Born in Augsburg, baritone Johannes Kammler is rapidly emerging as one of the most exciting young singers to have appeared in recent years. He started his singing career with the famed Augsburger Domsingknaben and continued his studies in Freiburg, Toronto and London, England. Recent and forthcoming appearances include the baritone soloist in Calixto Bieito’s staging of the War Requiem in Oslo, Ruggiero in La Juive in Munich, concert performances of Die Schöpfung in Los Angeles and Hamburg, and John Sorel in The Consul in Munich. A Samling Artist and Britten-Pears Young Artist, Mr Kammler is a member of the opera studio of the Bayerische Staatsoper where I caught up with him between rehearsals.
Mr Kammler, you started singing as a member of the renowned Augsburger Domsingknaben. How important was singing to you growing up?
It was very important to me because I started singing from the age of 5. I have to say that my father is a musician and furthermore the leader and founder of the Augsburger Domsingknaben so I grew directly into it. Singing has just been part of my life ever since. In the way that other kids went to football practice or other kinds of sport, for me it was singing. After school I would go to the Augsburger Domsingknaben; and have my piano lessons – I also played the cello and trumpet. I would also have singing lessons, concerts and tours. Music has always been the biggest part of my life and that’s why I made the decision to stick with it and study singing. First I studied in Freiburg and while studying there I studied for six months in Toronto at the University of Toronto. I came back, finished my bachelor’s degree and then I went to London to do two years of Master’s studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
How influential do you feel those studies have been on your development as a singer?
I would have to say Toronto was extremely helpful to me because I came from the boys’ choir which is a very special technique of singing, maybe even unique to the Augsburger Domsingknaben, it’s very head and overtone-rich with no pressure at all. In a way, you carry that into your adult voice as well. One thing I learned in Toronto with the teacher I had there, Patrick Raftery, is that he showed me how to use more of my natural voice than I had used before. I find in North America people look for much bigger voices, simply because the houses are so large there, and so Patrick helped me immensely to build more volume into the voice. Then London was amazing of course. I especially wanted to study with Professor Rudolf Piernay and it’s because of him I went to the Guildhall. I also wanted to live in a really big city that is really well connected to the industry – because you need connections to work with after you finish your studies – and that’s what I built up in London.
You studied in Germany, Canada and the UK, what do you think the differences are, if any, between the three schools of singing?
Definitely as I just mentioned, I had the feeling that in North America they need bigger voices. An interesting difference I found between Germany, Canada and England is that I had always assumed that in Germany we like to study. I did my Abitur, then four years of Bachelor’s, two years of Master’s and then one goes into an opera studio, then into an ensemble and then perhaps freelancing. That’s always the way I envisaged my career would go. When I was in Canada I realized that people there are extremely young when they finish studying so some colleagues of mine had done opera studio or had started working professionally at the beginning of their twenties at the time when I was almost starting to study. When I went to London, it seemed they loved studying even more than German students do. I had colleagues who had spent, only at the Guildhall, some eight or nine years. I had the feeling that there people study, then follow up with more studies, then go to an opera course and then to an opera studio and once you reach your thirties you’re ready to work. I found it quite astonishing. I loved the education in London – it’s an amazing city, I had nice concerts, I got to meet fantastic people and I go back every now and then to do concerts from time to time. I’m very happy and grateful to have that opportunity. I’m also happy that I moved into the opera studio in Munich which is kind of a transition between studying and working life. We’re paid to be on stage as an opera singer but we additionally get singing lessons, body work, coaching for languages, coaching for roles.
Tell us a little about what you do in the opera studio. Would you say that you had a day-to-day routine there?
That’s very hard to answer because sometimes we have a day off, then sometimes we have a day from 10am to 11pm – with breaks of course. Sometimes it’s a lot of work. I would say at the Bayerische Staatsoper, or houses at that level, the main roles are always cast with big stars, the medium roles are cast with the ensemble and we in the opera studio take the small parts. Sometimes you get a bigger part – I was lucky when I got a jump-in for La Juive which is, for the opera studio, a huge role. My tiniest role was in Werther where I did Brühlmann and I sang two notes – ‘Klopstock’ that’s it. That’s one part of our job – to take small roles on the main stage. The other part of our job is in the opera studio where we continue our education. We have two singing teachers, one of whom is Professor Piernay, my teacher, so that’s great for me, the other is Margreet Honig from Amsterdam, she’s brilliant as well. We also have body work, we have coaching for languages, international singers have German lessons every week and then we have role studies with a teacher, either for roles we are going to sing or just roles that we would like to sing in the future. Once a year, as the opera studio, we have our own production of an opera. Last year it was Albert Herring by Britten and this year we are doing The Consul by Menotti. It’s always nice because it helps us to grow together as a group and it means for the time of the production we become inseparable as a group to do a production on stage with orchestra, costumes and make-up on the stage of the Cuvillés Theater.
You of course recently appeared in two remarkable productions by Calixto Bieito, the most recent being that staging of the War Requiem in Oslo which I remarked at the time was a very important piece of music theatre. Tell us a little more about your experience of working on that show.
First of all, I think I’m extremely lucky to have been cast as a jump-in. It was supposed to have been a baritone from the ensemble there but I think he broke his leg and couldn’t do the production. The soprano, Natalia Tanasii, did a War Requiem with me in concert two years ago at the Royal Festival Hall and she dropped in my name. Since I’d just worked with Calixto Bieito on La Juive I was extremely lucky that he remembered me. Within two days of getting the call I was in Oslo doing my first rehearsal on stage. I’d never done it off copy, by heart, so I had to learn it overnight and on the airplane. As you said I think it’s such an important piece, especially now in these times of war in Syria, if you watch the videos and see the photos in the news, it’s devastating. Then you combine these images you have in your mind with this fantastic music by Britten plus the religious text – if you’re religious or not it doesn’t matter, it still touches you – and then Calixto’s staging, it was overwhelming. Of course if I ask you if you enjoyed it, it’s not enjoyable. The audience couldn’t clap for a couple of minutes but it was so touching to see an audience like this. They were shocked and moved and they just couldn’t make any noise immediately afterwards. It was the same for us on stage, I needed a couple of minutes to appreciate what I’d just sung.
How did you find working with Bieito?
It’s fantastic. In the beginning I thought perhaps the director would watch the piece from further away and direct from a distance but Calixto was always with us, among us, on stage. He would work with individuals which I like very much, we felt very cared about. He also takes care of the chorus – I also noticed it when we did La Juive here in Munich. Sometimes directors say ‘you stand there and sing and then you go off’, that’s it, but he really wanted the chorus to be what he had in his mind. They were challenged and it was astonishing that everyone had their own role in his mind because Calixto staged it for those particular individuals. What I can also say is that he is one of the nicest people I’ve worked with, he’s never loud, he’s never angry, he knows what he wants and he’s very demanding. I loved working with him and I hope it won’t be the last time.
You have an upcoming appearance in Oxford, England at the Oxford Lieder Festival. How important is singing lieder to you?
I love singing lieder and I think it’s extremely important, especially with my background in the boys’ choir. During my studies I did more concert singing, lieder singing and oratorio singing. I’m very happy to have still a very good contact with the Augsburger Domsingknaben where I do, if I have the time and if they have a vacancy for a baritone of course, the Weihnachts-Oratorium by Bach or the Johannes or Matthäus–Passion. Soon I’ll be doing the Schöpfung in Los Angeles and I really love singing concerts in general and lieder especially. I think it’s important for me to have the balance to go from opera singing back to the basics and sing very softly which is even harder, I would say, than to sing properly with your full body and full voice. It’s a good balance and it’s like balm for the voice if you can sing quietly every now and then, only with the piano – it’s so fragile and so pure. I enjoy that a lot. And especially with a pianist like Roger Vignoles whom I’ll be working with in Oxford.
You are very present on social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – how important do you feel social media is in developing your career?
I love social media, if you use it right. For example, on Facebook I have a profile and a fan page. I post every professional engagement I have when I want to show people, for example my friends from Germany, Canada, England, when I do concerts in other countries. I just discovered Instagram stories which I really enjoy. I enjoy seeing stories by people who I follow, so maybe people are interested in seeing a photo after a concert or maybe a photo from my dressing room or what I was doing before the show – the kind of things I do the day of a show. I think it’s important to connect with people not only privately but also professionally. I often got, for example during my studies, requests to do a concert for, let’s say an oratorio, and I asked whether I should go for an audition. They said ‘no I heard you on Facebook’ or ‘I heard you on YouTube so that’s fine’ and that has been a way to get work.
You’re at the start of what will hopefully be a very exciting career, where do you see yourself going?
I wanted to finish my studies, I wanted to go to a nice opera studio and I think I have found the perfect one there is, then next I’d like to join an ensemble – which is in practical terms where I see the future. I’ve always wondered what was better – especially at my age and my level – going to a big house and singing small roles or going to a smaller house and singing bigger stuff. I think I’ve found the perfect medium here because I’m not under pressure singing all the lead roles – I have friends singing in smaller houses and they have a hundred shows in a season. It’s so tiring for the voice, especially for a young voice with little experience. What I’m doing now I think is perfect because I’m in one of the best houses there is and I sing medium and small roles and so I can transition into bigger roles as we go along.
And also learn and watch?
Exactly. I have wonderful coaches here and I can even study the lead roles for myself for the future. I’m very open to almost everything, so I’ll take everything that’s on offer but also take what people I trust are advising me – my manager for example or Rudolf Piernay my teacher who I trust very much and who knows the business.
What kind of roles interest you?
At the moment, I’m right in the repertoire which interests me as a lyric baritone, maybe a Kavalierbariton in a couple of years. Right now, I’d say Mozart is perfect for me because it’s just balm for the voice. I don’t have a dramatic opera voice right now, I’m quite flexible also with coloratura so I enjoy singing bel canto. I’m doing Belcore for the first time this coming summer which I’m very much looking forward to. This might sound boring but the stuff I’m working on at the moment is my favourite because I can go right into the heart of the matter, study the style of the music, the story of the opera. I’m very easy with repertoire, I think I’ll enjoy doing whatever I do.