Interview with Johannes Weisser

Norwegian baritone Johannes Weisser is recognized as one of the most exciting Scandinavian singers to have emerged over the last decade.  Following initial studies in Copenhagen, he made his debut as Masetto at the age of 23 in Oslo and launched his international career shortly afterwards at the Komische Oper.  Since then, he has established himself in a wide repertoire from Monteverdi to Weill, as one of the leading singers in the baroque and classical repertoire and a particularly fine recitalist.  Recent and current engagements include a world tour of Don Giovanni with René Jacobs, Melisso in Alcina in Madrid, the King in Ariodante in Lausanne, Yevgeny Onegin in Norway and further performances of Don Giovanni in Versailles.  I caught up with Mr Weisser following his performances of Die Schöpfung with René Jacobs and the B’Rock orchestra at the Concertgebouw Brugge.

Photo: © Yann Bougaran
Photo: © Yann Bougaran

Mr Weisser, many congratulations on your performance in Die Schöpfung here in Bruges last night.  What are the differences for you in performing religious works in concert and performing in operas?

I don’t see such a huge difference.  Of course there are differences between different types of religious works – the Schöpfung which we did last night is almost like a cartoon piece really, it’s very light, whereas a work by Bach is a completely different thing for instance, one could say it’s more of an exercise in humility almost.  In terms of vocalism, I don’t see a difference at all between performing a religious work like the Schöpfung and performing in an opera.  The storytelling is at the heart of what we do in both types of work.  There is of course a difference in that when you do a concert piece you tell the story, whereas in an opera it’s more likely that you are the story – there’s obviously another distance if you will – but the level of commitment to a ‘real’ sound and storytelling should be the same I think.  Sometimes people talk about an ‘oratorio sound’ or something similar but I’ve never quite understood that.  For me that implies something half-committed or similar.  The commitment to the piece must be the same.

I always find that in whatever you sing – opera, song, oratorio – your storytelling is really enhanced by the clarity of your diction.  I’ve heard you sing in Italian, German, Norwegian, English and in all these cases, you really make every word matter.  How do you manage to make your diction so clear?

Thank you for saying that.  I’ve worked on my diction quite a bit.  I think it all goes back to when I started wanting to be a singer, it was through listening to song.  I grew up singing in a boys’ choir and I kept singing after my voice broke.  I sang in a youth choir and later on I applied to the Conservatory and that’s when I discovered opera.  I did sing one of the three boys in Die Zauberflöte and I was taken to the opera every once in a while, but what made me really want to go the Conservatory was listening to Fischer-Dieskau and other lieder singers as a teenager.  And of course, lieder are very much about the text.  In German I studied a lot with lieder pianists and coaches on that repertoire who work intensively on the text.  I’m not somebody who speaks a lot of languages very, very well – I speak some Italian, and I speak German – but when you work on an opera production there are language coaches there, it gets hammered into you in a way.  It’s about repeating the sounds that people tell you to do and also learning the principles of the language.  In Italian for example there are certain pronunciation rules that you follow.

I should also point out to those reading that your English is completely fluent.  When I listen to your album of Grieg songs the text is so clear, you can understand every single word and you really get the emotion of what you’re singing through the text.  It’s really impressive.

I think that is one of the most important things about song, of art song, is to be able tell the story through the text, to get the colours and the emotions into the vocal line so that it becomes a story.  The vocal line, legato and production of a good sound have to be at the heart of everything we do be it art song, opera or oratorio.  The text isn’t everything.  Often, I find, the music itself tells the story perhaps even more than the text.  The ideal is to always find an organic way for the one to enhance the other.

As Melisso in Alcina in Oslo Photo: © Jörg Wiesner / The Norwegian National Opera & Ballet
As Melisso in Alcina in Oslo. Photo: © Jörg Wiesner / The Norwegian National Opera & Ballet

One thing I noticed particularly in your performance last night was the richness and strength of your lower register. 

I do quite a bit of concert repertoire where I sing bass parts, even though I’m not at all a bass – I would say I’m a baritone with a low extension.  I have the low notes and I don’t usually get to use them in opera because the operas that I sing don’t usually have the same low notes that I might use in the concert works that I do.  The Schöpfung is a bit different because it starts off as a bass-baritone part and it ends as a more of a lyrical light baritone part in the Adam section.  When you’re not a bass, towards the end it requires almost two sets of registers in the voice.  Whereas when you sing the Missa solemnis for example, it’s almost all down there and you can just pretend that you’re a bass the whole way through which is different.  I enjoy singing Schöpfung a lot – it’s one of my favourite pieces to sing.

This year I also got to see you in Paris as Don Giovanni when you did the world tour with Maestro Jacobs and the Freiburgers.  You have such a handsome, flexible tone that encapsulates the youthfulness, the seductive side, the menace also.  Tell us a little more about Don Giovanni and your relationship with the work, because it’s an opera that has been very important to your career.

Don Giovanni is very special to me because it was the first opera I took part in.  My debut 11 years ago as an opera singer was Masetto which I did both in Oslo and then in Berlin in the same season.  Then I went back and finished school, because I was only 23 at the time.  In my first season after school I sang Schaunard and Papageno and then the following season I sang the title role in Don Giovanni in the Göran Järvefelt production in Oslo, a beautiful production that I liked a lot.  Then I did the production of Don Giovanni with René Jacobs in Innsbruck followed by the recording.  I’ve also sung Leporello which I did at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen in the Keith Warner production in 2008 and of course I’ve done several other Don Giovannis along the way.

In the 9 years since we did the recording the way I sing and interpret Don Giovanni has changed quite a bit.  I have changed a lot in 9 years and I’m a very different person now and of course my voice has changed.  When that recording was made, my voice wasn’t completely fully-developed and it wasn’t the voice that I have now.  Also René at that time was looking for a very young Don Giovanni and he was specifically going after that youthfulness.  During the course of rehearsal I had a very young voice and it turned even younger during the process in a way.  When we did the tour this year it was very special for me because we had a feeling of bringing the old band back together in a sense.  There were four of us who were in that production in Innsbruck in 2006 and I feel in a way that the Don Giovanni we did this year was more like how we did it back then, bringing back the youthfulness both in the character and in the tone.  As I said, it was different for me now because I’m such a different person and my voice is very different.  I still compare Don Giovanni to a spoilt, modern day movie star who is used to just getting what he wants, when he wants it – almost like a spoilt narcissist if you will.  Then his evil side comes out when he doesn’t get what he wants and he has these extreme mood swings that range from charming and suave to intolerable arrogance and pure evil in a way.  That’s what makes him so interesting and fun to play.

For this tour we did what they call a mise en espace, we rehearsed two weeks and from day one we went into character.  It became a fully staged performance but in concert dress with a few props such as sunglasses or a hat or something similar every once in a while when it was required.  I think it works well.  I also did a similar Così some years back and I remember that this was one of the Cosìs that I’ve done that I liked the most, in a way.  I think this approach works well with these operas.  In any case I enjoy it very much.  It’s a physical challenge as well I think.  Don Giovanni requires a certain amount of energy to be convincing because the energy is what carries the role and if you lose it then you lose the audience.  In a production like this, you don’t get any help from the lighting or the costumes, so you actually have to make the energy yourself.

A role such as Don Giovanni is going to sound very different in different productions.  Some are much darker and more devilish for example. I like doing it in different ways – it’s an opera that can be done very differently and the way you sing can be very different.  If there’s a more romantic approach in the orchestra that brings out other qualities in a singer which is also nice.  It’s the same with the ornamentation, if you have very sweet ornaments and the staging is very mean or brutal, they don’t work.  I have no idea how my next Don Giovanni will be but it will certainly be different, I hope so because it’s nice when it’s always different.

Rehearsing Don Giovanni in Prague with Im Sunhae as Zerlina. Photo: © Petra Hajska/Dvořák Prague Festival
Rehearsing Don Giovanni in Prague with Im Sunhae as Zerlina. Photo: © Petra Hajska/Dvořák Prague Festival

In last night’s Schöpfung you returned to work with Maestro Jacobs who you collaborate with very often.

I find him incredibly interesting and I’ve also learnt a lot from him over the years.  One thing of course is how he works with recitatives and I think I’ve learnt a lot of discipline from him and a lot about precision in addition to many other things.  He has a special way of working that requires a certain discipline in the secco recitatives that they’re not as free as they sometimes are in terms of doing something different every time.  He also likes for singers to observe all the pauses in the recitatives and pay attention to the different note values that you can find in the score.  When I talk about it, it can sound very strict but it can also feel very free to be given a framework and use the pauses to make it as conversational as possible.  He’s taught me a lot about finding colours and contrasts in the recitatives.

Last night I noticed that he did very little on the podium, how much is done in rehearsal?

A lot is done in rehearsals and he rehearses very thoroughly.  When he conducts he’s constantly reminding us of things from the podium and we know exactly what he wants.  The rehearsals are also very efficient in that when he rehearses he comes into each piece with a specific idea of what he wants and we rehearse until we get there.  By the time we get on stage, the piece is together in the way he wants it to go.

As Don Giovanni with Mathilda Paulsson as Elvira at the open-air Opera Hedeland Festival in Denmark. Photo used with the kind permission of Mr Weisser.
As Don Giovanni with Mathilda Paulsson as Elvira at the open-air Opera Hedeland Festival in Denmark. Photo used with the kind permission of Mr Weisser.

Tell us a little bit about your practice routine.  How do you maintain your instrument?

I like to do vocal exercises if for nothing else it’s something I can do when I don’t really want to sing.  It’s a practical thing, you can do exercises in half an hour and then at least you’ve sung half an hour.  I have a program of vocal exercises that I change every once in a while when they get stale.  I find something that really works for me and then after a while I might find that it doesn’t work for me anymore and then I’ll change it.  If I’m in a period when I’m singing a lot of early music for instance, I’ll try to practise more and practise with some of my romantic repertoire to keep my voice open.  If I’m in an opera where I have a taxing role I don’t have to do so much else but if I find myself doing lots of Handel and Bach for a month then I try to sing more widely just so that I don’t come home and I can’t sing other things.  On the evening of a show, I might warm up with something in the same register that might be a little broader – people laugh at me when I’m singing Schöpfung and I stand there screaming Aleko in the corridor or even Verdi arias in my dressing room!  Of course, I don’t necessarily use that sound in that piece, but for me it’s a healthy way of working to find something that’s in the same register but might be a different Fach so I can go into any piece with my voice and not the voice that is the voice of the piece.

I don’t sing every day.  When I’m home I try to take weekends off.  I like to take vacations – I remember two or three years ago I took a full vacation in the summer for the first time in many years where I didn’t sing at all for a few weeks.  I just remember needing this vacation and having a fear that maybe things would go south afterwards.  I had a concert scheduled right after I came back and it turned out to work really well.  I figured the main thing was not to practise so much, but then I did the same thing the following year and that didn’t go so well.  It’s different; you never know how well it’s going to go.  If I have shows every second day as we do now then I don’t sing in between, that helps to keep the voice fresh.

As the Priest in Jüri Reinvere's Peer Gynt in Oslo with Kari Ulfsnes Kleiven & Nils Harald Søda. Photo © Erik Berg / The Norwegian National Opera & Ballet
As the Priest in Jüri Reinvere’s Peer Gynt in Oslo with Kari Ulfsnes Kleiven & Nils Harald Søda. Photo © Erik Berg / The Norwegian National Opera & Ballet

Let’s talk a little bit about your future plans.  I was very interested to see that you have Onegin coming up.

Yes, it’s my first Onegin and I’m very excited about it.  That’s the kind of repertoire I’d like to do more of and I’d like to get more of these romantic operatic roles in my repertoire.  I enjoy very much singing the classical stuff but to get a few more romantic roles is something I would like very much.  There’s another Don Giovanni in Versailles, some Handel in Madrid, Lausanne and Munich.  There are concerts, some Beethoven, some Haydn, Grieg, normal concert repertoire.  I’m also doing the Jahreszeiten with René Jacobs in Zürich with a modern orchestra.  I’ve never done anything with him with a modern orchestra.

Tell us, where do you see your voice going? Do you have a destination in mind?

The honest answer is that you do what people ask you to do.  You can have wishes and can feel that your voice is suited for a particular role or repertoire but at the end of the day you have to sing what you get to sing.  Having said that, I feel my voice has changed quite a lot in recent years and is clearly headed towards an even broader repertoire.  I feel ready now to be doing more romantic music and maybe especially some German romantic music.  I’ve been asked a few times to do Wolfram and unfortunately I wasn’t free, but I really hope somebody will ask me again for it.  Thinking further ahead in the future, I do hope that one day bigger Strauss and Wagner parts will come my way.  And obviously, there are countless great roles in the romantic repertoire for young baritones that I haven’t sung that I would love to be doing.  That said, along the way, I am very, very happy to be doing what I’m doing right now, and having a great time doing it.

Photo: © Yann Bougaran
Photo: © Yann Bougaran

And of course you have your love of song that you mentioned earlier.

Yes, as I mentioned to you at the start, I came to decide that I wanted to study singing from listening to lieder singers.  When I was a student I did so many recitals and concerts of song repertoire.  I worked closely with some pianist friends and while I still sing recitals, I’d like to do more again now.  I did a little tour in Germany last year with music by Mahler and Schumann that I really loved doing.  I often think of finding a nice program and perhaps even staging it.  I’m really trying now to see if I can include more lieder in my plans.  Ultimately it’s about the storytelling, just like in any other repertoire, but I also enjoy the chamber music aspect of it, that you create your own world or an atmosphere with the audience.  I enjoy doing cycles that have a narrative or at least a lengthy process that can sustain through half an hour or an hour – that, I find extremely rewarding.  I also enjoy collaborating with a pianist, the teamwork, just two people on stage and the people who come to listen.  It requires nothing but a room and a piano.  These are perhaps my happiest moments as a performer.

Johannes Weisser at Artefact Artists Management

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