is a cycle of youth, while Winterreise is that of an older man. What do you think? Am I wrong?

BA: That’s what most people think. The answer is — yes and no. The character in Die schöne Müllerin is more naïve, innocent, inexperienced, but the character in Winterreise for me does not have to be an old man. In the beginning, he’s thinking about marrying his loved one, so he’s not an old man. He’s more mature, but not married yet, as her parents are still alive. I think he’s a young person, he’s a deeper thinker, a person who is more experienced in life.

LvT: It’s well known that you are the last student of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Can you tell us the circumstances? Was it at the Schubertiade?

BA: Yes, at the Schubertiade. I applied for a masterclass there, and we were supposed to send in 10 Schubert songs we wanted to work with him. I sent in 30, hoping he would find some he liked. The list came back with four Schubert songs, all four not part of my list. Fischer-Dieskau was quite demanding in a masterclass, but at the end, he invited me to work with him privately, which I did for almost four years. I went to his house in Berlin and we worked on my entire repertoire.

LvT: You are probably too young to have heard him live.

BA: He sang along with me in the living room, but I never heard him in a concert.

LvT: Was Julia Varady there?

BA: Yes, every time.

LvT: All the advice Fischer-Dieskau have given you when you were his student, would you say you use some of his advice for your students?

BA: He shaped me and my music-making and artistry, but he gave me not just musical advice, but other advice that you’d give to young people. He gave me advice on technique and interpretation, but also advice on a career, on how to build a recital, on stage presence, how to approach promoters. He was a real mentor. That’s something I am grateful forever, something I’m trying to do with young people.

LvT: Other than Fischer-Dieskau, do you have other singers whom you admire?

BA: I have many, many singers I admire, from the older generation — Wunderlich, Schwarzkopf, Ludwig, Baker, the young Hampson, Lott, Terfel. Then there are others I’ve worked with, who became my mentors, like Graham Johnson, who took me under his wing. Now it’s the composer Gyorgy Kurtag.

LvT: In addition to teaching masterclasses, do you also take regular students?

BA: I don’t really want the responsibilities right now. When you’re committed to someone, you have to dedicate the time, which is something that I can’t offer right now. But, it’s something that I would like to do in the future.

LvT: What qualities do you think a student needs to have for a career?

BA: The entire package! I did a radio program on BBC about being a singer in the 21st century. I think there are many skills that have been added, compared to the past. Of course, the most important thing is the voice, but there are others, like language skills, team work, musicality, but also self-management, openness, curiosity, kindness, interest in other people, manners, responsibility, being on time, to be on top of things, sorting out the management situation. Many, many skills. It’s the entire package.

LvT: If a student comes to you, someone with a good voice, and say to you “I want to be a professional singer, like you.” What do you say to the student?

BA: I always say to them — if they have something else that they are equally interested in, then they should do the other thing. I myself worked in a bank. I know what it means to change (professions). You have to really want it. It’s a most wonderful job, and I am very grateful, but it’s a very hard life, and a lot of work — it’s 7 days a week. I studied everyday until 2 or 3 in the morning, translating, looking for repertoire. In my student days, I think I learned about 800 songs, learned well enough to perform without scores in recital during my three years as a student. Everyday I had two or three songs to learn. So it’s a lot of work, if you want to take it seriously, then yes. With family it’s difficult. You are judged, you are criticized, on a very personal level. It’s a hard job. You don’t know if your voice is going to last. There’s a lot of pressure, a lot of fear, a lot of loneliness. It’s a life that one has to choose carefully.

LvT: We audience members often don’t realize the hard work that goes into a performing career. On the subject of a career — since you also sing opera, do you have a preference? What do you prefer, being an opera singer or a recitalist?

BA: Opera is wonderful if everything comes together. I find 95% of the time, there’s always one weak link. Only in 5% is it the most overwhelming, beautiful experience. There’s always something in the production, or in the cast or the orchestra, something that frustrates me. What I like about recitals is that I am my own stage director, my own lighting designer, my own costume designer. It’s about my inner feelings, and nobody tells me what I have to do or think. I have to make my own decisions. That’s that’s what I try to explain to the students in the class, that they are aware that at every moment they have to make their own decisions, and have a clear opinion about what they do. I find that’s lacking in the students. They expect the teacher to tell them what to do, and they’d copy or imitate, just do what we tell them, without being convinced themselves. They have to learn to ask the questions and to find the answers themselves.

LvT: Do you have a dream role?

BA: There are a few operas I want to sing, like Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Billy Budd, Wozzeck — this last one not now, but later on, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever sing it — Don Giovanni. Wolfram is a wonderful role. Olivier, in Strauss’s Capriccio.

LvT: I noticed that you don’t sing a lot of Richard Strauss.

BA: I sing some Strauss songs.

LvT: You haven’t recorded any.

BA: Strauss songs are very operatic, often done by opera singers. My colleagues like Goerne and Gerhaher — even they haven’t recorded much Strauss. It’s not really the music song recitalists appreciate so much. Strauss can be sung by people who don’t ask the questions as we recitalists ask. Strauss sounds good on opera singers who don’t differentiate so much in a song; it can be sung with less (probing) questions, compared to Schönberg or Schumann or Schubert songs. While technically Strauss songs are not easy, interpretively, Strauss songs are easier.

LvT: I also noticed you haven’t recorded much Mahler, or Hugo Wolf.

BA: Only the Berio arrangements of Mahler songs. I do sing quite a lot of Mahler with orchestra, but I just want to wait a bit for recording. It’s not the right time, but it’ll come. I love to sing Hugo Wolf.

LvT: Do you sing Kennst du das Land?

BA: It’s in my program next week! It’s an amazing piece, but of course it’s normally a female song.

LvT: What about future projects?

BA: Too many! I am doing song recitals with lute, from Dowland to pop songs, connecting pop music like the Beatles and Adele to Dowland, to show that it’s a continuing line of creativity.

LvT: Are you still under contract with Sony?

BA: I record for Alpha Classics now, a French label. I’m very happy with them.

LvT: My last question — What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, advice that has really served you well as an artist and a person?

BA: It was from Fischer-Dieskau, that’s inspirational for me, from someone who had a career of 40, 50 years. He told me to never get tired of sitting down and looking at the score and thinking about it again, to dig deeper, not be satisfied with the status quo, but always look deeper into the poem, into the harmonic structure, into the situation of the period. That’s how you can fulfill a career of many, many years. Not to deliver, but to create every time you step onstage. Every night you go out to perform, don’t just copy and paste, but to create every time.

LvT: You apply that philosophy to your personal life?

BA: I try to..

LvT: To be a true creative artist, always stay fresh. Two thumbs up! Thank you!


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Joseph So
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