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Singer of the Year

December 29, 2011

Often it's the volatile divas and heroic tenors with their High C's that grab the attention. But this time leading European opera critics recognized a down-to-earth baritone who gravitates towards anti-hero roles.

Johannes Martin Kränzle performs in Handel's "Theodora"
Johannes Martin Kränzle performs in Handel's "Theodora"Image: AP

The fifty critics casting their votes in a poll organized by the trade magazine "Opernwelt" base their decision on a singer's vocal quality, range of repertory, acting and work ethic. In all, 49-year-old Augsburg singer Johannes Martin Kränzle was felt to excel. His current celebrated roles include Beckmesser in "The Mastersingers" and Alberich in "The Ring of the Nibelung."

Wagnerian repertory aside, Kränzle turned his voice to complex new music in the form of Wolfgang Rihm's "Dionysos" at the Salzburg Festival last summer. He also featured at the Cologne Opera in Prokofiev's seldom-performed "War and Peace," where he portrayed Prince Andrei Balkonsky. Critics were unanimous: Johannes Martin Kränzle's bravura extends not only to character roles but also to lyrical and contemporary ones.

Mezzo-soprano Julia Faylenbogen, soprano Elin Rombo, baritone Johannes Martin Kraenzle, mezzo-soprano Virpi Raeisaenen und soprano Mojca Erdmann rehearsing a scene in the opera 'Dionysos' in Salzburg
A scene from "Dionysos," an opera based on Nietzsche's writings by Wolfgang RihmImage: picutre-alliance/dpa

With more than eighty operatic roles under his belt, Kränzle is a sought-after vocalist on the world's foremost stages, but his activities also extend beyond. Kränzle studied operatic stage direction and authored a piece of musical theater titled "Der Wurm" (The Worm).

Johannes Martin Kränzle arrived just on time for our interview in Cologne, where he currently appears as the music teacher in Richard Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos," calling to mind another of the singer's virtues: reliability.

Deutsche Welle: Mr. Kränzle, now that you've pocketed the "Opera Oscar," has it changed your life?

Johannes Martin Kränzle: I was very surprised they chose me. I was very gratified, but it didn't change anything, not even the engagements I'm offered. I already have such wonderful offers.

When you began your career, did you play by certain rules?

It's not always in a singer's hands to do that. You have to take the offers you get - or turn them down. But I've been cautious in general and have often said, "No, I'll wait another two or three years before I tackle that one." It's been a healthy policy. I really can say: everything I haven't sung has helped. If you sing certain roles too early, you might get by for the time being, but it comes at a price. Later on, your voice will show the wear and tear.

How might a career agenda look for someone of your vocal range?

Depends on the individual. The first time I sang Don Giovanni, I was 35 and had ten years of professional singing under my belt. I did my first Wagner role at age 42. Now, with greater maturity, I feel ready for a lot of things, but it's still too early for some roles.

Excuse me, but at just under age 50, which roles is one still to young for?

The high-drama Wagnerian roles. It isn't my voice yet. Maybe it never will be.

The average age keeps rising everywhere, in opera too. What are your feelings on the subject?

People live longer in general, and in constantly improving health. Actually one should take more time for youth and education. Maybe it would be better to start working at 25 or 30 - and retire at 70. That's my prediction for the next generation.

On the subject of youth: does it bother you that the greater part of your audience is a generation older than you are?

That depends to great extent on the management. I attended an average production in Frankfurt not long ago and was surprised to see so many young people in the audience. You have to aggressively market opera to younger generations.

At one point you said that in a singer's life, there are at most five roles that really fit. You've been a wonderful Papageno and a magnificent Bluebeard. Now the world's stages hear you as Beckmesser and as Alberich. What's left?

Well, I've only been doing Alberich for the past year and a half, and I really love that role, just as I do Beckmesser, because those parts are so rich theatrically. But now, after singing Andrei Balkonsky, I feel like doing cavalier's roles and maybe taking a stab at the positive characters in the world of Wagner, like Amfortas and Kurwenal. I've always wanted to sing Eugene Onegin. I can tell you now that that wish will come true in two years in Cologne. And Mozart is always wonderful basic material for keeping the voice healthy and making it slender. I deliberately keep going back to Mozart.

Is it your principle to never say no when offered something new and unfamiliar?

Absolutely. The incidental offers you get are often the most interesting ones. They allow you to discover qualities you never thought you had. That's what happened with Prokofiev's "War and Peace" in Cologne. A terrific work! The more I got involved in it, the more enthused I was by the music and the piece altogether.

A scene from the Glyndebourne Festival: Johannes Martin Kränzle as Sixtus Beckmesser and Gerald Finley as Hans Sachs.
Beckmesser is one of Kränzle's favorite rolesImage: Alastair Muir
Mojca Erdmann, Virpi Räisänen, Julia Faylenbogen, Elin Rombo, Matthias Klink and Johannes Martin Kränzle
As "N," Kränzle portrayed a failed dreamer in "Dionysos"Image: Ruth Walz

And my character in it was completely different from the kind I usually play. My specialty is the broken men, the losers, the anti-heroes. But Andrei Balkonsky is a hero in the classical sense who would rather go to his death than lose his honor - yet he's a character with many nuances.

Your rendition of Nietzsche in "Dionysos" by Wolfgang Rihm has earned many accolades. Does that work have a chance of entering the repertory?

I think it will return to the stage. I wouldn't even call it all that complicated to listen to. You hear Mahler in it, and Strauss. Modern music doesn't always have to sound so oblique.

What, to you, is a successful production?

It's the fortuitous combination of a piece fitting the director and the conductor, combined with a cast that harmonizes. With all those factors, you can have a fiasco in a great house like Milan but great luck at a minor one like Gelsenkirchen.

Interview: Anastassia Boutsko / rf
Editor: Greg Wiser