Born in Stuttgart, baritone Michael Nagy is recognized as one of the leading opera and concert singers before the public today. Following his initial musical training as a member of the Stuttgart Hymnus-Chorknaben, he went on to study voice in Stuttgart, Mannheim and Saarbrücken. He started his operatic career as a member of the ensemble of the Komische Oper before moving to Frankfurt. With a repertoire spanning from the baroque to the present day, Mr Nagy has performed at many of the leading lyric theatres including the Bayerische Staatsoper, the Deutsche Oper, the festivals of Bayreuth and Baden-Baden, as well as in Zurich and at the Theater an der Wien. He also has a wide and varied discography of works ranging from Bach’s Matthäus-Passion to Sandström’s Messiah. Recent, current and upcoming engagements include the world premiere of Scartazzini’s Edward II at the Deutsche Oper, Don Alfonso in Zurich, Yevgeny Onegin in Edinburgh, Il prigioniero in Copenhagen and Dr Falke in Munich. I caught up with Mr Nagy by telephone from Munich, between performances as Le Grand Prêtre d’Apollon and Hercule in Alceste at the Bayerische Staatsoper.
Mr Nagy, at the moment you’re appearing in a new staging of Alceste at the Bayerische Staatsoper. It’s an interesting show because it puts the dance element front and centre with a very active choreography. How involved were you in the process of the creation of the production, with the dancing going on around you?
The Eastman Company, which provided the dancers, is such a marvellous group of people. They’re so inspired and it’s beautiful to see how they work. It’s almost a democratic process – one person brings an idea and they develop it under the supervision of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. They bring on stage these wonderfully emotional physical pictures. As a matter of fact, we singers were not there at all the rehearsals, but whenever they were ready to rehearse a scene, the respective singer was brought in. It was very much a case of finding our way within the production so as not to disturb the strictness that was part of Larbi’s vision. You could say it was more of a passive role that we were playing in the process.
And how did you find this experience?
Initially, we were watching more than we were doing. The first thing I saw of the production was the overture. I was blown away watching the Eastman Company dancing the overture with these amazing, constantly changing images and constellations. That was also the moment I said to myself that the objective for me in this production was not to put myself on the spot, as we usually do as principals with our solos, but to make my character work in a more, let’s say, economical way. It was a completely different experience for me, yet it was also inspiring because my physicality was reduced to a certain stillness. The element of energy was always there but just not connected with the usual opera gestures or movements.
In Alceste you play two characters. Did you make adjustments vocally to play the two, or do you see them as two sides of the same personality, for instance?
That’s an interesting question, because the tessitura of both roles sits up so high, awkwardly high, all the time, so the first approach was just to sing it right, to survive vocally. For me initially, the idea was to have a more secular element to Hercule, because he’s something of a rough boy, while the Grand Prêtre is more strict, putting the idea into people’s heads that Admète can only be saved from death by somebody else offering themselves. Hercule is more of a direct character. In the end though, working with Larbi, we found that there wasn’t such a huge difference, musically or dramatically.
Your French is excellent, do you find any particular challenges singing in French?
In general, I like French. As a singer you’re working with the same instrument always and I feel the urge to adjust as much as I can. Of course, you have role models in your career and you meet teachers and language coaches and so forth. You can also read widely into the cultural background of the composer and the text. That said, it’s all in vain if you can’t find your own personal approach towards the combination of music and language. It occurs to me that the most important element when performing vocal music is to find an authenticity, that combination of music and text that suits your own instrument, as well as taking into consideration that you’re performing the work of a composer who brought special ideas and backgrounds to the work. More challenging of course is singing in languages that I don’t primarily understand, such as Czech or Russian – both are still a little distant to me. With French I find my way and I’m happy to have had lots of advisors and people helping me with it.
You mentioned something very interesting there that I’d like to pick up on, if I may. You mentioned that as an artist it’s about finding your own way, with your own instrument. You have a fascinating repertoire – you sing everything from baroque right up to today. Preparing for our chat today, I took a look at your upcoming schedule for the next year and it’s remarkable to see in your schedule a number of works that are not done very often. Thinking of the learning process, when you open a new score in your studio, how do you learn something that’s not done very often?
I’ll sit down by my piano, open the score and start playing and I find something that really catches me and makes me interested. There’s also music where I open it, start playing, and think ‘hmm, maybe not, sadly’. It turns out that there are many pieces I’m looking forward to doing next season. I’m doing Il Prigioniero and I’m also doing a piece by Schoeck, Lebendig begraben, which is a masterpiece. It’s challenging like no other symphonic lied repertoire that I’ve come across. The way I got to learn that piece was precisely by sitting down at the piano, playing and singing, and then finding one harmonic clause that got to me or one phrase in the text. The same with Prigioniero. I knew Dallapiccola’s chamber music, mainly, but the more I got to know the piece, the more I couldn’t resist it. Whenever I’m asked to do a piece such as this, I’m always saying ‘yes, of course, let’s do this. Whenever, however, but let’s get it going’.
You mention how you play through with the piano and then you look at it. How do you move from that initial learning to getting it on stage?
It depends on what repertoire. For example, when I was learning Amfortas for the first time in my life, Wagner and harmony are the elements that are the basis for me. In this case, it was focusing on the harmony and the text that helped me get into it. For romantic music in general, it’s putting my fingers on this music and internalizing it. First the text, then the rhythm, then later on the melodies. I’m a very vertical thinker and musician, I need to get into the core of the music. I love playing the piano and finding a grip on these harmonies. That’s what I usually do.
So, it becomes almost a physical sensation?
Absolutely. That’s what I meant by authenticity. We all need to find a way to give space to the music and let it live through us, to allow the music to do something in us, to make it personal and make it special.
Given the diversity of your repertoire, are there any differences for you between performing on your own with a piano, in concert with an orchestra and chorus, or on stage with costumes in an opera?
Ideally, no. In my mind it doesn’t make a difference – it’s still music and it’s still my instrument that I’m working with. It’s more of a question of how adequately I manage to use my instrument. Sometimes opera is easier because, as a singer, you’re just one tiny cog in the big apparatus of a production. Whereas in a recital, you just have the piano behind you. That said, the level of energy is still the same vocally and, in my mind, the commitment and the attitude to feel the preciousness of that moment, the fragile element of live performance is always the same. I would never say ‘it’s just a recital, I can save my voice’ – where would the fun be in that? I know that some think that concert work is the least demanding and that in a recital you don’t need to sing against an orchestra. I think that’s wrong. At least, for me it doesn’t work that way. If there’s something left in me after a show, a recital, a concert, something has gone wrong.
You first started singing as a child in Stuttgart. How influential was that for you to start singing as a child and did it form your musical development and your musicianship in a way?
It was definitely my initiation into music generally. Without the boys’ choir I don’t think I would have become a musician. Both my parents did everything in their power to make my childhood worthwhile and they saw that I had an affinity for music. They signed me up for this boys’ choir which really opened up a new world for me. I didn’t grow up in a musical household and it meant that in the boys’ choir, I discovered a world that was suddenly so new and so wide. I started when I was 7 years old. There, I discovered music making, made friends, went to talks about music. It was a very special experience to not only discover my own musicality through singing but also discovering new repertoire, not just choral, but also chamber music, piano music, symphonic music. None of this would have happened without the boys’ choir.
And what happened when your voice broke, did you continue?
I took a short break, not even a year. I remember my last concert as a boy was in Altötting, near Munich. We sang the Brucker Ave Maria and I cracked on the high A. The choir leader came to me and said ‘Michael, I think it’s time now’. It was one of the saddest moments in my life. I took a break of about a year and then I was back in the choir as a baritone by the age of 15. At that time, I couldn’t have imagined becoming a professional singer. That was maybe the last thing I would have imagined for myself. I was into arts, drama, theatre and also radio. I was also thinking about studying medicine. I did my civil service and worked as a paramedic for a year and a half. It made me realize that ultimately, while I could imagine working as a paramedic, I wasn’t really cut out to be a doctor. I decided to study church music, which gave me a solid grounding in so many aspects – playing the piano, choral conducting, orchestra conducting, everything.
You then went on to study in Stuttgart, Mannheim and Saarbrücken, if I remember correctly, with Rudolf Piernay who has trained so many fine singers over the years.
We’re still in good contact. We’ve known each other for twenty years and see each other once a year at least. He’s so quick to pick things up. He’s still able to listen to me and say after two minutes ‘do this, don’t do that, why would you do that?’. He’s brilliant. I don’t know a comparable teacher. I was lucky, really lucky, to study with him.
You also studied conducting. Do you ever feel the urge to pick up the baton?
The urge to conduct is definitely there. I loved conducting and I could absolutely imagine trying this again. Every now and then, I think that I’d love to do this or that symphonic work and work with an orchestra to just shape a piece. The best conductors, in my experience, are those who open up spaces and feel the energy of all the musicians around them.
A lot of the productions that you have done have been quite physical and active, I’m thinking of the Edward II you did in Berlin, that was a very physical staging. I’m also thinking of the Gezeichneten at the Komische. What would you say are the differences between doing something more conventional and something that’s a bit more experimental for instance?
Where do you draw the line? What’s classical? What’s more common sense? What’s experimental, what’s not yet experimental? For me, it’s all a matter of credibility. It’s not to impose something on a work. There should be no vanity in art. It’s absolutely dreadful to find an empty space and you’re the one who’s supposed to fill it. Whenever you have a stage director who, like a good conductor, opens spaces for you, you can find a conventional or a progressive way to take this space and make it your own. Especially, as a singer, if you’re able to fill this space as a medium between music, the stage architecture and the ideas. I’m good when a director encourages me to do ‘weird’ things. I need to understand why, of course, to make it my own. The creation of a production then becomes an organic whole image and creating that organic image is what’s important.
Outside of your artistic career, you’re also a pilot. How did you become interested in that?
The initial spark happened when I was maybe 3 years old. In my child’s head, I connected flying with structure, order and algorithms. Not so much the idea of freedom. I spent 35 years thinking I could never be a pilot because I wore glasses. That’s what I’d been told all along. It turns out that, if you can drive a car, you can also fly a plane in a non-commercial setting. Four years ago, I was living in Hamburg and my girlfriend at the time gave me a lesson as a gift. It took me a year and a half to get my licence. Since then, I just love it. You need to be aware of so much. There’s so much knowledge involved. There’s also the use of checklists. If you go through the checklist and do everything you need to, nothing can happen. For me, it’s like meditation to be up in the air, focused on so many things but not on singing or music.
Do you find in a way that it grounds your artistic life, because it’s so separate that you come back fresh afterwards?
I felt early on that as artists, we’re in danger of losing contact with real life. We’re so privileged that we have the opportunity to work with something so precious and we have to bring out this preciousness and put it before the public. It’s so easy, when you’re studying music for instance, that it’s your life, your universe, to forget what’s outside. For me, this connection with the real world is of utmost importance. As artists, we’re needed in this world, more than ever, to bring beauty, to ask questions, and to show new horizons. But I think the clarity of what we do can suffer a little bit if we’re not connected to the real world. We’re all dependent on each other – as artists and audiences – otherwise what we do doesn’t make sense.
Let’s talk about your future, you have Don Alfonso in Zurich coming up, you have Dr Falke in Munich, the Forester in Frankfurt and also lots of concert performances, as we discussed earlier. What else can we look forward from you looking ahead?
I have a couple of roles in my future that I’m very much looking forward to – one German and one Italian. The Italian repertoire will be new to me, but I’m very excited to take another step into that world. I’m also looking forward to having another big German role in my future plans. I’m privileged and so happy to be working with this fifty-fifty mix of opera and concert. I wouldn’t be willing to give that up. It influences itself in the best possible way, I feel. This combination of rarities and the standard repertoire. I still feel the excitement for the standard repertoire – even for a Beethoven Nine!
With thanks to the Bayerische Staatsoper