Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on His Early Career
Ekkehard Pluta

In Part 1 of an extended interview with andante, the world-renowned baritone talks about getting started at the Berliner Staatsoper in the post-war years.

In December of 2000, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau became an honorary citizen of Berlin - the city where he was born 75 years ago and where he launched, shortly after the end of World War II, his exceptional career. On the day before the ceremony he spoke with Ekkehard Pluta about a career that spans a half-century of music. Spontaneous, frank and critical even of himself, he discussed Verdi and Wagner, Lieder and accompanists, teaching and the ever-changing music business. Over the next several weeks, andante will be running the fascinating, lengthy interview in segments, all of which will then be available in our archives.

EP: Did you feel that your tenure at the Staatsoper in Berlin was a "ground zero" -- the real beginning of your career?

DFD: Yes, I really did have that feeling when I returned to Berlin after being released as a prisoner-of-war. My first impressions of the city were truly frightening. But the initial contacts and offers came much sooner than I had expected, and I began working regularly. At the time I was continuing with my studies, which I had broken off before joining the army. Despite my work on stage, I took singing lessons until 1954 or 55. Primarily, I did this because I had a wonderful teacher; he had a great ear and could really tell me what I was doing wrong.

EP: Your first Berlin production was Don Carlo ...

DFD: Yes, and what a Don Carlo it was! There is now a CD of this production which is quite awful compared to what we had accomplished at the time.

EP: At that time you worked with Ferenc Fricsay, as you would again later. There is a well-known film in which he rehearses and conducts The Moldau in a very engaging and likeable manner.

DFD: That was all just show for the film. In everyday life he was not like that at all.

EP: He was reputed to be quite a tyrant and very undiplomatic.

DFD: Yes, that is the way he was. He was very abrupt, though at other times he was kind and amusing -- especially when it came to the many stories he brought from his native Hungary. However, working with the orchestra could be very tedious; many of the musicians disliked him because he was extremely picky about certain things.

EP: And how was he around the singers?

DFD: He got along with them very well. He had a beautiful tenor voice, and could sing along and even show the singers a trick or two. For instance, he urged me to use a turn on every fermata in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. He counted me among a small group of singers that he regularly relied on. Naturally, there were intermittent pauses since he travelled periodically to Munich. At the re-opening of the Deutsche Oper in 1961 we did Don Giovanni together as well as a few recordings. Unfortunately, a planned recital of French and Italian arias was not possible due to his early death.

EP: As a newcomer at the Staatsoper you manged to build up an extensive and varied repertoire in a short period of time -- Wolfram, Valentin, Jochanaan, Don Giovanni, etc.

DFD: This is true. It was a formidable amount to learn. This was also the case with the concert repertoire, since all the pieces were new to me.

EP: You were also learning modern works -- Zillig’s Troilus und Cressida for instance.

DFD: Yes, with Hans Beirer as Achill and Elisabeth Grümmer as Cressida. The composer was very angry because his music was considered too beautiful. You see, Zillig was Schönberg’s student; it was expected that a student of Schönberg write atonal music. Zillig, however, did not.

EP: It is remarkable that as a concert singer you have travelled to almost every corner of the globe, but as an opera singer you have mostly restricted your appearances to Berlin and Munich.

DFD: Essentially, yes. For 10 years, however, I was quite active on the Vienna stage. Generally, I restricted myself to opera houses where I felt comfortable and at home, knew the routine and the schedule, was accustomed to the acoustics of the hall, etc., etc.

EP: So you are a follower of "ensemble theater?"

DFD: Yes, this is what I wanted most. Starting in 1956 or 57 I was no longer under contract and was more or less engaged only in guest performances, though these usually involved 6-8 appearances.

EP: Up until the 1960s, there were many "house ensembles" in Germany, from whose ranks many significant singers have arisen. The internationalization that began in the mid-1960s led to the standardization of interpretations. Do you think that this change has resulted in the fact that many singing roles today, especially in the works of Wagner and Verdi, cannot be adequately filled?

DFD: It is very difficult to answer this question. Undoubtedly, opera houses have lost their character. The strong individual experience that was once offered by each opera house is no longer available. Perhaps now things may be going back in the direction of the "house ensemble," but I am not quite sure that this is the case.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on Wagner
Ekkehard Pluta

In Part 2 of an extended interview with andante, the world-renowned baritone talks about his experiences with the echt-deutsch composer's music in Bayreuth and elsewhere.

EP: In 1954 you sang for the first time at Bayreuth. Was the "New Bayreuth" style of the time really revolutionary?

DFD: Yes. It was new and abstract. From the stage lighting on up, it was totally different from what I was used to. First of all, I was awestruck by the impressive concert hall with its impressive driveway. Later, things changed; on stage the tone became very prosaic, with a lot of vulgarity and politics. This was a disappointment, and I lost some of the illusions that one brings to the stage as a young newcomer. At the beginning, however, I came onto the barely-lit stage completely in awe — it was during Act 3 of Tannhäuser — and sang the "Lied der Abendstern," after which Wieland Wagner ran up onto the stage and said: "That is exactly how I imagined this should be sung. You are the one for this role..." and so on. This situation, however, did not last long, and soon I was no longer the favorite for this role.

EP: How many seasons did you spend at Bayreuth?

DFD: In all, six. Later Wieland wanted me to do Holländer, and sent me a telegram: "Mandryka is three times as strenuous as the Dutchman himself — why don’t you come and sing the part?" However, I was still rather upset about him forcing me out despite our contractual agreement.

EP: As a performer, how did you feel about the acoustics at Bayreuth?

DFD: Bayreuth is a wonderful hall. No one needs to shout there and one can project one’s voice over the orchestra without force. It was silly what Solti tried to do by cutting up the orchestra pit so that the brass instruments could project more boldly. What nonsense! One simply cannot do such a thing.

EP: Most of the conductors who work there for the first time experience difficulties.

DFD: Yes. In Bayreuth the conductor’s podium is in a problematic location. The conductor cannot hear properly what is happening on stage. Igor Markevitch, who placed a lot of importance on precision, was not able to overcome this problem. He was scheduled to conduct Tannhäuser but in rehearsal he could not hear the chorus. He called out for help to the singers but simply could not pull it together. He managed to conduct the dress rehearsal but had to leave with stomach problems before the premiere. Keilberth took over and conducted the premiere without a single rehearsal. He said: "Well, never mind, we will manage this."

EP: You especially enjoyed working with Rudolf Kempe.

DFD: Very much so. We were also good friends. What most impressed me about his style were the movements and gestures he made while conducting. He really had a firm grip on the orchestra.

EP: This is fascinating, since he did not study conducting.

DFD: One cannot study conducting. Either one can or cannot conduct. One must learn the music. Kempe was not only an oboist but also a very good pianist and organist. I will never forget when we were recording Kindertotenlieder and he said to the two bassoon players: "Why don't you exchange places — the first bassoon will play the second bassoon part and the second bassoon will play the first bassoon part." He simply said it — with no complaints or comments from the orchestra.

EP: So the working climate was good around him?

DFD: Very good. Excellent, in fact. He also got along well with the Viennese. His first performance in Vienna, Die Meistersinger, went amazingly well and was performed without rehearsal because it was a Sunday.

EP: What was special about his style of approaching Wagner's music? To me it sounds somehow more transparent.

DFD: Yes, this was in fact the case. His style was not too heavy; it was well thought through and had a certain grace. He also expressed these qualities in his movements. This appealed greatly to the English, and he had a great deal of success there.

EP: You have sung Wotan only in Rheingold. Were other ones planned?

DFD: No. I recorded the Rheingold Wotan only with Kubelik, and the orchestra was terrible. Barenboim wanted me to sing the role of the Wanderer in Siegfried in Paris, but I turned this down because the part calls solely for a bass voice. Hotter had this advantage because he had exactly the right voice for all of these parts. He was the typical bass-baritone; in the beginning, he could master all of the higher parts. This worked well for him early on, but as time passed he was not quite as effective.

EP: Have you sung Telramund on stage?

DFD: No. It is possible in a studio. There, one can arrange to sing it in parts instead of singing the whole role at once.

EP: What about Holländer?

DFD: No, never on stage.

EP: Your recording with Konwitschny is very convincing.

DFD: It seems to be. Two recent Dutchmen, James Morris and Robert Hale, who were on stage with my wife, Julia Varady, came to me and said: "I learned by listening to your recording." (laughs) Personally, I don't hear anything in this recording — absolutely nothing that would explain why this would be so.

EP: Morris and Hale are actually basses.

DFD: This is correct. Wagner's baritone parts often demand a high bass voice. The baritone singer must deal with many deeper parts that require him to shift from a middle register quite abruptly into a deeper register that is outside of his normal range. I was never the perfect Wotan or Sachs; I greatly enjoyed and appreciated being able to get to know these works as a performer, but these were not the ideal roles for me.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on Verdi
Ekkehard Pluta

In Part 3 of an extended interview with andante, the world-renowned baritone talks about being a German on very Italian territory.

CDCover Verdi , Maskenball

EP: Going now from Wagner to Verdi — in 1951, after your debut as Posa, you sang the role of René in the well-known German language production of Un Ballo in Maschera under Fritz Busch, which was done for West German Radio.

DFD: This was staged at the large Broadcasting Hall 1, which at the time was still under construction. We had to walk over planks to get to the stage in the middle of winter, when many of us were suffering from colds. Not only were I and some members of the chorus ill, but Ms. Mödl had just caught a cold and Mr. Fehenberger was severely ill as well. In fact most of us were sick, but despite this we managed to pull off a very animated performance, mainly due to the lively and exciting conducting of Fritz Busch.

EP: What was Busch's method? How did he get along with the singers?

DFD: He rarely had very much to say to the singers. He played piano at our one and only soloists' rehearsal, where I sang René for the first time. This went by without many comments, other that an occasional remark along the lines of: "Young man, don't start composing," which he would say when I sang a wrong note. I liked him very much and we made many plans to perform together in the future. He made notes about the various projects we could work on together, but these plans were cut short when he passed away a half year later.

EP: In 1956 you were invited to sing in the RAI production of William Tell. This was quite remarkable given the fact that there were still many superlative Italian baritones around at this time.

DFD: Of course. Especially since Mario Rossi, the conductor, had recorded this work just a few years earlier with Giuseppe Taddei.

EP: Do you have recollections of the soprano Anita Cerquetti?

DFD: Of course. A marvellous singer. Unfortunately she was psychologically ill, suffering from a phobia of being followed or chased. This resulted in a condition of extreme anxiety and she later spent some time in a sanatorium. Later she tried to return to singing but it did not work out for her — very tragic indeed.

EP: Did you perform opera elsewhere in Italy?

DFD: Very little. I did do Rigoletto in 1964 under Kubelik as part of Deutsche Grammophon's La Scala series. I was called "quello tedesco" ["that German"] at first. The Italians couldn't believe that a German would come and sing this role in their country, where such a thing was regarded as a capital crime. It almost bordered on national dishonor. In the end, though, they accepted it, and the orchestra applauded as well as the chorus.

EP: At that time the great era of the Italian baritone was beginning to wane.

DFD: Bastianini was still alive and then there was Gobbi, Taddei, Guelfi — actually there were quite a few. Taddei had a wonderful voice and was a good performer, much better than Gobbi, who had problems singing piano. Singing roles such as Germont-père without being able to sing piano is very difficult.

EP: In the 1960s, you sang several Verdi parts under the stage director Sellners. Some of these, such as Macbeth and the elder Germont, were received with great success, even outside of Berlin.

CDCover Verdi, La Traviata

DFD: If one sings for a while in Italian, one’s voice begins to change, as is the case with every language. It is interesting to note and observe this change during one's work. I actually enjoyed this process, especially concentrating on the clarity of the vowels, which is so important in Italian.

EP: You were also scheduled to sing Iago, but you broke your foot during the dress rehearsal.

DFD: This turned out to be a frailty of mine. Had I not had emergency surgery two years ago, I would have most likely lost this foot.

EP: Did you ever sing Iago again in Berlin or anywhere else?

DFD: No, never again. I interpreted what happened as a bad omen.

EP: What about Simon Boccanegra?

DFD: Unfortunately not, though I have always wanted to. Just recently I listened to the Abbado recording with Cappuccilli and sang along with the entire opera so that I could at least say that I sang the role, if only for myself.

EP: As for your vocal tone, however, you are not exactly an Italian baritone. I once had a long conversation with Carlo Bergonzi, who said that the most important thing for an Italian baritone, especially a Verdi baritone, is having a dark timbre. For him, the last real Verdi baritone was Cappuccilli.

CDCover Duets with Carlo Bergonzi

DFD: I am not so sure about this. I recall that Toscanini's favorite baritone, Giuseppe Valdengo, had a very bright voice. Toscanini had been around during the final period of Verdi's time, and he was able to witness the developements of that period first-hand. This fact lends his choice of a singer a certain degree of authenticity, and I think it tells us a lot. It is also true that an unbelievable number of passages in the score call for a great deal of elasticity and a conscious emphasis on singing piano. When this is not accomplished, something seems to be missing. Naturally, the fortissimo parts must be sung with a great deal of roundness and power, and I think I was able to more or less achieve this with my voice. When I listen to the Scala recording with Callas and Enzo Macherini as Macbeth, I know that my singing was better. Callas was to have sung this with me in a studio recording for Electrola, but it couldn't take place.

EP: On one occasion, you said that acting was difficult for you to learn and involved quite an effort.

DFD: Naturally, this means that I had some acting ability to begin with, and it is not as if everything was totally new, but I had to be led through the process and needed to be shown how things were done.

EP: In this respect Falstaff was an important step.

DFD: And naturally the most difficult role.

EP: You had to play against your physical stature.

DFD: Well, not exactly. At the time I was quite chubby.

EP: You performed Falstaff for the first time in Berlin in 1957?

DFD: Yes, with Carl Ebert and Alberto Erede.

EP: And later in Vienna with Visconti and Bernstein?

CDCover Verdi, Falstaff

DFD: Correct, and after this three times in Munich in three consecutive stage productions.

EP: What was the most important experience you took away from it?

DFD: I think the first Falstaff was the most important. Ebert had simply done more thinking than I with respect to the technicalities. He had just finished staging this production with Fernando Corena, whom it turned out he did not much care for, and had a terrible amount of work to do as a result. However, it is through this type of work that a director or teacher learns the most, and Ebert was able to project all of this newly-gained experience onto me, making up for all that had gone wrong with the earlier production. And Visconti — my God, our work together was very unproductive in the beginning. He thought: "Aha, a German — is this really the best person for the role?" During the rehearsals, however, he began to gradually ease off and before you knew it he was following my lead. Very amusing indeed.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the Stage
Ekkehard Pluta

In Part 4 of an extended interview with andante, the world-renowned baritone shares his thoughts on the staging of operas today.

In December of 2000, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau became an honorary citizen of Berlin — the city where he was born 75 years ago and where he launched, shortly after the end of World War II, his exceptional career. On the day before the ceremony, he spoke with Ekkehard Pluta about a career that spans a half century of music. Spontaneous, frank and critical even of himself, he discussed Verdi and Wagner, teaching, and the ever-changing music business. Here is the fourth segment of the interview; the next portion will appear in two to three weeks. The first, second and third segments of this interview (as well as this sgement) will remain available in the andante archives.

EP: You have always been known as a supporter of original language in productions, but is it not true that original language is often used as a sort of alibi to cover up all sorts of nonsense that occurs on stage?

DFD: This is true, but on the other hand this happens even when one sings in German and the audience understands the language.

EP: But does it make sense for a German small-town theater to stage a Boris Godunov in Russian, where the singers simply learn the phonetics of the language but do not understand what they are actually singing?

DFD: The music becomes different. A translated version changes a piece dramatically. In addition, even if the singers understand what they are singing most of the time, they are usually standing in the wings and are not terribly advanced as actors. The director might say: "now you enter here... then stand over there... and then you exit this way." I am reminded of Jürgen Flimm, who is now doing the The Ring at Bayreuth. I saw a TV report that showed an excerpt of a rehearsal in which he is shown smoking a cigarette on stage — what a bad example he sets. He then says: "You know that when you have a hat on you can... well you actually don't even have to have a hat on, just throw it on the ground. It doesn't really matter with Wagner, we can do whatever we like." This is how he [directed] Wotan. As a contrast, I have to say that Karajan was a brilliant director. He knew how one needed to move on stage and could lead by example, and I knew where and what I was doing.

EP: Birgit Nilsson made fun of the way in which Karajan rehearsed.

DFD: There is nothing to make fun of. He did a great job and on top of that it was done in a manner that was easy on the voice. He would walk around playing a tape of us singing that was recorded earlier, so that the singers did not have to sing but could concentrate solely on the choreography.

EP: Did this make your work easier?

DFD: Naturally. The brain can concentrate solely on the routine, mime, gestures, etc. I found this to be a good method of rehearsing.

EP: What kind of positive experiences have you had with directors?

DFD: I stopped having them as soon as all the nonsense began. Stage productions today are something between a mad house, a kindergarten and pornography — and there is no alternative. Essentially, all the productions look alike irrespective of whether blue, red or yellow lighting is used. The most important thing is that one rolls around on stage — one doesn't stand, one doesn't kneel, one simply rolls around. A young person can no longer get an idea of what opera really is, or how one opera differs from another, because there is no standard of comparison.

EP: Was the situation substantially better in the past?

DFD: Productions were often old-fashioned and conventional, but offered nothing but what the creator of the opera intended. Specifically, the atmosphere and setting of the period in which the work takes place were emphasized. It must be conceded that many of Verdi's works are political, and one could imagine that they could be made current. But one would still think that the costumes would match the historical settings in which the piece takes place. When the only costumes are hanging pieces of cardboard or drapery — ugly, ugly — one doesn't know what one is looking at. With Luc Bondy's staging of Figaro in Salzburg, I had some hope that a sort of reflection of the past was occurring despite some terrible aspects. I saw some very disturbing things, and also it was musically appalling, but there were a few scenes that really matched the piece very well.

EP: The evolution of theater also has something to do with this, since its development, along with that of opera, has stalled during recent decades. Due to this lack of new material, opera has concentrated on presenting existing works in different ways.

DFD: Yes of course. We have a lack of new works. We need new operas.

EP: You yourself have worked on premieres of several new works, such as Elegie für Junge Liebende and Lear.

DFD: Yes, I was fortunate. These were both excellent works.

EP: How do you explain the fact that the works of Henze and Reimann have avoided becoming "one-hit wonders," and have even established themselves in the repertoire of smaller theatres?

DFD: This means that the compositions are convincing.

EP: And maybe that both composers wrote well for voices?

DFD: [hesitating] Y-Yes.

EP: Reimann, in any case.

DFD: Yes. When he wrote he had an ear for the way certain voices should sound.

EP: Henze's Elegie für Junge Liebende is very rarely performed. I wonder why, because Auden's libretto is so good.

DFD: It has a good subject. But the opera is too long. It should be shortened by about an hour. The work, however, has made a great impression even abroad. It achieved great success in Naples and Rome. The piece starts at around 10:00 in the evening and goes on until 2:00 or 2:30 AM, but the audience enjoys it.

EP: You also worked on many other projects with Henze.

DFD: Yes. I recently suggested that he make a melodrama out of his monodrama based on Kafka's Landarzt (The Country Doctor). It contains mostly spoken parts, and I thought that it would make a good melodrama with an orchestra — well, who knows? We will have to see if it will be offered to me; there have been no inquiries yet.

EP: Do you think that melodrama is coming into vogue again?

DFD: Yes. Naturally, the re-discovery of Ullmann's Cornet has contributed much to reviving interest in the form. I worked on this piece with a lot of enthusiasm. I performed not only selections that Ullmann set to music, but the whole work; I read Rilke's unaccompanied text as well. Unfortunately, in this work the orchestra is often too heavy for a speaking voice, and it is almost impossible to do without a microphone. In this respect it is similar to Schönberg's Der Überlebende aus Warschau (The Survivor from Warsaw). I have done this piece both with and without a microphone and in either case it is difficult. Next year I will perform it again with Abbado.

EP: Could an actor pull off a melodrama or does it essentially demand a singer?

DFD: Providing that the actor understands how to use his larynx. Unfortunately, most do not — it is simply not taught to actors anymore.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on What's Next
Ekkehard Pluta

In the fifth and final segment of an extended interview with andante, the legendary baritone discusses his students, his accompanists, his future plans and the classical music business.

In December of 2000, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau became an honorary citizen of Berlin — the city where he was born 75 years ago and where he launched, shortly after the end of World War II, his exceptional career. On the day before the ceremony, he spoke with Ekkehard Pluta about a career that spans a half-century of music. Spontaneous, frank and critical even of himself, he discussed Verdi and Wagner, Lieder and accompanists, teaching and the ever-changing music business. Here is the fifth and final segment of the fascinating interview; the previous segment of this interview, along with others, is available in the andante archives.

EP: You also enjoy teaching.

DFD: Oh yes, very much so. I learn much in the process, and I hope that the young people I teach also get something out of it. Most of the time my students leave a lesson in an upbeat and happy mood. I prefer this to having them feel like idiots.

EP: Are you nicer to your students than Ms. Schwarzkopf ?

DFD: Oh yes. She sometimes takes pleasure in publicly humiliating her students. I don't like this and it need not be done. With such an approach the personality of the singer will never open up.

EP: You do, however, let the singer know when something just won't do.

DFD: Yes. On many occasions I have made it clear that I cannot continue teaching them.

EP: What criteria do you use in selecting students?

DFD: A certain flexibility in their voice, and a good attitude about knowing their own voice. This quality allows a student to start diagnosing what is good or bad for his or her voice, and thereby learn to improve it. To do this, however, the student must have a certain capacity for self-assessment.

EP: Is it possible to teach someone character, or at least help develop it?

DFD: One can help someone find it, although if it is nonexistent it is much more difficult. A certain talent for presentation must be evident from the start.

EP: There are quite a few stupid singers. In your opinion, was is the minimum level of intelligence that a singer needs?

DFD: I cannot provide an exact answer. The intellect and the body are sometimes very strangely aligned. There are some singers who, despite being intelligent, cannot put into effect what they learn, even if they understand what they are told. There is a mental block there. I recall when a well-known actor who happened to live in my building approached me about studying the role of Alfredo from Traviata. He stood before me as stiffly as a block of wood, so different than how I was accustomed to seeing him on stage. I told him right away that we simply could not work together. I said he needed have to develop an entirely new approach to carrying himself, especially his cramped arms and the way he was breathing. It shouldn't be that difficult to explore the aesthetics of one's own voice. One has to have an ideal to strive for; to know when it sounds good and when it sounds bad. Before one even opens his or her mouth to sing a single tone, one should already know how it will sound. Hotter taught this approach and I find it very important.

EP: You also teach women?

DFD: Yes, just as many as men, if not more.

EP: Are they more flexible and receptive than men?

DFD: Yes, it seems so. The question is whether they are more sensitive. This I cannot answer. Men are quicker in applying what they have learned — in contrast to everything else in life. So I would say that women are slower in the musical and technical aspects of singing, but are much quicker to react and, under certain circumstances, more intelligent.

EP: What opinion do you have of the up-and-coming generation of singers who are now emerging — are they better trained?

DFD: I think they are somewhat better trained. In my youth we were not really well prepared and had to learn everything ourselves. At that time the training was better in the east sector of Berlin than in West Berlin. It is most likely that there were more demands made on the teachers, and that they had to successfully pass very difficult tests before they were able to assume teaching positions. This is naturally very important, just as important as it is in the selection of students, and there should be very high standards set for teachers.

EP: Among concert singers, many of your students — as well as those who have been influenced by your recordings — have been called "little Fischer-Dieskaus" by critics.

DFD: This is not correct. I mean that I have not experienced this, although when you listen to Ian Bostridge you notice that his German pronounciation it is quite exactly copied. But not the tone — definitely not the tone! I recently sent him a postcard in which I wrote that he must learn to really sing legato and that the vibrato should remain constant for a whole phrase from beginning to end.

EP: Which of your students would you say has evolved most significantly in a direction different from yours?

DFD: I would say that they are all different. Goerne is completely different from me, Schmidt is different from me. Dietrich Henschel is also different and came with a totally different attitude as a student, but we worked together very well.

EP: Do you know his recording of Der Winterreise with Irwin Gage?

DFD: No, not yet. Hopefully, Irwin Gage has not said too much to him, as I have my reservations.

EP: Gage takes a very fast-moving tempo at the beginning which for me is quite revealing.

DFD: Yes, definitely. It reminds me of when the critic Joachim Kaiser wrote me, saying that I had taken the opening song much too quickly. In return I sent him, without any written commentary, the score, which clearly indicates "In gehender Bewegung" [literally, "in a going motion"].

EP: In 1948 you completed the first of ten recordings of Der Winterreise...

DFD: Exactly, though by now I have sung it many more times. In all, probably some 1300 times (laughs) over the years.

EP: ...with Klaus Billing at the piano.

FD: We started working together after he filled in for a friend who unfortunately was not a very good pianist. After six songs my friend dropped out and Klaus Billing took over. He did a magnificent job.

EP: Were you familiar at the time with earlier recordings — for instance the one with Gerhard Hüsch?

DFD: Yes, I’ve been an avid record collector since I was nine years old. I was very impatient because most of the time the recordings I wanted were not available at the nearby shop and had to be ordered. I had many recordings of Hüsch; in fact, all of the essential recordings. Then there was Karl Schmitt-Walter who did Der Winterreise with Ferdinand Leitner. I managed to hear the performance live at Beethoven Hall. Conceptually, this was naturally quite different from how I imagined this work later in life, but at the time it influenced me considerably, especially Ferdinand Leitner's playing. Other than this I had only heard Der Winterreise sung by Emmi Leisner — the first woman whom I had heard sing this song cycle.

EP: Do you think the piece works when a woman sings it?

DFD: Well, it has to work. I am not necessarily in favor of a woman singing this piece, and I think Schubert himself would have also not been in favor.

EP: A baritone would not sing Frauenliebe und-Leben.

DFD: No, definitely not. Perhaps it could be sung using a deeper female voice but I do not think that this works well. It is a difficult situation: the piano part remains constant, while the singer must be singing an octave higher.

EP: To continue with the topic of accompaniment, you have often performed with famous piano soloists. What did you find was the difference between them and say a pianist like Gerald Moore, who performs strictly as an accompanist.

DFD: Gerald Moore was the type of pianist that blossoms in the course of working together. In the beginning he carefully listened, almost submissively so, paying attention and blending in as a good accompanist should. This initial approach involved exploring the musical territory with the singer and learning to "breathe" and blend with the dynamics. Later he began to show a much more individual side of himself. This is in stark opposition to most soloists, who come with a pre-conceived approach and musical perspective, usually leaving it up to me to fit in. At some point I am able to carefully input my own musical ideas, but usually there is never enough time for this.

EP: Were there ever situations where you simply could not work together with an accompanist?

DFD: No. Things never got that far. I simply would not work with such a pianist again. There are some pianists who simply are not equipped for accompanying. They do not "breathe" with the singer. This is the most important factor in accompanying.

EP: With which soloists have you had the best working experience?

DFD: Slava Richter was quite naturally the most wonderful, due to his abilty to balance the piano with the voice. He always wanted to rehearse for weeks, but often I had only a couple of days, or vice-versa. When we first met and worked together in Aldeburgh with Benjamin Britten, we had only one and a half rehearsals for the Magelone. This was absolutely no problem for him, since he could sight-read the music without any difficulty at all. Then there is Murray Perahia. He is one of the greatest pianists ever. He's unbelievable. He is self confident, exact and reflective in his playing. He ponders a piece of music and works through every aspect of it. He once said that he only took on works that others played poorly. There is perhaps a bit of snobbery in such a statement, but there is also something positive. I also approached things in a similar manner — at least in the beginning. For example, when I first heard the recording of the Ernsten Gesänge with Hertha Klust, I remember thinking that I could do a much better job.

EP: At this point in time, what other recordings were you aware of?

DFD: The Kipnis recordings, the Leisner solo works, Manowarda — all of which seemed to me not quite right. I wanted to do it differently. My first recordings, however, were quite trerrible and I was not able to reach this ideal. Nevertheless, they were recently brought out on CD.

EP: This is actually quite interesting, because it gives us an opportunity to hear and compare an artist at different ages and different stages of his or her musical development.

DFD: In retrospect, I think the best period was my time with Demus — which was sometime around the middle of my singing career. It was really not bad at all.

EP: Do you have any plans to conduct in the near future?

DFD: Yes, I have more plans than are possible to complete. I am not in great demand anymore and am not young enough, but I have several projects which I would very much like to see through. I would very much like to conduct Stravinsky's complete Firebird Suite exactly as I imagine it. I would also like to conduct Benjamin Britten's War Requiem in a way that has not been done since his death. I also would like to do Busoni's Berceuse élégiaque, and so on, and so on. There is much that I would like to do. I have two concerts already scheduled here in Berlin: one with the Berlin Singakademie and the other one at the concert hall.

EP: What about recording projects?

DFD: I do not have an agent. I have never had one. It is quite a stroke of luck when a recording project comes together. However, there seems to be no sense of adventure in the record business today. They see their imminent demise and downfall, and they really do not want to record anymore.

EP: They are, of course, partly to blame for this situation.

DFD: Of course. At the end of the day, they do nothing for their products. One could expect that some investment take place, but even this doesn't help. By the way, the CD is at its end and something else has to be be invented. Also, there is the problem of running out of repertoire, because the record companies are constantly searching for whatever musical leftovers they can find.

EP: One last question: What do you think about the ongoing discussion about the sustainability of three opera houses in Berlin?

DFD: The discussion should not be continued. I feel that every one of these opera houses should be left as they are. The debate about money is the wrong debate. The only drawing card Berlin offers to the outside world is its culture. The three opera houses each have an individual tradition that cannot be simply cut up and combined. All three should be supported without any decrease in funding and not played against each other in order to see who will come out on top.

More information on Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau can be found in andante profiles.

© andante Corp. May 2001. All rights reserved.