Interview with Johan Reuter

Born in Copenhagen, Johan Reuter is recognized as one of the foremost bass-baritones performing today.  Following vocal studies in his home town, he joined the Danish Royal Theatre in 1996 where he has been an ensemble member since.  He has also performed as a guest for many of the most prestigious international stages including the Metropolitan Opera, the Canadian Opera Company, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Teatro Real Madrid and at the Salzburg Festival.  Recent and future engagements include Wotan in Toronto, Holländer in Hamburg, Dr Schön at the Met, Michele and Gianni Schicchi in Copenhagen and Holländer and Orest in Munich.  Mr Reuter is a frequent guest at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and I caught up with him during rehearsals for his performances in the title role in the first ever production by the Royal Opera of Enescu’s Oedipe

Photo: © Miklos Szabo
Photo: © Miklos Szabo
Mr Reuter, welcome back to London, England.  You’re a frequent visitor to the Royal Opera House where you have performed roles such as Jochanaan, Theseus in Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, Wozzeck and Barak. How do you find working in London?

This is my eighth visit in ten years. London is a crazy city!  Not only are there so many people, but there’s always something going on.  Since I came here to rehearse for Oedipe, there have been so many different things happening: Obama’s visit, the London Marathon, the Queen’s birthday – even the weather makes people edgy!

I really enjoy working at the Royal Opera House. In many ways it feels like a young company – apart from the auditorium, the building is quite new and you feel also that it’s a young, energetic and enthusiastic organization.  And of course I get to work with the best colleagues in the world.  I’m really happy that I’m often in London.

As Theseus in Birtwistle`s The Minotaur at the Royal Opera. Photo: © ROH/ Bill Cooper
As Theseus in Birtwistle`s The Minotaur at the Royal Opera. Photo: © ROH/ Bill Cooper
You’re here for Enescu’s Oedipe in its first production here at the Royal Opera.  It is a relative rarity and many people may not be familiar with it.  Tell us a little about the character that you have to portray. 

It’s a bit like Boccanegra in that Oedipe’s a young man at the beginning of the piece, and you go through his whole life in three stages.  It’s not often that you get to perform a character in this way – you even see him as a newborn (but I have a stand-in puppet for that!).  It’s really interesting to get to do that whole trajectory.  We of course all know the story, and on the surface it’s quite a simple story, but all the characters are interesting from a psychological point of view; and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Freud took the story of Oedipus and looked at the archetypal emotions of the situation.  In the end, I think Oedipe feels that he conquered destiny. Of course he didn’t, because the things that were foretold happened, but I think he feels that he conquered destiny through fighting these things, and then when they happened anyway, accepted them.  That’s also what you do if you’re in therapy: you say things out loud, you accept what has happened, you face reality – and Oedipe does that in the end.

As Oedipe at the Royal Opera in 2016.  Photo: © ROH/Clive Barda
As Oedipe at the Royal Opera in 2016. Photo: © ROH/Clive Barda
Vocally it’s a pretty big sing.

It’s a lot!  I really think that a role of this length gives me an opportunity and an obligation to show a lot of things, which takes a bit of courage.  When I’m a young man at the beginning I have to be weak and full of doubt and troubled.  But being weak is the opposite of performing on an opera stage because you have to be really strong to stand up there; you have to sing quite loudly, you have to believe in yourself, so playing weak and playing confused – that’s a challenge.  It’s quite easy to be the big king in the beginning of Act III because that’s more what you typically do on an opera stage but playing troubled, conflicted or weak characters is harder to do.  Then of course what Oedipe goes through at the end of his life is even more different.  I hope I can portray these extremes.  It’s also quite a wild story, quite violent and unpleasant.  I think it’s a good piece.  Of course I have to say that now!  I might feel differently about it on 9 June after the last performance, but I don’t think I will.  It really is a good piece.  And it’s Enescu’s first opera, his only opera in fact.

And it’s so assured.

Yes, it’s so assured, with such a personal approach.  For his first opera he really went for it and wrote a grand opera with such a big chorus part, with such a big orchestra, with percussion bringing in strange sounds and celesta, harmonium and a piano in the pit.  He really pulls out all the stops and goes for it and makes such a success of the work.  I can only think of one composer who made such a good piece as his first opera and that’s Berg.  Of course there must be others but right now, off the top of my head, I can’t think of other first operas that are such an amazing achievement.  Oedipe’s not very often played, though, and I think there are reasons for that and that comes with how opera houses plan and do their repertoire.  Oedipe doesn’t belong to any school and it’s Enescu’s only opera.  Janáček (who doesn’t belong to any school either) wrote so many operas, that once in a while opera houses think ‘now it’s time to play a Janáček opera’.  But it doesn’t happen often that opera houses decide that it’s time to perform Enescu.

As Barak in Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Royal Opera. Photo: © ROH/ Clive Barda
As Barak in Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Royal Opera. Photo: © ROH/ Clive Barda
Tell us a little bit about the production here, because like many people I only know the work from recordings, and I imagine I’m not alone in that respect.  It gives the impression of being quite static, partly because there’s a lot of choral writing.

That’s definitely inspired by what we think of as ancient Greek theatre.  This commenting chorus does something that’s often considered a faux pas in theatre – they comment on what the audience sees.  But that’s what we think was normally used with the chorus back in the days of Greek Tragedy.  Enescu is paying homage to this, and that’s the effect he probably wanted.  In this production we are trying to be a lot more realistic and a lot more modern, including with the chorus.  Of course, the Royal Opera Chorus are brilliant, so they can pull it off and it’s going to be interesting.  This staging is quite gritty; again, it’s the opposite of how we look at ancient Greece, where people imagine pure white lines.  Here, La Fura dels Baus have chosen quite a gritty production, partly inspired by what I believe was an accident in Hungary where a city was flooded with toxic mud.  They have brought this kind of mud, colour, grit and dirt into the production and they flow through the piece.  I think it works well as a metaphor, something that’s disturbing peace, disturbing balance, floating, getting in everywhere, like the plague that the libretto talks about.

As Wotan with Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company production of Die Walküre, Photo: © Michael Cooper
As Wotan with Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company production of Die Walküre, Photo: © Michael Cooper
You’ve received particular acclaim for your assumptions of the big Wagner and Strauss parts such as Barak, Holländer and Wotan.  How do you feel that you have developed as an artist to be able to take on these parts?  How have you grown the voice?

I have done this in a slow and deliberate way. When I did Rheingold, I started singing Donner and then I covered Wotan in the production.  I did a couple of performances of Wotan and then put it away.  Later I did the third act of Siegfried in concert and then I put it away and again later I did the whole opera.  Then I combined it with Rheingold then years after that I worked up to doing Walküre for the first time.  Now I’m combining Rheingold and Walküre.  I haven’t done all three of them in one run yet but I’ve gradually built it up.  The thing as a singer is that it’s a matter of what offers you get and what’s being performed in the houses that you work with.  You can’t control it completely – you can say yes and you can say no and you can try to control it, but once in a while everything turns up at the same time.  I started singing the Papagenos and the Figaros like everyone else and I’ve tried not to go too quickly into the big parts.  There still are some parts that I haven’t done yet, not because they’re still too big – not even because they’re too loud, but also because they’re too aggressive.  For example, I’ve only done Kurwenal once – it’s not a very long part but it’s really hard to do because he’s so angry all the time.  I think the same thing would happen if or when I do Telramund – the danger is that you can get carried away by all that anger, by all that aggression. I think it’s difficult for me – and for everybody – to control these aggressive parts.  Whereas for Wotan, even if he is really angry in Act III of Walküre or Siegfried, he’s not as aggressive as Telramund or even Kurwenal.  And I must say I enjoy doing these long roles.  Telling the big story of Wotan in the second act of Walküre – it’s just a gift to me that you’re allowed to have so much time at your disposal with the audience.

How do you make sure that you keep the voice healthy? You sound fantastic but so many people who have sung Wotan – and I’m not going to name any names – have found it can ruin the voice.

Thank you for saying that.  I always try to look at the lyrical aspect of things; I always try to sing things.  With Wagner there is a tradition to sing very heavily and in a very declamatory style, where you punch out each syllable to get weight, expression and text clarity.  Of course you need that, you need weight and expression and power, but you also need to sing for a long time, and there’s a certain limit to what the voice can do.  I hope that I don’t go over that limit – I certainly aim not to. That sometimes means that people say that I’m not a real Wagnerian because they want something louder and they want something more aggressive but I’m not going to give it to them because it’s not me.  The other thing that I always do is to sing a very varied repertoire. I try to sing Italian music, I try to sing high-lying stuff, and I try to sing all sorts of deep roles.  For example in Oedipe, there are lots of really deep, low parts to the role and I think that variety is a really healthy thing to keep the voice flexible.

As the Holländer in Copenhagen. Photo: © Per Morten Abrahamsen
As the Holländer in Copenhagen. Photo: © Per Morten Abrahamsen
I saw you a few years ago in Berlin as Nabucco and it was fantastic because it was so stylistically appropriate, long lines, beautiful legato, everything was there.  How do you apply style to the roles that you do?

First of all, I won’t take any credit for that because of course it’s the coaches and conductors who help me with that.

But you also have to be receptive to that.

Yes, I think I do have a feeling for these things.  I always try to sing what I sing stylistically correctly, but I also think that I try to bring some Mozart into Wagner, I try to bring some Wagner back to Mozart and I try to bring some ‘me’ into everything, so it’s a mixture of these things – of trying to find the style but also bringing my own brand of musicality to these different works.  If I do Berg I try to read it from Berg backwards.  Berg didn’t know about Stockhausen, Boulez or Nono.  They knew about Berg, but he didn’t know about them.  That doesn’t mean we should forget what has happened in the 80 or 90 years between, but I try to look at what Berg had been listening to, what was it those works, what he was developing further and that of course works also in terms of singing style.  That’s what I often try to do.

As Saul in Nielsen`s Saul og David in Copenhagen. Photo: © Signe Roderik
As Saul in Nielsen`s Saul og David in Copenhagen. Photo: © Signe Roderik
Danish music is a big part of your career. You’ve recorded a lot, including recently an award-winning set of Nielsen’s Maskarade.  How important is Danish music to you?

As a Danish musician, I feel I should work with Danish music and with Danish colleagues and I want to be a part of Danish musical life – it’s where I come from.  I think I work more abroad than I’m working in Denmark but I really want to keep on working in Denmark and I’m still a member of the ensemble of the Royal Theatre.  I’m doing concerts there, I’m doing opera there, and I’m singing some Danish music.  Then I feel this connection with Carl Nielsen, whose music I grew up with both when I was in the boys’ choir and also through music that my father liked.  Now I’m working in the theatre where Nielsen was a violinist and a conductor for most of his career.  We just did Saul og David there, and that’s also on DVD in a David Pountney production.  When I was studying the part of Saul I was frankly a bit worried how it would go, because if Oedipe is a bit like an oratorio, Saul og David is a lot like an oratorio, but I have to say that David Pountney had some very good ideas that made it work on stage and I ended up enjoying it immensely.   Of course with Michael Schønwandt conducting, who is a great specialist in Nielsen, I had the best of collaborators.

It is also a beautiful theatre in Copenhagen.

It is.  The theatre is very central but there’s a body of water right in front of it.  We really need a bridge to link the opera house with the city centre to make going to the opera a night on the town as well as an artistic experience.  One day it will be there.

As Boris Godunov in Copenhagen. Photo: © Miklos Szabo
As Boris Godunov in Copenhagen. Photo: © Miklos Szabo
Let’s talk a little bit about the future because you have quite a few interesting things coming up.  You have Dead Man Walking in Copenhagen, Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers in Vienna.  Now you’ve sung Wotan and the Dutchman, what can we look forward to from you?

I’ve never said ‘I want to do this’.  There are parts that I haven’t done and that I might never get to do.  I haven’t done Onegin or Wolfram and those are two roles that really should be at the core of what I do, and now they might not happen because now I’m singing the Dutchman and Wotan.  You can’t sing everything, and if I really had wanted to sing Wolfram I would be disappointed that it hadn’t happened.

I can say that I’m singing Jago in the future, which I’m looking very much forward to.  As you mentioned there are a couple of modern things that I’m looking forward to such as Dead Man Walking.  That opera has a subject that I’m passionate about.  I’m very much against the death penalty and it’ll be interesting to do this work, which, as far as I see it, looks at the death penalty in many ways.  Wotan will keep coming back and there are plenty of those in the future.  I’m also returning to Janáček.  I’m doing From the House of the Dead again – Šiškov is such a great part that I love doing.  Luckily my calendar is quite full for the next four or five years so I’m in full swing career-wise, lots of good things coming up.  Singing Wotan and Barak and doing the things that I do, I can’t really say that I’m moving in any specific direction.  What I know is that I also plan to keep taking steps back, keep doing some Mozart, keep doing some early Verdi, to keep going back and seeing if my voice is still capable of these things.

As Scarpia with Ylva Kihlberg as Tosca in Copenhagen. Photo: © Miklos Szabo
As Scarpia with Ylva Kihlberg as Tosca in Copenhagen. Photo: © Miklos Szabo
If you look back say fifty or sixty years ago that would have been the way of constructing a career: singing widely and healthily.  Now it seems that as soon as one is typecast in a role such as Wotan, many theatres will only ask for that and it’s extremely limiting.

Yes, I agree.  The good thing about being in the ensemble in Copenhagen is that I can take a couple of steps back and do a Mozart role or do some Italian repertoire that I maybe won’t be asked to do in New York or London or Munich.  It’s also a check on my voice to see if I can still do the things that I could do five or ten years ago.

Opera is important.  It’s expensive to produce, it’s crazy, it’s wild, but I think it would be such a pity to lose it at a time when there are financial problems all over the world and when of course, it’s tempting to cut back on culture.  Wasn’t it Winston Churchill who, when it was proposed that they should cut the culture budget during the Second World War, said he was against that because he felt that there should be something to fight for?  I think we need some things to live for.  Of course it’s important that we take care of our children, our elderly, the sea, the environment and our roads.  But there should be something bigger than that.  There should be something above that, and that’s where the arts come in.  I think what we’re doing is important.

Johan Reuter on Facebook


With thanks to the Royal Opera House.


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