Interview: Bass-baritone Albert Dohmen on Bluebeard, Wotan and his career

'What really affects me very much is how can we get younger people into opera. I'm so convinced of the value of this music we offer that we don't have to be ashamed of what we do.'

May 2006

Barry Douglas - interview

German bass-baritone Albert Dohmen has conquered audiences in opera houses and concert halls the world over, garnering particular praise for his Wagner roles.

Two years after his previous London appearance as Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca, Dohmen talks about returning to play Duke Bluebeard, nurturing young singers and introducing new generations to opera.

As we wander into the Royal Opera House from a rainy Floral St, he remarks, 'Growing up in Germany, I'm quite used to this rainy weather.

'But since I left the country in 1990 to live in Italy, things have changed!'

Completely at ease as we chat for an hour over a bottle of sparkling mineral water ('boring but healthy!'), Dohmen creates a relaxed atmosphere - and he cannot help but crack jokes the whole time. We're here to talk in particular about his portrayal of the title role in the Royal Opera's first revival of Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, which he is playing on stage for the first time, having previously sung it in German in a concert performance in Marseille. How does Bluebeard (written in 1911) compare to Tosca (first performed in 1900)?

'Isn't it amazing - if you consider all the compositions written in the first three decades of the twentieth century, what a variety and what incredible development of music,' he enthuses. 'I must say for me, they are both absolute masterpieces. Tosca is more the classical verismo.Puccini is Italian opera development, it's bel canto. The exciting thing about Bartók is that he's on a higher level (don't tell Puccini, he'll kill us!).

'The musical language he uses, there are so many modern elements in it. And not only [poly]-rhythmical ones, but old Hungarian traditional music as well.The masterpiece exists for me in the fact that Bartók was able, at the age of 25, to combine [this] with an orchestration that on the one hand is influenced by the late Wagner, but also Debussy. I hear so much impressionistic music in it - it has much more light. So.they are both masterpieces, but for the development of music, I would say that Bartók dared much more than Puccini'.

This deeply-considered awareness of the music he sings is typical of Dohmen's intelligent approach to life. Born in Krefeld, Germany, his love of music and especially singing was evident from an early age. 'In my family, an old-fashioned German family, music was always important.Eight children, four brothers and four sisters, we sang a four-voices canon and this was such a great experience for me, this singing together - this was joy, I loved it so much. My father was a music lover and had an incredible natural voice, and he liked singing. I think I inherited my joy of singing from him.'

Despite this evident inclination towards opera (he sang small parts in operas even as a child), Dohmen went on to study law before music became his life. Why take this course of study? 'Oh, don't remind me!' he laughs. 'It was family tradition. They didn't ask 'what are you going to study', you had to study law. I wanted to become a diplomat with foreign languages, and I studied for five years. But I found it so boring and the love for music grew stronger and stronger and after five years [of] doing all the exams, I said basta! If I'd continued, I'm sure I wouldn't have become an opera singer.'

He then went on to study and train for many years, and turned down plentiful offers - 'even big record contracts, because I said 'it's too early'. This was always my credo in singing: it all has to be built up gradually. The problem is only, in modern media times they all try to make us believe that we are the stars and we can do it. Fake, bullshit. We have to have [what I call] 'the brakes in our mind', that tell us, yes of course, I could sing it - but why should I sing it now?'

He trained as a member of the opera company in the town of Düsseldorf for quite some time. 'This was a good experience.The problem in my vocal range as a bass-baritone especially was, we didn't know whether this young bass voice would develop a real bass voice or whether he could make it into the, I call them the 'heavy metals' [ie the big bass-baritone roles]. And I knew how many 'heavy metal' vocal cadavers I met. So my mental brakes always warned me and said 'yes, everybody says 'you will sing it, you will sing it'' - but I didn't sing it because I didn't feel right for it.'

His international career took off in 1997 when Claudio Abbado cast him in the title part in a new production of Berg's Wozzeck at the Salzburg Easter Festival, repeating it at the Summer Festival as well. How did it feel to suddenly become the centre of attention at the world's foremost opera festival? 'Those were the best years of my life, before Wozzeck. I was living in Sicily with my wife, who's Sicilian, and we were having such great times in the Mediterranean. But it makes you very lazy, this life!' he chuckles.

'Then I remember when this phone call arrived and said, 'Mr Dohmen could you please jump in for this Wozzeck production?' The problem was, I'd never sung a note! I told Abbado, and he knew about me and said, 'Yes, you'll be able to do it because you're an oboe player.' And so I learnt very, very quickly. But this part is so tricky and musically so demanding that I said 'Well, we can try' - but I thought it was not the best choice to make my debut in a part I'd never sung in the Salzburger Osterfestspiele!'

'But Abbado gave me so much confidence and said, 'Don't worry'. This was one of the few productions where everything came together - music, Abbado, Regie, Peter Stein - we all became great friends and made music as friends together can do'.

As a result of his triumph in Wozzeck, he was offered many chances to play Wotan, something he didn't expect. After studying the role for ten years ('because I have so much respect for it') he made it his own. 'And my credo was always: sing it only so that people said 'yes' and not 'but he is too young', 'but he will grow into it.' I said, if you sing this repertoire it must be without any 'buts'. You must have it or you leave it. Basta!'

This year he is to sing Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, his final big Wagner role, for the first time. 'But with all my love and respect for Wagner and Richard Strauss, I'm so thankful to Covent Garden that they help me to change a little bit my repertoire.This Bartók is really a great opportunity to change and make myself noticeable as [someone who is not] only a Wagner and Strauss singer'.

He first met Bluebeard's director, Willy Decker, in 1985 - 'he did his first Don Giovanni with me when I did my first Don Giovanni, in a small German village call Aachen.It was extraordinary - in this production there was also one of the greatest Brünnhildes of all time, Luana DeVol, playing Donna Anna. A couple of years ago, we did the whole Ring Cycle together with Thielemann in Berlin and a week later in Vienna, and we remembered the old golden days'.

Of Bluebeard's conductor, Kirill Petrenko, he says, 'I think he's a fabulous young conductor, highly musical - he loves this piece. We have a marvellous atmosphere here on stage.' And he jokes, 'I have two Judiths [Blubeard's wife and the only other character in the opera] and I think, this is too much, one would have been sufficient you know!' The first is Petra Lang, the renowned German mezzo - 'she's a fabulous partner onstage, a great artist' - while the second is the up-and-coming young Christine Rice.

Bluebeard is well known as one of opera's most demanding roles. How has Dohmen found the challenge? 'Having now sung the whole Bartók, I was so exhausted, physically but also psychologically. It was similar to singing Wozzeck.If I only measure the time I have to sing as Bluebeard compared to Scarpia, I would say that Scarpia sings much more. But it's not the fact [of] how long you have to sing, but how psychologically and physically you get involved in a piece.'

Bluebeard is usually listed as one of opera's evil characters, but Dohmen's attitude is typically balanced. 'I think what makes this character so fascinating is on the one hand, his reputation as the lady killer and the monster and we have the Dracula side of him there - I come out with my hand full of blood like a zombie, with my knives. This is the dark side of Mr Bluebeard without any question.

'But the point is that he believes still in the power of the redemption of love. It reminds me a little bit of Lohengrin. The moment when Judith starts asking like Elsa, 'Who are you Lohengrin, where are you from?', Blubeard tries to say 'Don't ask me, don't ask certain things because this will prevent me from developing my love for you.' And the suspicion goes on and she ruins everything, she blows it up.

'At this point, Bluebeard can already foresee what's going to happen now.' Unable to become Bluebeard's real wife and let his past disappear, Judith becomes locked into his world of night. 'One of the [key] moments is when.the huge door opens up but no cadavers come out, only three living ladies - the wives of the morning, midday and the evening. This most tragic moment when Judith sees that it's not true what everyone has been saying, that he only kills everybody - this is the missed chance, now everything has been spoiled and ruined.

'This is a big psychological drama because Bluebeard asks himself, perhaps it's my fault that all these relationships never work - so it's a very personal failure for him that he's incapable of having a real fulfilled love - it turns always into the opposite. .What makes this opera so moving is this impossibility of reaching a fulfilled and complete and satisfying human interaction. They talk next to each other - they never talk to each other. It is a world of misunderstanding.They all are in their own musical worlds, and the driving force of suspicion is also in the instrumentation. Especially the three pictures when we are in a major key, when Bluebeard wants to show off his mighty palace. But he sees, 'I can't reach her any longer' because she becomes so suspicious. It has no impact on her, and she keeps asking him questions. It's the driving force that keeps him going.'

Bluebeard lasts just over an hour and is in one continuous act - Dohmen says 'It's like you jump into cold water and you can't get out - just do it!' The other big challenge is singing the piece in the original Hungarian, which Dohmen is doing for the first time. 'This was one of the hardest tasks I've ever had. I remember when Covent Garden asked me to do it in Hungarian, I nearly had a stroke or heart attack!...Hungarian is so out of any context. People in the migration area had no contact with German, it is so difficult - you have no point of contact with any other language. I worked a lot to get it into my brains, and it was worth doing. In Hungarian the outcome is so different from when I did it in concert form in German. Right decision from Covent Garden!'

As a comparison, I ask him what it was like singing Paul Dukas' earlier setting of the Bluebeard tale and he bursts into laughter. 'I tell you, when I got this offer, I said 'Oh great, big part!' So I open the score - no Bluebeard turns up. I turn over 150 pages - oh here we are, I find three pages, this is all! Musically the piece is marvellous but the part of Bluebeard, I could give it to my six year old son, he would do it in the same way I could do it!'

Dohmen has sung at all the world's great opera houses, from New York to Vienna. What's it like working at Covent Garden? 'The Royal Opera House, the R. O. H., is so precise and they are so professional in all their departments, whether it is planning or musical.You feel it, everybody takes his job very seriously - there are so many opera houses in the world where if you ask someone a question, you feel, 'better not ask me, I don't know anything'. But here, you get the impression that people know what to do and I feel this, kind of pride - they are proud of doing their job here'. And the audience? 'You feel this is the audience of a city that has a big tradition of classical music. You feel it by the way they listen. I like it very much - they have a special understanding if you mean something seriously.'

I mention the fact that for some of these performances, the Royal Opera is encouraging young people to get into opera by offering tickets at the greatly reduced price of Ł10 (thanks to sponsorship by Travelex). 'This is good! Ł10 is available to youngsters - how much do they have to pay here to go to the cinema? About the same? This is what I say - you made a bargain!'

He's extremely keen on encouraging new audiences and particularly the young into the opera house. 'What I really deplore so much is the misunderstanding that by making German trash productions you would attract new young generations. For me, the only chance is doing high quality productions. And I always say to stage directors and musicians - we are in charge of, and have to think of, people who attend opera for the first time. If we only think of the five critics who are seeing Lohengrin for the 240th time and make them change their imaginations by setting Lohengrin in a local pub or on the tube, this may be very interesting for the critics seeing it for the 240th time but it doesn't help at all the young people who we have to get into the opera houses.'

So what can be done? 'They really should develop opera programmes for schools - though I know Covent Garden is really good in this respect. Why is it so difficult, that at least once a month every school has an appointment with an opera house? So they could attend the final rehearsals, or normal rehearsals, they could get in touch with it.We did it when I was in Germany - we organised for schools this kind of interaction. They came, they visited the rehearsal, we were talking together, having lunch together and they couldn't believe it! That we are all normal human beings! And I know from letters I received since, that this was such a good example for them to get into those operas.And we should get rid of this old prejudice that opera is only something for the middle class bourgeoisie, but we should do it with quality productions!'

He elaborates further, warming up to a topic about which he clearly feels very passionately: 'But I think really that politicians should appreciate much more the value of what classical music can do. The fact that we are not like pop music or rock or rap music, that we are not, unfortunately, appealing to greater quantities of people, does not mean that our worth is less than those. And [just] because you can't make publicity with Coca Cola or hamburgers by doing Wotan, is not a measure of the quality of what you are doing.

'This is part of politics but also of opera companies. If we want to preserve or make known the quality of what we do we should do it not selling us to the media the quality of what we are doing. And I'm so convinced that even younger audiences, if you find the right way - perhaps the internet or the new medias we have, you have a much easier access to anything you want. So I think even the opera houses too should think of these new media. How can we open our doors to [a] greater public? What we all should do is step down from our pedestals and behave like normal human beings. And this, oh no, opera is something for the higher or upper classes, I really can't agree.'

He's also very candid about the training of young singers. 'Opera is not a mass media production and it is useless to produce 400 times the number of people you need. You produce only jobless people. You must be honest. And if you could explain right from the beginning what the situation is like, people will accept it and you wouldn't make them study for five or six years and burn the best years of their life.' Although Dohmen feels sad to be too busy at the moment to participate in masterclasses with the young, it's something he believes in and he hopes to do it in the future. 'We have the obligation to share our experiences with younger generations. And I feel the burden of the responsibility I will assume the moment I accept a job like this, but the moment will come when I really have to do something in this field.'

'What really affects me very much is how can we get younger people into opera. I'm so convinced of the value of this music we offer that we don't have to be ashamed of what we do.'

The singer's enthusiasm is infectious and sincere, qualities that characterise his singing as well. His enormous presence and innate intelligence can't be ignored - he's going to be the perfect Bluebeard.

By Dominic McHugh

The Olivier-nominated production of Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung played at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on May 26, 30 and June 2, 10, 12, 15, 17, 2006.

Read other recent interviews with singers such as Ian Bostridge, Petra Lang, Rebecca Evans, Ann Murray, Claire Rutter, John Hudson, Susan Graham, Sally Burgess, Rosalind Plowright and Marcello Giordani here.