On the Enjoyment of Challenges

It is not so easy to sum up someone who, over the decades, has devoted himself to music so completely, who is so willing to take risks, so driven by a nearly insatiable curiosity. Attempts to capture this phenomenon in words, to make him comprehensible and transparent, end dangerously often with a label. What hasn't he been called ? A voice of the century, some people say enthusiastically. Someone who promotes himself through his roles, others complain. He has frequently been awarded the hat of Cantor doctus, while at the same time other listeners confess that they find balm for their souls in his delicate piano. Composers such as Britten, Henze, and Reimann have been inspired by his voice, while some critics object to his machine-like production of Lieder. What other singer of his generation carries such weight that he can provoke anything approaching the acceptance and rejection that Fischer-Dieskau has ? Over the past 50 years, who else has so often astonished, stimulated, and compelled consideration by people interested in music - with new things, with transformations of himself, with ways of looking at things, and discoveries of new works ?

In the process, Fischer-Dieskau has never made much of himself as a personality. Whenever he has given interviews or expressed himself in writing, he has focused attention on music, its artistic-historical connections, the possibilities of its interpretative reproduction. In the following conversation, which took place in contemplation of his 70th birthday, the baritone reveals himself not only as an interpretative artist, but also as a person. Fischer-Dieskau on the topic of artistic ambition and family life, on the slavery to work and on his great love. A restless man, whose curiosity and delight in innovation remain valid for the future.


Q. Mr. Fischer-Dieskau, as a singer you said farewell to your audience at the end of 1992. Since then, what has occupied the greater part of your life ?
F-D I can't answer that very easily. There are so many things that occupy a part of my life that sometimes it just makes my head spin. But the thing that will always occupy me the most is music. I have never been able to live without it, and in old age you shouldn't abandon that which is most important to you, that would surely have fatal consequences. Particularly at around the age of 70 you reach a stage where you have to be very careful. If, at that point, you abandon the work you have been doing, there is a good chance that you will just collapse and drift. Marcel Prawy once said that in old age you have to challenge yourself with more and more difficult and many-sided tasks in order to maintain youthful vigor. I am definitely doing that. In October I will conduct the second volume of Verdi arias with my wife. In November there will be a concert in honor of the Hindemith anniversary. I have an enormous amount of teaching ahead of me. In addition, I am working on a new book and have been blessed with five exhibitions this year, which in itself means a ton of work.
Q. That sounds as if the amount of work you are doing has scarcely diminished since your retirement from the stage. Do you need the stress ?
F-D Actually, I am doing more than I was before. But I don't regard it as stress, but rather as a game. In fact, the element of play has an important role in my life, and I think that should be the case in the life of every artist. Our life is occupied with playing, whether we play an instrument or a role. And also the construction of a work schedule for each day is a kind of game. A kind of playing with building blocks. Doing this gives me an enormous feeling of enjoyment and pleasure in life.
Q. Can you give an example of this playing with building blocks ?
F-D One has to get through a big pile of mail every day. I don't pass my letters on to a secretary; rather, I try to take care of all of them myself. That takes time. Then there is the studying of scores, then teaching, then work on new books. If you don't bring all of that into an exact plan, and then stick to it in a pretty pedantic way, things get difficult. I don't want to do without any of these activities because they are all important to me. So I have to play this game. How do I get all of that onto a chessboard, so to speak.
Q. That sounds exactly as if you are proving those people right who see Fischer-Dieskau as a thoroughly rational artist who always manages everything cleverly. What is the origin of that image of a heady singer, which has always been attached to you ?
F-D It probably comes from the way I performed, because I always tried to do equal justice to both aspects, language and music. However, that doesn't necessarily happen in a conscious way. I think it is more like a language, and I don't think about every word when I talk. Except that with advanced age you unfortunately have to search for words sometimes... (laughs) In any case, the voice cannot be guided by the intellect. If I start consciously directing what is supposed to be happening in my throat, there is a great danger. I always thought that it was important that the sense of a thing as a whole should emerge. Accordingly, I have to have made text and music so much a part of me as if it were, in combination, a completely normal language. Of course it isn't, because you have to carry around a great weight of knowledge. By knowledge I don't mean knowledge of the background of the works. That is nice, of course, but in a pinch one can do without it...
Q. Do you seriously mean that you could master works without a knowledge of their background ?
F-D Listen to the first recordings that I made: Schumann's Op. 24 with Hertha Klust, for example, or the first Beethoven and Schubert recordings. At that time I didn't know anything about the background of the works. I didn't begin to occupy myself intensively with background until much later. Back then, I had too much to do just to learn the music. That takes time and energy. With each successive engagement, I had to go from one work to a completely different one every two days. That had to go very fast. Besides that, every year I had two or three new roles and many new songs to learn. In the beginning, you just have to get the music into your head and continually have an enormous store of it ready to go. That's what I mean by the burden of knowledge that is necessary. It happens the same way with most pianists. In general, they also start thinking very late. First you have to practice, so that the fingers work.
Q. Do you mean that in the beginning you just sang away without much reflection, perhaps out of pure pleasure in your voice and the physical act of singing ?
F-D That's exactly how it was. You can sense that, too. When I listen to the old recordings, then I know: That was mainly physical pleasure in singing. I can sense the pleasure of doing whatever I wanted with a reservoir of strength and vocal possiblities. One thing astonishes me. In those days I sight-read some songs that we recorded and I had no time at all to think about interpretation and things like that. Nevertheless, my ideas changed very little later on. When I first read the music I thought: It can't go any way except this way. And later on, it mainly stayed like that. Perhaps later my breathing and phrasing became a little better. But the foundation had already been laid.
Q. Nevertheless, your interpretations of Winterreise, for example, sound very different over the course of the decades, not just in the sound of the voice, but also in the basic conception.
F-D You know, that is like in a marriage or a long partnership. At first you love someone passionately on a physical level. And then gradually you discover the person's other characteristics, are amazed by them or happily immerse yourself in these things. For example, I can definitely tell you this: In the beginning I was mainly carried along by everything that surrounded me. For example, the accompanist. I followed exactly what Hertha Klust played. I followed exactly what Böhm conducted when we did our first Don Giovanni. I swam along in a great stream of knowledge and ability that was already there.

Of course, that changed a little over time. I came together with younger musicians and tried to pass on my own experiences. In the process, I always tried to maintain my curiosity and spontaneity. Every evening I was really eager to see what would happen. That is a matter of an attitude of expectation, nothing deliberate. Some critics have written that I wanted to teach through singing. Not at all. I was learning ! I went to school every time I gave a song recital.

Q. In what way ?
F-D I wanted to know what was possible. Of myself, as well. But of course you can only take that as far as the work will allow. I have always regarded myself as a person who had to accomplish what was required. When I went out onto the stage, that meant for me: Now I have to slip into the form that I have to transmit; now I have to become synchronous with the work. The work is the most important thing. The interpreter should completely disappear behind it. You shouldn't be able to detect him at all.
Q. Does that apply to you, too ?
F-D Absolutely. Unfortunately, it happens all too seldom that you really disappear behind a work, that you are no longer audible as an interpreter. You have to bring yourself in as a medium. You can't change that. But when it happens that an astral projection of the work can be experienced, that is a stroke of good fortune. But unfortunately you don't have that kind of luck very often in life. I don't know how else to describe it except as a kind of synchronicity of all the elements that are decisive for a performance. That includes the technical competence of the performers, but that is not the decisive thing. In Busoni's time there were pianists who could not play Brahms, for instance, in a technically correct manner. In spite of that, their interpretation set standards for generations.
Q. Even among your admirers there are people who say that you communicated your opinion of a work along with your interpretation.
F-D Giving a commentary on the work would mean that in the course of the recital I would stand outside myself and observe myself the whole time and say: Now he is doing that, but you have to do it differently, etc. But that must never be the case. If it ever happened to me, then I was desperately unhappy about it. Or I could have climbed the walls because that has nothing to do with what is required. The requirements are originality, naivite, and spontaneity. Only then can something emerge that will really capture people. A didactic performance that addresses itself critically can never really make an impact. If two thousand people in a room become one - I didn't experience that very often in my life, but a few times it did happen - that is never the result of intellect or tricks that one employs. Anyone who is not moved himself cannot move others with what he is doing.
Q. Mustn't it be difficult for a thinking person to suddenly forget all aspects of his preparation, all the artistic intentions that he has dragged around for weeks ?
F-D That is a question of concentration. I think of it as in Zen: all these bowshots that aim for a tiny point. When you go out onto the stage, all the preparation has to be forced into your subconscious. For the moment of the performance, we all have to return to a new level of unconsciousness. All the reflection and all the doubts have to be laid aside before you start.
Q. From the beginning [of your career], was it easy for you to expose your innermost self as radically as is required by Lieder singing ?
F-D Not at all. I am by nature a shy person and often a bit reserved. For that reason I have sometimes been labeled as uncollegial. Because I didn't want to sit around in the canteen, too. In the beginning, it was not easy for me to reveal myself in front of people. On the other hand, I wouldn't have done it at all if I wasn't compelled to do it. And very soon I found great satisfaction in it. When I look at the old film clips that are still around I say to myself: That was still a little reserved, constrained. Only gradually, with the help of the [opera] stage, through the comic roles, came a loosening up.
Q. Which directors were of particular assistance in that process ?
F-D With Carl Ebert various lights finally came on for me. For instance, the communication of passions, of feelings, to the audience. When a person stands on the stage with a serious face and portrays something comic, when he laughs and is actually weeping - Ebert was particularly good at bringing that out because he was himself an experienced actor and had played all the great roles under Jessner.
Q. Why didn't you ever work with Felsenstein ?
F-D In the first year, even before I was engaged by the Städtische Oper Berlin, I sang for Felsenstein. Then in his office he said to me: "You have to come to me. Otherwise you will never learn how to really sing Don Giovanni". That remark made me a little hesitant. Then I decided in favor of the offer from Tietjen because he allowed me plenty of time for concert singing as a matter of course. Felsenstein didn't consider that in the least. Later I heard some complaints from singers at the Komische Oper because music didn't play the leading role there. Klemperer also left for purely musical reasons.
Q. What is your opinion of the development of the so-called Regietheater ?
F-D I think that in opera music has to be brought a little more into the foreground. It's my impression that the whole rehearsal/preparation process is not carried out with a view to the music. Directors - but also conductors - don't pay enough attention to working out positions on the stage that are important for the sound. Often it is left more or less arbitrarily to the director where someone will stand, whether he will stand still or move. But these matters are of decisive importance for the sound.
Q. Would you be interested in directing, as Brigitte Fassbänder and Hans Hotter have done ?
F-D I don't think I have any particular talent for it. To do it, a total view of the stage is necessary, a very special ability to arrange things. You have to have ideas about how to organize many people. I wouldn't be afraid to do it in works where primarily one person is the central focus. But I would only operate within a relatively small range of interpretation that would still leave room for the imagination of the viewer. It can't be the case that a single aspect, be it of an intellectual or historical kind, dominates the entire production and thereby cuts off the imagination of the viewer. In such productions you are no longer permitted to develop your own ideas, but rather are forced to follow the ideas of the director. I find that sort of thing to be unfortunate.
Q. Then you don't think that problems that are of concern to us today should have a place in opera productions ?
F-D Of course they have. But the contemporary aspect should not be an intrusion. Productions that put little emphasis on the direction have - in opera - sometimes given me more pleasure, because then I can create my own production and think a little about the things that lie behind the characters. You can also experiment with something new within a relatively limited range of interpretation. For instance, Rennert produced Cosi fan tutte in a way that no one before him had done. Very musical and also very strict. He did magnificent justice to the constellations that emerge in this somewhat geometrically-constructed work. That was harmonious in a positive sense, a pleasant shock. And many directors today miss the opportunity to produce a pleasant shock.
Q. And were there pleasant shocks in Rennert's Figaro and Gianni Schicchi ?
F-D In our first Figaro, I had to survive a very different kind of shock. During the whole production, Rennert had a difficult time imagining me as the Count. At that time, I wasn't exactly slender and I had a childish face. Maybe I also didn't portray for him something that is essential to this Count: the comic side. The Count is someone who is continually tricked, surprised, the victim of bad luck, someone who always arrives either too early or too late and always experiences exactly the thing that he doesn't want to experience. But Rennert didn't say anything during the rehearsals, and I didn't say anything, so that a certain misunderstanding arose. After the dress rehearsal he came to me and said: "Don't we want to appraoch this differently ?". I was singing the role for the first time in Salzburg and was correspondingly horrified. Then we discussed the whole role again completely and I tried to recreate what we discussed on the stage. I don't think he ever forgot that because afterwards we became real friends.
Q. Is it true that you never appeared at the Met in New York.
F-D Yes, and I'm quite happy about that. Both the new house and the old one were too big. You can't do opera when already from the 10th row you can only see little dolls on the stage. In such an enormous space you can't put much faith in the personal presence of the individual singer, which is reflected in facial expressions, among other things.

Another thing: When in the mid-1950's I was supposed to be engaged at the Met, I sang for Rudolf Bing late at night after a Ballo in Maschera in Berlin. That was certainly not ideal. Then he said: "Why don't we wait a few more years for the Met". Nothing ever came of it because in those days a guest engagement at the Met involved a three or four month stay in New York. In that event I would have had to turn down all obligations in Europe. Instead, I preferred to remain faithful to my two houses in Berlin and Munich, in which I felt more or less at home.

Q. In fact, you made very few guest appearances in opera.
F-D And why should I have done ? Then it only goes the way it went for me as Falstaff at Covent Garden. Geraint Evans had been my predecessor in the Zeffirelli production and all the way through the spotlight was directed at my stomach and my face was mostly in the shadows. That couldn't be changed during the whole performance. My wife could tell other stories that would fill an entire evening.
Q. Were there roles that you turned down? I mean serious offers, not Karajan's offer to sing Ramfis in Aida.
F-D In the case of nearly all the great roles I portrayed in Berlin I said no at first: Wozzeck, Mathis der Maler, even Falstaff.
Q. Why didn't Wozzeck interest you ?
F-D I knew that Leo Schützendorf, the first Wozzeck, was a bass. And I am still of the opinion that this part should be sung by a Sachs-type voice. By a voice with a strong lower range because Wozzeck has to sing in his middle and lower range over powerful masses of orchestration. It was much the same in the case of Busoni's Doktor Faust. I can still see Richard Kraus and Wolf Völker sitting in my conservatory and working on me for hours to persuade me that I should take on this role. I said: "I stand there on the stage as Faust for the whole evening and have to constantly bellow from mezzo forte to fortissimo in an incredible Heldenbariton voice and I am not one".
Q. But weren't you attracted by Faust as a divided artist figure ? I always had the impression that the Faust figure, also in Schumann's and Spohr's settings, was particularly close to you.
F-D Before this conversation with the two gentlemen I had never occupied myself with Busoni's treatment of the material. That didn't come until afterwards, during the course of the rehearsals. I can still see our good Hertha Klust sitting at the piano and coaching me in the role. She lit a cigarette, crossed one leg over the other, and said: "What kind of dilettantism is this, it can't be this way". So we worked our way through all the underbrush and I said to myself, for 1925 this is an enormously modern reading of the material. The difficulty of the artist to be able to bring anything lasting into the world, the theme of this version of Faust, is still a problem for us today.
Q. As far as recreative art is concerned, you should scarcely have a problem. Never has a singer left behind so much of lasting value in the form of recordings and books.
F-D Oh dear, do you know what ? Sometime in the future it will be determined whether these things have a value or not. If yes, so much the better. If not ? Well, in that case I was playing with potatoes.
Q. What role does the recording play in your view of music ?
F-D Recording itself was always a colossal means of control for me, and I was glad to be able to devote a certain part of the year exclusively to it. Beyond that, of course I didn't have the time to go often to concerts or opera performances that interested me. Instead, by means of recordings, I could take in a lot that otherwise would not have been available to me.
Q. And what is your opinion of Celibidache's dogmatism, which sees in the recording medium the alienation of the musical moment ?
F-D Of course, Celibidache is right about that. But that can't keep me from seeing recordings as something positive. Just because it is a matter of capturing a particular moment, also in the studio, the constitution and abilities of the interpreter are reproduced. And precisely that is of historiographical value. I have never gone so far as to see that as a danger.
Q. How did the relationship among recording, choice of works, and marketing strategy present itself to you ?
F-D In most instances I did what the companies offered to me, as long as it was of artistic interest. A complete recording of Schubert's songs seemed to me at first to be unmarketable, not to mention impracticable. The company convinced me to do it. Of course, I was incredibly enriched artistically through doing it.
Q. You produced an almost encyclopedic repertoire on recordings. Does a singer really have to try out everything, or shouldn't he restrict himself somewhat ?
F-D Of course you have to restrict yourself. I restricted myself in my live performances and only ever sang a part of my repertoire.
Q. There are also Fischer-Dieskau recordings that didn't sell well. For example, the Mozart songs with Barenboim. Can you explain that ?
F-D I can explain it quite easily. Most of Mozart's songs were written for a high voice, for an extremely high voice even, and they are difficult to transpose in a credible manner. Besides that, many of the texts are difficult for a man to sing. And Mozart's songs are not his strong point; there are other genres in which he simply wrote more significant things. Our recording was also made under great technical difficulties. We had to go into a big studio in London and spend ages before we could establish a halfway decent microphone position in that space.
Q. Have you ever really been surprised when you listened to one of your old recordings ?
F-D Yes, often. I have detected errors of vocal technique that I would never let pass in one of my pupils. On the other hand, I never really realized that I had mastered some things as well early on as I did. The early recordings demonstrate an elasticity and the ability to take command of certain vocal moments that, at a later stage, were only possible by means of a very powerfully directed control. Back then, I accepted many things as natural and a matter of course that later weren't there of their own accord. But that is a very natural progression.
Q. Were there moments of crisis or danger in your career ?
F-D I never had to experience any dangers vocally. That started with the voice change: The voice changed easily into an adult voice without my even having noticed it much. I just sang away with this instrument, quite naturally, without doing much to protect it. What was critical was a problem of abcesses in the sinuses that went on for years in the early 1950's. I was constantly in pain because, as a result of incorrect treatment - medicine wasn't as highly developed in those days as it is now - I had a pinched nerve that made itself felt with every high or loud note. I had to have it operated on several times. But I was carried through that by youth and strength and the conviction: I have received something as a gift and I have to use it.

That was the highest and most important thing. I couldn't put it aside in favor of anything else, even family or house. That wasn't possible. I think it happens with every artist. Menuhin described it very well in his autobiography.

Q. Can't the family be a refuge and a source of strength ?
F-D It wasn't that for me to any degree. My foundation, my source of strength, was music. And probably music was the great love of my life. I have to admit that. Something like that is a matter of fate. I don't think it has much to do with me as a person. I had to obey that which was given to me from the beginning.
Q. That doesn't exactly make life easy for a family.
F-D You know, I brought children into the world relatively early, probably too early, and I am thankful that three such genuine, well grounded people resulted - without my having done much to help. I was rarely at home, often inaccessible. And when I was at home I had to work. I was subservient to this work. I was its slave. This servitude is just as pleasant as it is unavoidable. You can't escape it.
Q. Not even if you really want to ?
F-D Ones tries again and again to scale back, to make adjustments, to fulfill one's obligations as a father. But in the final analysis I don't think it can really be done. You have to make the sacrifice, and unfortunately others are a part of this sacrifice as well. It is a bitter lesson, which everyone in my position will experience. I think the same thing has happened to everyone who has seriously devoted himself to music. In spite of that, I was able to experience a great deal through my children, and it was very important for me. I hope that they also got a little in return. That could be true.
Q. In your own youth, you reached out very early to extremely serious works, works that go to the extreme emotionally. Weren't Brahms' Vier ernste Gesänge the first songs you ever sang ?
F-D Yes, they were right there when, at the age of 16, I started to make music in a deliberate fashion, just because I loved them so much. Of course, that has to do with the generations of clergymen in my father's family. These biblical themes were a garden, so to speak, in which I moved around easily. The texts helped me to find a way into the music. Thus, texts that dealt with last things were relatively easily accessible to me. And then my first teacher, Georg A. Walter, did barely anything with me except to sing through Bach cantatas. And they all revolve around the overcoming of the fear of death and occupy themselves with finding an attitude toward the end of this life.
Q. Do such texts and themes correspond to your disposition ?
F-D My disposition is completely different from that which is expressed in the Vier ernste Gesänge, or in Winterreise, or in all these somber, melancholy songs full of longing and resignation. I am very cheerful, and I think that that is a certain prerequisite to being an artist: a good measure of cheerfulness and humor.
Q. Then why have you nevertheless sung Winterreise so often that people practically identify you with this work ?
F-D I don't sing it in order to portray myself; instead I am a musician, who sings in order to present a work. If I love Winterreise then I know why I do. It was clear to me from the beginning that this was a matter of a supreme work that could not be more artistic in its expressivity, its exclusion of non-essentials, in the avoidance of mere tone painting, in the variety of ways to express pain. But I as a private person do not have to be the man suffering in the winter in order to be able to sing it. In a recital with a mixed program I have to portray 20 characters, one after the other. Actually, in that case, every song has to be sung by a different person.
Q. What factors change your view of a work that you have performed again and again over decades ?
F-D That is a very complex matter. First of all, I would say the heartbeat. At different times of life one experiences quite different speeds of one's heartbeat, which quite automatically results in a different feeling about tempo. Then there is one's experience with the works. The more often one occupies oneself with them, the more things one hears in them and would like to make audible. That in itself changes the performance. And since we were just speaking about Winterreise, I don't subscribe to the theory that one must have reached a mature age before being able to interpret such a work. When he was still quite young, Schubert had an incredibly intense, almost irrestibily penetrating, preoccupation with death. And that wasn't just a fashion of the time, but rather was in accordance with his nature.
Q. You write in your "History of Song" that there is a great closeness between Schubert and Verdi.
F-D That is above all a question of emphasis, of phrasing, also of Verdi's construction of phrases. Perhaps he saw it in Schubert. Or maybe it is simply the case that a certain approach is automatically required when text and music are to agree with one another. Verdi and Schubert both mastered it, and for that reason their construction of melody is very similar. How often have I had the feeling with a Schubert song: This is a precursor of Verdi ! "Vorüber, ach vorüber, geh' wilder Knochenmann!" Couldn't that also be Verdi ?
Q. Why do so few singers apply this in a practical sense ?
F-D Because people rarely proceed from first principles. I have accustomed myself, following the great example of Goethe, to see things in their connections: How did something come into being and where does it lead ? What link does it constitute within a development ? If you think that way, such precursors or relationships show up quite automatically.
Q. Did you have models among the Italian baritones ?
F-D I find the liberties that Battistini allowed himself in cadenzas to be extremely interesting; in fact, the liberties he takes in his dealing with printed music in general. If people are going to busy themselves with original editions and original instruments all the time, it would be desirable if Verdi singers would think of such things. I think that a careful study of Battistini's approach would be of great benefit. Unfortunately, I never did it myself. To be sure, I always liked his recordings and found his voice to be beautiful, also his way of phrasing. But I never reached the point of doing a detailed study.
Q. Among the Italian singers you have often mentioned is Beniamino Gigli.
F-D Even as a child I ran around with his recordings, lent them back and forth with friends, and we delighted in listening to them. As a boy, I imitated Gigli and other singers. I really wanted to feel my way into other voices, wanted to understand: "What is really happening there when he colors in this or that way ?". Certainly some of that found its way unconsciously into my later professional singing. With Gigli, it was mainly his delicate mezza voce sound that fascinated me. A kind of piano-singing that is scarcely to be found in other Italian tenors of the same voice type. Later I had the satisfaction of learning that he approved of my way of singing piano. He let me know this via a messenger from Rome. That was an enormous encouragement for me as a beginner.
Q. As early as 1932, Gigli appeared in the Berlin Sport-Palast before 12,000 listeners, and he had a noteworthy film career in later life. Perhaps he is one of the first singers where you can see how a voice was fully exploited by and for the culture-industry.
F-D Certainly Gigli was one of the first who introduced mass culture - but you can't really call it culture - this mass enthusiasm for tenors that we are experiencing today to the nth degree. Today the posters of certain gentlemen smile out at you for a whole year before the thing finally takes place in the Waldbühne or the Olympiahalle. I have never been at such a production, but other people have reported to me that the effect is thoroughly entertaining and even very attractive. But I think that there is a large measure of trickery there when a tenor sings the most demanding aria literature for a whole evening at half-voice directly into a microphone and handles it easily because amplifiers are acrrying his voice to 40,000 listeners. What would this poor gentleman do if he had to stand before an orchestra and sing there in the old, normal fashion ?
Q. You have stood up again and again for the music of the 20th century and suggested to many composers that they should write works for a baritone. Aside from the interest in something new and unusual, which of these works have become dear to you ?
F-D I would say that Aribert Reimann's works have become dear to me, and in fact I sang them again and again as long as it was possible. He is one of a very few composers who has particular vocal possibilities in mind when he writes and follows them precisely. He always knows exactly who he is writing for and what he wants to accomplish. That is something very gratifying for the singer. I am convinced that Mozart had a very accurate conception of the singers who were to sing his major roles. Unfortunately, that has been lost somewhat. Often people sit at their desk and compose in a theoretical way, and then come the nasty surprises at the first rehearsals.
Q. Isn't there also a danger for the successors in a role if it was tailored to a particular voice in an extreme way ?
F-D Not necessarily. It can be extremely productive for a singer to have to adapt himself to the demands of a different voice. Speaking generally, I have always believed that a singer ought to train himself to be a kind of parrot. He should be able to imitate every phoneme that other people produce or every noise that he encounters. This motivation to imitate should be very strong. Only then can one make his own certain sounds that are not originally specific to his own instrument.
Q. You yourself have been imitated by a whole generation of baritones. Next to you, Gérard Souzay played the most important role among Lieder singers of your generation. Did you regard him as a rival ?
F-D I didn't regard him as a rival - and apparently he didn't either. A short time ago we were talking about it on the telephone and he said that we were more soul brothers than rivals. I wish I could have learned to sing as well in French as he did in German. There are superb Schubert recordings by him and also lovely baroque cantatas. I have always admired his musicality, his impulsiveness, his unity with the audience of the moment. That was just enormously spontaneous. And he's like that now when he gives public master classes. I am impressed by the way he does it.
Q. Have you often attended concerts by your colleagues ?
F-D Before I didn't often have the time, unfortunately. Now I do it from time to time with much pleasure. Of course, every singer is a little hesitant to go to a colleague's concert because it can easily irritate the singer's voice. We are particularly sensitive to our voice because it is located in our body and because psyche and matter meet there in a form that does not occur in the case of any other recreative musician. Under certain circumstances that can be a source of disturbance. You don't want to imitate what others are doing and you don't want to be disturbed in your own ideas, which you are just in the process of forming. It's quite different in the case of the conductor: He should visit the rehearsals of other conductors as often as possible to see what kind of gestures exist by which to make oneself comprehensible to the orchestra. Also in the case of pianists a visible [hand] technique allows the observer to learn how the sounds are made. In that way you can benefit a great deal from watching.
Q. From which conductors did you learn the most ?
F-D I always respected Rudolf Kempe because of the incredible flexibility of his gestures. He was enormously imaginative in inventing figures with the baton or with his left hand and thus was able to achieve really new results in the course of a concert. Unfortunately, not very many conductors can do that. Beecham was certainly one of them, and Szell could also make an orchestra sound totally different on three successive evenings and take them for a walk in any direction he pleased. It was similar with Kempe. His natural, music-loving manner inspired orchestras enormously.
Q. You once named Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto with Szell and Leon Fleischer as one of your favorite recordings.
F-D I think that the qualities of both are completely displayed in this recording. In the case of Leon Fleischer, from the first time I stood on a podium with him I had the feeling: this is a very great artist. It was at the Library of Congress in Washington, where several artists performed various numbers. He played the Wanderer-Fantasie and I had to perform a group of Schubert's songs with Gerald Moore. And I thought, this is an American pianist who doesn't play according to American norms, but rather has a quasi-European potential behind him that is otherwise only at the disposal of the old gentlemen, the grand old men among American pianists. And then later I learned that he had studied with Artur Schnabel, and this influence was very much in evidence. Fleischer was forced by a tragic fate to play only with the left hand. But what he can do with just the left hand - for instance in the Ravel concerto - is overwhelming.

I have never known of anyone who could illuminate a score like Szell. There was no one instrumental voice that was not illuminated in a solo way and yet at the same time embedded in the totality of the orchestra. That sounds like a completely obvious requirement. But how many conductors are really capable of accomplishing it ? People complained of Szell that he was too analytical and somewhat dry in his way of performing. I can't agree with that. I find that an incredible liveliness and an alert intellect speak out of everything that he did. And that always produces a finished interpretation.

Q. To stay with conductors for a moment, how did your work with Carlos Kleiber in the Tristan recording go ?
F-D That recording was the last experience in my life with someone who really knew how to rehearse. We worked through the role of Kurwenal alone, only a coach was present. And while it was going on I had the feeling: Every second of this rehearsal, everything that is being said here, is important; I can really use this. However, the next day at the second piano rehearsal he didn't correct me any more, which made me uneasy again. Because if from one day to the next I had put into practice everything he wanted, that could be a bad thing. And then during the recording he paid very little attention to the soloists, unfortunately.
Q. You just mentioned Artur Schnabel. What significance does his type of music-making have for you ?
F-D Schnabel played the slow movements incomparably - especially in the Beethoven and also Schubert sonatas. They are not only graceful but also wonderfully sung, breathed in a way that I have never heard with anyone else. In the faster passages Schnabel tended to cut phrases short in a rather impatient way, not to play them out to the end but to jump ahead to the next one. I always thought this was fascinating, and I am of the opinion that it could be thoroughly appropriate to Beethoven's image.
Q. What is your opinion of the upheavals and new perspectives that the historical performance movement has engendered, also in relationship to Viennese classicism ?
F-D The perspectives must often be regarded as plagiarism, because Harnoncourt was one of the first to create them. Of course, today these things have pretty much moved into the background for him in favor of a very individualistic style. He has moved further and further forward chronologically and has now arrived at Bruckner and Verdi. And there he has naturally moved away somewhat from the rather purist basic conception that he started with, which may have restricted the possiblities of interpretation a little.
Q. I want to jump backwards again. What do you, as someone who worked for decades with Karl Richter, think of the Bach that is being produced today in the studios: vibratoless playing, quick tempi...
F-D I don't understand one thing, which is that today every interpretation that proceeds from a certain naturalness, that therefore doesn't constantly worry about how something might have sounded at an earlier time, but which quite naturally follows its own ideas, is put down as late Romantic. As late Romantic I would most likely think of the Klemperer version of the St. Matthew Passion, which produces a massive sound and works with an extremely large orchestra. That is not my ideal. I think that Bach's music, if one reads it, already contains a great many prerequisites of interpretation. You can see from the music what you should do. Everything that works against that, which goes beyond it to historicize or return to the style of the Bach period, seems very questionable to me.
Q. Don't you think that the historical performance movement has brought quite new dimensions of the so-called old music to light?
F-D In some cases, absolutely. But I don't always share the positive opinion of the music critics. I am reminded in this regard of Furtwaengler's remark, who said: "And then there comes a young conductor who conducts Beethoven's Eroica twice as fast as it has been played up to now and insists that this is the only correct tempo". I felt that way when Sviatoslav Richter and Mstislav Rostropovich played the Cello Sonata op. 102 in the edition with Beethoven's metronomical indications. Actually, most people can't play it that way at all as a matter of technique. Those two could, but despite that I suffered as I listened to it. I find it to be a distortion when everything whizzes by like that.
Q. Don't the rapid tempi also remove much of the patina from the music ?
F-D In my opinion, music doesn't have any patina when it is listened to with musical ears, no matter in what version it is performed. The work is the important thing, and everything else - how it is interpreted, etc. - is basically unimportant. The notes in themselves are already so powerful; that is completely sufficient. If someone more or less has the ears to receive and transform that which is offered as interpretation, which is always imperfect and incomplete, then he can appreciate the work, then he will understand it in its structures and be able to follow its lines.
Q. The term understanding of the work leads us to another sphere that we haven't yet mentioned. Since 1983, you have been teaching at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin. Stendahl once said that caution was the death of music. What role does caution play when you work with young singers ?
F-D You have to be cautious in several respects. Young people who are facing obstacles - one obstacle after another, in fact - shouldn't be confronted with these problems in an inconsiderate way. Otherwise there will be an increase in anxiety and hindrances to their development. That which must be said has to be cloaked in words that will not cause any emotional distress.
Q. When she criticizes pupils severely, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf always says that it may be cruel, but that things go the quickest that way...
F-D (laughs) Well, she's not wrong about that.
Q. In your book about the history of vocal music you write that every singer must practice the experiencing of text and music emotionally. How do you communicate that to young people ?
F-D In most cases it revolves around issues of background, of the environment of the works. That means that you have to awake in every pupil the curiosity to familiarize himself with the composer as a person and with the time in which the work was created. That is of basic importance for interpretation. In the moment of performance it must have already seeped into the unconscious. I think that you should arouse in the pupil a willingness to question, not just accept commands like a tin soldier. You should treat him as an adversary and hear agreement or disagreement from him. That makes the lesson livelier.
Q. In your singing career, how did you deal with criticism ? Did criticism in the press ever give you anything ?
F-D No. Really not. I have thought about it with no result. There were a couple of instances when someone made a big deal of showing what I had done wrong, and in those cases it was possible to contradict the critic with a simple reference to the printed music. In such cases I just sent the critic the page of music with no comment.

All of us who stand on the stage suffer from the delusion that we have to plunge ourselves into what is printed about the concert in the newspaper two days later. But you are in trouble if you don't learn early to immediately suppress your annoyance with what you have read.

Q. Do you read reviews of your performances ?
F-D I have always read them. And I don't believe anyone who says that he doesn't read reviews, no matter how rigidly and firmly he insists on it. Everyone wants to know what opinion of him prevails and what the people who weren't there are thinking.
Q. What role does painting play for you ? Is it a kind of artistic substitute for singing ?
F-D No. I have been painting seriously since 1960, and today I am not really doing any more than I have always done. At most, the inquiries are becoming more frequent. And I don't think that before painting was a supplement to singing for me. It directs itself to completely different sense organs, and I think that musical ideas can only be reproduced metaphorically with lines and colors. It's true that I sometimes try to represent subjects that I have sung, but that is not the important thing. The important thing is to be creative myself: that I can really shape something myself and don't have to put myself as interpreter in the position of subservience to a thing, as I have been accustomed to do. From the first stroke a dialog arises with the thing that I am bringing to the canvas. This dialog can be very exciting, but also very painful. It isn't a holiday pasttime but rather a genuine discussion.
Q. Recently you have appeared repeatedly as a conductor. What ambitions do you have in this direction ?
F-D Well, I don't want to build a career as a conductor, for God's sake. I also didn't want to do that when I started at the beginning of the 1970's. At that time I was a stand-in: Klemperer was seriously ill and I was asked by a recording company to take over the recording. Up to now I have often remained a stand-in as a conductor. And I have even enjoyed that here and there. I thought to myself: it is quite an athletic activity to adapt oneself to orchestral conceptions and conditions. Orchestras all have their own habits and ideas about sound. It's true that they alter their sound a little under every hand, but basically the character of the orchestra remains constant. But in regard to ambitions: in the future I will only conduct when a particular task recommends itself. That's the way it is now in November, for instance, when I will conduct a concert with a small ensemble in honor of the Hindemith anniversary because I think that Hindemith is underrepresented in concert programs.
Q. What repertoire interests you as a conductor ?
F-D I have always been interested in all music and have limited myself very little. There is nothing in the entire history of music that is so obscure that it would be of no interest to me whatever. Even in the case of minor composers who imitated others, there are a great many things that are interesting. Whatever I am working on at the moment is my favorite. In any case, that's the way it always was when I sang. Actually, what I have always enjoyed is the challenge that must be met. The harder and more complicated it presents itself, the better.
Q. Does that mean that you are really at your best under severe pressure to perform ?
F-D I don't really know about that. I don't find the execution itself to be so important. And not the end result either. The experience that one gets through the challenges, the personal experience in the face of a musical work that I am not yet familiar with: That is the most important thing for me.

This interview was published in Opernwelt Jahrbuch 1995 (4-29).

interviewer: Stephan Mösch
translator: Celia Sgroi