Singing legend, teacher and artistic director Brigitte Fassbaender was recently interviewed by Markus Thiel for the Munich newspaper Merkur. It’s honest and interesting, and there is a lot in it which explains how things are going for singers in European opera houses today, and so I present it here in translation (mine, and although it was done on the fly and therefor imperfect, I tried to capture the essence and tone of the interview as best I could.)
Brigitte Fassbaender is gearing up for some big changes. She will be leaving her post as Intendantin of the Tiroler Landestheater next season, after 13 years. Her successor will be Johannes Reitmeier. However, this legendary singer will remain active as head of the Richard Strauss Festival in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which kicks off its summer season this weekend. She won’t be departing from the opera world just yet — this year Ms. Fassbaender celebrates 50 years of work on and for the stage.
Merkur: How difficult will it be for you to let go of your “child”, the Landestheater?
BF: I thought it would be harder. The house is functioning beautifully, everyone is highly motivated. But it has to happen. Theaters always need a breath of fresh air after a while. 13 years was enough — and I would also like to have a breathe of fresh air myself.
What did you have to learn when you first took on the position as Intendant?
It was an enormous learning process in every respect. I had to learn how to deal with so many people, with so many different personalities, temperaments, vanities, with workaholism, laziness, and also self-overestimation. But I found everyone to be highly motivated [to work with me]. One also feels a wave of affection from the side of the audience. As far as choosing works and the aesthetics of stage direction, I had hoped for more openness for other, less traditional ways. But that appears no longer to be possible anywhere. And so at some point I understood that I was working for the audience, not for the Feuilleton [the arts section of a newspaper, where theater reviews appear].
Is the intendant with artistic background an endangered species?
Yes. Those who really understand something about singing are dying out. Most of them only see a singer “as is” and cannot hear the potential for further development [in a voice].
Why is that?
I don’t know. Maybe because singers have become more interchangeable. There had always been only a handful of one-of-a-kind voices out there. But now it seems to me that everyone resembles everyone else. They all look alike as well! I look at a photo, I think it’s Elina Garanca, and it turns out to be a model for cosmetics… Singers are trying to copy this high-gloss effect. I find that unfortunate. The only one in my opinion who has been able to endure this unscathed is Anna Netrebko. She is a top artist with a healthy portion of humor about her. We had this danger in our day too. But back then one said “no” more often. I find it better to keep oneself scarce.
Are you happy to have made your career during the time in which you did?
It was very different then, there was much less stress and competition. There wasn’t this extreme casting by type. Female singers with more robust figures still had a chance. And we had more opportunities to sing for recordings and to take more risks in our work. For that I am happy.
How do you feel, looking back [on your career]?
Gratitude, but also amazement. For all the wonderful, strenuous, many-sided, nerve-wracking things that I was allowed to experience. Two-thirds of my professional life flew by me like a dream. I haven’t had time yet to get nostalgic. I consider myself a modern individual. When one doesn’t try to fit the current trend, one stays timeless — I have always tried to live by this motto.
Can you listen to your own voice?
In the meantime, yes, earlier, I was afraid of the possible disappointment. But now I think, “I like that voice. I would hire that young mezzo.” (laughing)
Were there ever times when you wished you hadn’t been a singer?
I have always suffered from terrible stage fright. Before every performance, before every recital, I would think, “No, I’d rather be raising chickens.” But surmounting those fears always led to great satisfaction. And one becomes more secure. I also suffered when I first had to make announcements before the curtain onstage in Innsbruck.
And have you gotten comfortable with your situation in Garmisch-Partenkirchen?
Very much! I am a self-confessed Straussian. Naturally I would like for it to be as top quality as possible — even if it is financially difficult to do so. I am dependent on my singers agreeing to be paid less that they normally would be, out of friendship. But then it is easier for them to cancel… it’s too bad that the state of Bavaria doesn’t think it necessary to give [the Strauss Festival] more support. We are constantly walking a tightrope, between top artistry and variety.
Richard Strauss has not only bright aspects to him. Has it been difficult, the work of rehabilitating the composer’s dark side?
BF: The Strauss family has given no obstacle whatsoever. They have been very open regarding his role in the National-Socialist years. Although I don’t know what they should do. His music was never overshadowed by his person. I don’t hear any anti-Semitism in it. Certainly there are works which are duty-bound to the attitude of that time — productions of them would naturally not be suitable. But what does a “Rosenkavalier” have to do with that? Strauss was simply business-minded and an opportunist. He thought himself and his family to be the center of the universe. It is a moral question — can or should one take artistic geniuses seriously for their politics? Hardly, I think.