PROFILE / Rene Pape / Master Singer / Young bass in ‘Die Meistersinger’ is used to playing ‘old guys,’ heavies

For anyone who has fallen under his spell onstage, meeting Rene Pape in person is quite a surprise.

Possessed of one of the richest and darkest instruments in opera today, the German bass is nearly always cast as the old guy, the heavy, definitely not the young lead.

Pape recently made his San Francisco Opera debut as the venerable Old Hebrew in “Samson et Dalila,” and he is now getting ready to sing the role of Pogner, the heroine’s father in “Die Meistersinger.” He is very believable in these and other roles that he inhabits with precocious authority.

Well, the guy’s actually young, tall and slender, a hunk by opera standards.

He was, at 23, the youngest-ever Sarastro in the Salzburg Festival’s production of “The Magic Flute” led by his mentor, Sir Georg Solti, that launched Pape’s spectacular career. Even at 37, he looks a decade younger, and, artistically, he is only beginning.

“As a bass, my voice is still changing,” he said recently between rehearsals at the War Memorial Opera House. “The bass voice grows until 40, maybe 42; then after that you can sing anything.”

He means it. Pape already has been moving gingerly into both higher and heavier ranges, with plans to play Don Giovanninext year and Boris Godunov not too far in the future.

“But I also know I have to take my time. I have been very careful, and very fortunate.”

He grew up in Dresden, where he started singing at 10 with the famed Dresden Kreuzchor. He joined the Berlin Staatsoper in 1988, while still a student. He took acting as well as music lessons, a practice that is not all that common in opera. He was noticed. And when Solti found him, his life changed.

“Solti was the first and the most important influence for me,” said Pape, “and I am not even sure I can explain all the ways he helped me. I never had a chance to meet Bernstein, I never met Karajan; but I had Solti. His last seven years were really my first. He was like a grandfather to me. He trusted me.”

Under the great maestro, the budding bass sang everything from Bach to Mozart to Wagner, all the time putting his lessons to very practical use.

Championed by Solti, Pape also enjoyed a string of successes everywhere from the Bayreuth Festival to the Metropolitan Opera and back to his old hometown. It was in Dresden that I first heard him years ago, as King Marke in “Tristan und Isolde,” and it was the only time I have ever felt that the infamous Act 2 monologue was not long enough.

Far from the “Bayreuth bark” the repertory attracts, here was Wagnerian singing with the sort of legato, portamento, support and expression one usually expects only in Bellini or perhaps in Verdi. It was heartbreaking.

“King Marke is one of my favorite roles,” said Pape, adding that the old King whose fiancee’s heart was stolen by his trusted friend Tristan “is a very special role if you have had something similar happen to you, if you have had a good friend take over your wife.” That is all he will say on the subject, except to confess that “this is what happened to me.”

Still, the emotional key to Pape’s approach is profoundly musical. “I prefer the Italianate sound,” he said, “even in Wagner. You don’t have to shout fortissimo all the time, you can really maintain a beautiful line. And remember that Wagner wrote for singers who could sing all these lines, singers trained in bel canto who sang Italian opera all the time. I like that.”

Thriving in the jet-set lifestyle of an opera star, Pape is divorced, living with his new fiancee in Berlin and traveling all over the world — from Paris to New York, Tokyo to Madrid — to meet the increasing demand for his talent. It is a good life, one that the former East German appreciates.

“A lot of people in Germany today complain about everything, but they forget what it was like before the Wall came down,” he said. “They forget too easily how your brother could be shot, your wife or your best friend taken away, any time, for any reason. Today we have to make sacrifices, but we make these sacrifices in freedom.”

Music and politics mingle as a matter of course in Berlin, but Pape did not expect that in San Francisco. The events in New York last month changed all that.

“I like this town,” he said. “People are really kind. But it has been hard to feel happy. I arrived in San Francisco and suddenly everyone, everywhere, was thrown into this depression.

“Our first rehearsal was scheduled for two days after the New York tragedy. We were all so unsure what to do, how to behave. Our hearts were broken. For all the victims, for the whole world.

“Then Maestro Runnicles brought us together, we started rehearsals, we worked,” he said. “Slowly we realized what we were supposed to do. We have to continue. (As) artists, we have to make the best music we can. We have to sing. ”


For anyone who has fallen under his spell onstage, meeting Rene Pape in person is quite a surprise. Possessed of one of the richest and darkest instruments in opera today, the German bass is nearly always cast as the old guy, the heavy, definitely not the young lead."

– Octavio Roca, San Francisco Chronicle