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Christian Gerhaher
© Thomas Egli

Portrait artist Christian Gerhaher

In Straubing, where Christian Gerhaher was born, there is a performing arts college, but he went to the other one, for classics and modern languages. Munich, where Gerhaher was a student, has a conservatoire, but he studied philosophy and medicine before becoming a singer. He took singing lessons on the side, of course, and gave lieder recitals: »I still remember«, he said once, »how I’d often sit in front of the anatomical institute in Munich, learning Schubert lieder.« But the fact that he became a global star in the very discipline he practised for years as a sideline, is pretty typical of this artist.

Christian Gerhaher
© Florian Kalotay

Christian Gerhaher has many gifts, but also doubts. One could describe him as an intellectual – not something to be taken for granted in singers – who feels just as much at home with problems in hand surgery or in literary contexts as in music. What finally did the trick was a master class with Dietrich-Fischer-Dieskau; after that, there was no turning back from the concert hall.

Gerhaher never set out to become a star, and in fact he still doesn’t want to be one. He has always resisted that; he lives in a terraced house in Munich, avoids trivial media exposure, stays out of trouble and keeps his mouth shut, unless he’s actually singing or someone asks him a specially tricky question. Christian Gerhaher is a shy person, and an artist plagued with self-doubt. But none of that has worked. He is at the peak of his fame as a baritone. Everyone is desperate to engage him, everyone wants to hear him, the Wigmore Hall in London, Carnegie Hall in New York, the Salzburg Festival, the world’s leading opera houses; and now – for one season – he is Artist in Residence with the Bamberg Symphony.

Anyone who has ever heard Gerhaher perform – partnered, almost invariably, by the pianist Gerold Huber – Schubert’s Winterreise, Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust or Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, without pathos, without letting his own feelings interfere with the music, will have a hard time with many other artists’ recordings: after all, lieder like these only exert their power to uplift – or even cast down – if the singer acts as a neutral medium. And that is what Gerhaher’s deeply affecting voice, free of all gimmickry, enables him to be, more than anyone else. »Believe me«, he once told an interviewer, »if it were essential for a singer to experience for himself what he’s performing, he’d be a burden to his audience for one thing, and a danger to himself for another,« adding, after a brief pause: »Because what matters is the idea at the heart of a piece of music, not my relationship to it.« As the conductor Otto Klemperer supposedly said, emotion is what’s required, not sentimentality.

Talking to Christian Gerhaher is an uplifting and inspiring experience, but not an easy one. It takes patience. He thinks long and hard, takes back what he has said, chops and changes; he cannot bear to utter anything he might not feel is still a hundred percent right an hour later. In his singing, as in life, he is extraordinarily rigorous and serious, and he can spend hours agonizing over the right weight to give a single letter. Take for instance a tiny word like »vor«: hit the »r« too hard and the effect is stilted and unnatural; if it’s pronounced as a diphthong, on no account should it sound like the Bavarian »voa« – no, it must be in between, bang in between, a tightrope act Gerhaher can work at for days and weeks.

On top of which, he is superstitious, and much prone to rituals. It’s quite possible that, barely minutes before a performance, he’ll be found running through the concert hall’s nether regions in search of an ironing board, because he insists on giving his dress shirt that final going over himself.

It’s this punctiliousness, allied to his charismatic pensiveness, that makes Gerhaher so exceptional. Anything he does, he takes one hundred per cent seriously. It often feels as if, for him, singing is a matter of life and death. »You have to avoid any hint of mere entertainment«, he once said. »Art is transcendental. It’s not about fun«. In a world where everything from international politics to religion ends up as entertainment, that is a conservative position, but an honest, intriguing and appealing one. Before performing, he cloisters himself completely, talks little if at all, doesn’t go to a museum or read a book.

Christian Gerhaher last sang in Bamberg five years ago, the Kindertotenlieder with Robin Ticciati. In the 2017/18 season, he will perform Alban Berg’s Altenberg-Lieder and excerpts from Schubert’s opera Alfonso und Estrella, as well as the title role in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the world premiere of the orchestral version of Jörg Widmann’s song-cycle Das heiße Herz – all with the Bamberg Symphony’s Principal Conductor, Jakub Hrůša.

Gerhaher has worked with leading conductors, from Simon Rattle and Gustavo Dudamel to Mariss Jansons, and with the world’s top orchestras, from the Vienna Philharmonic to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. In 2016, he was once again named »Singer of the Year« by the magazine Opernwelt. Many top musicians admit to being Gerhaher fans. The conductor Daniel Harding once said he was addicted, in fact nuts about his voice. The writer and musicologist Jens Malte Fischer put it a touch more poetically, when he coined a riddle to describe Gerhaher’s singing: »the soul’s fingerprints on the vocal cords«.

Tobias Haberl