Interview with Georg Nigl

Photo by Anita Schmid

Right after performing a lieder series by Wolfgang Rihm in concert at Berlin Philharmonic’s Chamber Music Hall last fall, baritone Georg Nigl momentarily held off audience applause: “Forgive me, this wasn’t planned,” he began, “but I want to say that Rihm is a close friend of mine. After weeks of preparing for this concert, I’m just so moved to have performed his work this evening.” Nigl then closed out the evening with a final set of lieder by Schubert – quite the lyrical contrast to stark and unpredictable Rhim.

A pioneer in interpreting works by romantic and contemporary composers alike, Nigl has carved his own niche into the music world. Last summer, he reprised the title role in Rihm’s Jakob Lenz at the Festival D’Aix en Provence, and he appeared as Macbeth in the world premiere of Macbeth Underworld (Pascal Dusapin) at La Monnaie/ De Munt in Brussels last September. Nigl tells Olga Heikkilä and Lucy Van Cleef about his connection to Sprechgesang (a speech technique used in contemporary music), and describes his approach to modern music and his reverence for theater of a bygone era.

Georg Nigl, you revisited a role in Rihm’s opera that incorporates the use of Sprechgesang. Can you define what Sprechgesang is?

Since I perform a lot of music written in the 20th century, Sprechgesang always comes up. It’s a mixture of sung and spoken word within a piece of orchestrated music. Humperdinck used a new notation for speaking parts in the melodrama Königskinder (1897), and Schönberg developed Sprechgesang for Pierrot Lunaire(1912).

What drew you to specialize in that technique?

My approach to classical singing has always been influenced by theater acting. I knew a lot of actors when I was young in the Vienna Boy’s Choir, and later when I performed as a member of the Vienna Burg Theater. As a teenager, my friend was son of an actor who was educated in the old school and exposed me to a lot of old Austrian and German films. The way these old actors spoke, using the whole vocal range of their voices, made such an impression on me. They used up to two octaves to speak a line. They could express so much through their speech. That really fascinated me.

And you associate Sprechgesang in contemporary works with this form of speaking?

The composers of that era also had a background in theater, and valued the art of speaking. Alban Berg was influenced by Schönberg, but he was also inspired by Georg Büchner’s Wozzeck and Frank Wedekind’s Lulu Plays. The art of persuasion in rhetoric is so powerful. That’s why it’s used so often in modern music, I think. And you need singing technique to support that full-vocal-range speaking.

How has your work with Sprechgesang informed your approach to classical repertoire?

Pathos, and the use of rhetoric, has been discussed throughout history. The concept of how to speak was relevant in ancient Rome, and it was a factor for the romantic composers too. Gustav Jenner, a student of Brahms’, wrote about the importance of text as the impulse to compose lieder. He said that you should always read the text aloud, then take a long beak before handling the instrumentation.That’s become my approach to any piece I learn.

So you learn to speak the lines before mastering the notes?

Yes. To do it properly, I try to understand the way that actors of the twenties and thirties spoke. Take a Lied like Schubert’s Erlkönig, for instance. I’ll follow the singer’s line, and speak the text as I go through. There’s a recording of the Old-Austrian stage actor Alexander Moissi reciting Goethe’s poem where you can hear his extreme vocal range. There’s so much room for expression in the words alone, and the music enhances that.

What about the negative connotations of rhetoric?

It’s something that German-speaking countries avoid because Hitler used it. It’s associated with manipulation and persuasion.

But you think it’s still important?

It’s a useful vocal tool. The thing is, if you don’t use this kind of pathos when you speak, you lose the possibility to fill a room with your voice.

And you need that to fill an opera house?

Yes. It’s a way of speaking that has been lost because of film. Nowadays, singers separate the act of speaking from the act of singing. Since film actors speak so “normally,” a problem has developed in the way singers speak onstage. In operetta, they try to speak naturally, without using their singing technique to produce the sound, and need amplification in order to be heard.

How do you develop that ability?

I use my singing technique when I speak onstage. Projecting has so much to do with the position of the body. That’s how you avoid destroying yourself. The ancient Greeks didn’t use amplification to project their voices. Technique was just important as echo. And that’s still true.

Can you describe how today’s composers use Sprechgesang in their work?

Wolfgang Rihm is one composer still working with this kind of rhetoric. I can draw a line between his lieder and Schubert’s, and it stems from their use of text. Beyond the notes, Rihm’s work is a statement – a point of view. As a performer, I need to be able to explain what I’m saying, and why. Sprechgesang is a really useful tool to be able to do this.

Is it a tool that opera singers easily adapt to?

Most opera singers don’t have a good connection to Sprechgesang because they see it from a perspective of singing. You have to approach it from speaking and acting first. You use singing technique to produce it, but it’s a dramatic tool, not an aesthetic choice.

Do you draw a connection from Cabaret singing to the development of Sprechgesang? 

Cabaret is certainly an important part of European history between the two world wars. Performers like Weitinger were expressive in the way I’m talking about. But Cabaret changed a lot over that course, so it’s hard to define exactly how it may have influenced Sprechgesang. There’s one important difference: in Cabaret of that time, a lot of stress was placed on understanding the text: rolling Rs, percussive Ts, sharp Ss. This was partly because recordings of the time weren’t so good, so speech needed to be clear to be understood. That wasn’t the case with live theater, though Bertholdt Brecht used precise diction as an artificial tool. But these were tools that already existed for the Romans and Greeks. It’s like cooking; you take the ingredients and put them together in a new way.

Is there a closer comparison for you?

Brecht’s theater pieces of that time, and his work with Kurt Weill, align with my perspective on Sprechgesang. The actors sang in a kind of way. But once again, they were actors, not singers.

What influences do you give students to support your ideas?

I play my students a lot of recordings, and make comparisons with works by Schubert and Mozart: Moissi’s recitation of Erlkönig, clips of Paula Wessely or Bette Davis, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Werner Kraus performing in Faust, German actress Adele Sandrog, and Karl Kraus’ Das Lied von der Presse. When I get going, I could talk about this for hours.

In roles like Lenz, you’re required to switch between speaking and singing. How do you make that shift?

If you maintain singing technique, then it’s not so difficult. Even when you’re not producing a definable tone, you have more range. It’s important to focus on a point in the distance to project the speech, like the third balcony. That way, when you shout, you don’t do it with your vocal chords. You use the whole body to produce resonance. You need support, and no fear, to project that way.

Does the approach change when you have to produce different sounds, like whistling or shouting?

No. You maintain support and make the sounds necessary. There’s no specific technique to it. The only clear direction at all is Schönberg’s notes on the style in the score of Pierrot Lunaire. Otherwise, I’ve learned by figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Teaching has also helped, because then you can see what transmits from the outside, and you have to figure out how to describe something that comes naturally to you. That’s so important as a teacher; to make students understand something immaterial.

How do you develop an interpretation to a work that’s never been done before?

When I’m learning any contemporary piece, I think I’m very slow. I take hundreds of hours to prepare. I always sing full in rehearsals. It requires hours of trial and error. If you don’t do that, you’ll never go deep enough. That work gives me a range of tools to use.

With contemporary music, you don’t have many performances, maybe four or five. It’s not like singing Mozart, where you have many chances and have to save yourself in rehearsal. If the environment lets you experiment and discover, and you can find trust in yourself and your colleagues, it’s not such a hard work.

What if rehearsal time is limited?

As long as everyone is pulling the same wagon, it works. I’ve found that if you know the people you work with, you don’t waste as much time during the process. The trust is already there.

And if the conductor disagrees with your execution?

If the score says piano, I’ve got to deliver that. It’s part of the deal to adapt the color of your voice. I just recently had this conversation actually. My point of view is that piano can be loud if it is still softer than what came before.

Do others debate that?

I’d say it’s more a process of interpretation, so that we can find solutions together. The result needs to be well made. But my self-understanding as an artist guides me there. I can’t just follow directions.

But some composers are attracted to that quality.

Both Dusapin and Rihm have been very important influences in my artistic life. They know me, and compose especially for my voice and personality. Since 2007, I’ve performed all the work that Dusapin has made.

The world premiere of Macbeth Underworld was a great success. Can you describe the experience?

Macbeth was a major role for me. It’s always hard to learn a new piece, and this one took huge preparations. Dusapin uses every vocal tool at his disposal – baroque, opera, recitative, Sprechgesang – so I got to use the whole range of my abilities. It’s the most fulfilling work I can imagine.

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