— At first glance, it appears that basses get the short end of the stick in opera. Even if they’ve managed to avoid mugging as a comic foil for the lovesick tenor, they are too busy raging, possessing or controlling to ever get the girl. Asked if he wished he were a tenor so he could have a crack at being the hero, bass-of-the-moment René Pape let out a small Mephistophelian laugh before answering with a firm no. “Who wants that kind of pressure?”
It’s just as well. Pape’s intensity and total approach to singing and stagecraft are much better suited to the strong-but-flawed characters he plays as a bass. The German star’s most recent success was a turn as the title character in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York this past autumn. When writing about his performances, critics struggle to find adjectives that accurately describe his voice. Most reach for some variant of velvety, rich or chocolaty usually in combination with charismatic or riveting.
A few days before “Boris Godunov” opened, the temptation to luxuriate in the sound rather than actually listen to what Pape (pronounced PAH-pe) was saying was enormous. That he is tall, fit and impeccably dressed didn’t help either.
In contrast to the boyish charm and twinkling eyes that make singers like tenor Juan Diego Florez engaging, Pape’s onstage charisma is a non-negotiable tractor beam. Even if the opera is way too long and you are mostly occupied by working out the quickest route to an interval sandwich, when Pape opens his mouth, it is impossible not to pay attention.
Although he has made many recordings, the most recent of which have been an attention-grabbing “Parsifal” with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre and a disc of arias called “Gods, Kings & Demons,” to get the full measure of Pape’s appeal, the voice must be experienced in person.
He first performed in Los Angeles in 2007 as a soloist in Los Angeles Opera’s production of Verdi’s Requiem. He’s back in town Saturday, but this time it will be just Pape and pianist Brian Zeger on stage for a lieder recital. A few Schubert songs will be offered along with Hugo Wolf’s “Michelangelo Lieder” and Schumann’s song cycle “Dichterliebe.”
Pape gave the same program in 2009 at his debut recital at Carnegie Hall. The New York Times reviewer was impressed by a “gentleness [that] had an irresistible power” and noted that “for pure, soul-wrenching introspection, nothing ... quite matched Mr. Pape’s rendering of the Wolf ‘Michelangelo’ songs.”
One-off recitals are lucrative because they don’t need the lengthy rehearsal period opera requires, but they are can be terrifying. With no instrument to occupy the hands and eyes, many singers find the anxiety isn’t worth the money and refuse to do recitals at all.
“I don’t do so many,” Pape said, “but I really love it because it has a totally different feel when you are just on your own.…
“It’s more tense because you can’t just do one aria and walk away. You have to really concentrate for two hours. The audience can hear immediately if you have talent or not. It’s tough, but it’s a good feeling.”
Now 46, Pape has been performing for nearly 40 years. His first gig was as an 8-year-old choir boy with the Dresden Kreuzchor in his hometown. “At that time”, he said, “I lived with my grandmother, and she was a big music lover. Dresden has a big tradition with music going back hundreds of years. She went to the opera, and we went to hear the choir at the church. The first year at school, people came round and asked, ‘Do you want to be a member of a sport club or build model airplanes?’ but also people from the chorus came and asked who was interested.”
Although talented enough to gain entry to the 700-year-old choir, Pape wasn’t a child star. Choral singing emphasizes the primacy of the group sound over individual achievement.
We like to think that great talent is spotted young and immediately rewarded. This may be the case on occasion for violinists or pianists, but it generally doesn’t happen that way for singers, mostly because their voices don’t mature until well into adulthood, long after many talented singers have had to move family or money further up the priority list.
Pape wasn’t seriously into opera until he started studying at the Dresden Conservatory after high school. His first opera job was as a full artist at the Berlin Staatsoper in 1988, where he now has a lifetime contract. Eight years later, he started getting work at the Met as well. Small roles at first, then building up to the main parts in “Faust,” “Parsifal” and now “Boris.”
Perhaps because of his thorough training in a state-sponsored school system, Pape sees music education as a vital part of maintaining classical music’s place in modern culture.
“Doing music a child gives you something else in your thinking. It’s hard to describe. You are more open. I wouldn’t say you are more intelligent than other kids, but doing music gives you a lot of thinking skills, and sometimes you are better in school and you understand things earlier that are going on in the world.”
Equally important, he said, is financial support. Americans like to perceive Europe as a magical land where all arts are fully funded and those who wish to spend their lives creating never have to sully their ideals with practical considerations like fundraising or audience appeal. Recent government cuts in the Netherlands, the U.K. and Italy have changed the landscape and have Pape worried about the future of his artform.
“If the government doesn’t care anymore about their own culture and they let it go into private hands, than it means they are mentally bankrupt. There is nothing left, it is just business, business, business. Nobody will care about a piano concert, an orchestra concert or the opera. People will just listen to rap about how to kill your mother, and that’s it.”
He may not be a fan of Eminem or 50 Cent, but it’s foolish to assume that means he’s a paid-up member of the Anti-Pop Club. Nestled in among the opera and oratorio in his discography is a reimagining of songs by the German industrial metal band Rammstein composed by Pape’s friend Torsten Rasch. The few tracks available on YouTube reveal a surprisingly Maherlian orchestral song cycle inspired by Rammstein’s lyrics and melodies.
Pape has also been known to break out the show tunes for recital encores.
He’s made it at the Met, spends summers at European festivals, has a lifetime contract in Berlin and a raft of recordings to his name. A success by anyone’s standards, Pape eschews the yardstick of great reviews and increasingly prestigious engagements in favor of a more immediate way to rate his performance.
“I’ve been singing in public since I was 8 years old,” he said, “so I’ve never done anything else. If the people are happy, then I am happy.”
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center, downtown L.A.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $20 to $110
Information: (213) 972-8001 or https://www.laopera.com