The Versatile Bass With the Tenor’s Buzz

When men sing, it is tenors who get the glory, right? Not when they are up against the German bass René Pape. Visually he is a striking presence: tall and trim but commanding, with the full moon of a face, broad cheekbones and level gaze of a statesman in a Holbein portrait. But what counts most is a deep, noble sound that instantly engages the attention.

Since 1999 Mr. Pape’s appearances at the Metropolitan Opera — in roles ranging from Wagnerian monarchs to Bizet’s toreador Escamillo in ”Carmen” — have unleashed the sort of pandemonium usually reserved for Plácido Domingo or for certain rare divas like Karita Mattila and Natalie Dessay. As a concert soloist in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, say, Mr. Pape takes his bows as one among equals, but never mind. Typically he is the one audiences remember, and critics say so in the reviews.

The main order of business for his latest visit to New York is a new Met production of Mozart’s ”Don Giovanni,” directed by Marthe Keller and conducted by James Levine, in rehearsal for a March 1 premiere.

Local audiences know Mr. Pape (pronounced PAH-puh) best as an authoritative Wagnerian, so it may come as a surprise that his repertory includes not only the part of that ungodly Spanish rake (and casual murderer) Don Giovanni but also that of his put-upon manservant and alter ego Leporello. This time he takes the bravura assignment of Leporello, opposite Thomas Hampson’s suave, practiced Giovanni. (In a future Met season he is expected to step up to the role of the boss.)

Back when the buzz about Mr. Pape was beginning, it irked him that excitement in the classical niche did not translate to mainstream fame. And to his chagrin civilians who found out that he was an opera singer always jumped to the same conclusion, ”Oh, you must be a tenor.”

Last week during a break in rehearsals at the Met, Mr. Pape crossed Broadway for a half order of pasta with pesto and a glass of tap water at Fiorello’s. Remembering such incidents, he chuckled comfortably at a pitch far, far below high C. ”I’ve gotten used to it,” he said. ”For outsiders opera singer equals tenor. But in the meantime my career has proven to me that you don’t need to be a tenor to get recognition.”

Where once he was impatient, he now seems in no hurry at all. As everyone in the classical music business professes to know, an ambitious singer on the rise needs to do two things: put a solo CD out there (preferably on a major label) and appear in recitals. At 39 Mr. Pape has 20 recordings to his credit (two of them Grammy winners in the best opera category), but as yet no album of his own. As for recitals, all he has done is a brief set for the George London Foundation’s series at the Pierpont Morgan Library, an event so intimate as to qualify as a house concert.

Still, the experience made an impression. ”It gave me my first taste of blood,” he said. There will be major recitals in his future.

In both departments, recordings and recitals, significant developments are imminent. Tomorrow Deutsche Grammophon is celebrating the American release of his latest CD with a party at the Spider Club at Avalon (the club formerly notorious as Limelight), in Chelsea. No, this is not the solo album his fans have been clamoring for. It’s a symphonic song cycle, ”Mein Herz Brennt,” which also features sections for an actress.

Set to texts by the German industrial band Rammstein, it has already been hailed in Europe as the most successful fusion of hard rock and classical music yet attempted. Some critics have placed it, not entirely gratuitously, in the tradition of song cycles from Schubert and Schumann to Mahler. Though there are passages of ghostly quiet, much of the material is savage stuff, even brutal. Mr. Pape goes at it all like a man possessed.

If Rammstein’s fan club rises to the bait, Mr. Pape’s sales will be, by classical standards, off the charts: the group has sold some 7 million albums worldwide, nearly 1.4 million in the United States.

It seems as if ”Mein Herz Brennt” (”My Heart Is on Fire”) were written just for him. As it happens, he and Torsten Rasch, the composer, were schoolmates and fellow members of the celebrated Kreuzchor (Holy Cross Choir) in Dresden. They also played soccer together. Yet for the three years he was working on the piece, Mr. Rasch had no particular singer in mind. When it was finished, he listened to many candidates, none of whom satisfied him.

”Then my producer, Sven Helbig, asked me what I thought of René,” Mr. Rasch wrote recently from Japan, ”and I immediately said, ‘Why didn’t I think of him?’ ” Once Mr. Pape gave the music a try, Mr. Rasch knew that no one else would do.

And Mr. Pape’s impressions? ”A lot of it is sort of like film music,” he said. ”And it’s very, very hard to sing. There is none of the kind of harmonic structure I’m used to, no melodic or rhythmic points of reference.” Besides, the orchestration is heavy, and the vocal dynamic ranges from roar to whisper. For the first time Mr. Pape had to perform with a microphone, an art in itself. He took to the challenge eagerly, ”The mike can bring out colors and nuances that are otherwise inaudible,” he said. But he hopes no one will expect him to sing at the Spider Club.

On Feb. 17 Mr. Pape begins another new chapter, joining Renée Fleming, Anne Sofie von Otter and Matthew Polenzani at Carnegie Hall in an all-star Schubert evening with Mr. Levine at the piano. Though responsible for only a quarter of the program (eight songs), Mr. Pape thinks of it as his recital debut.

Why has it been so long in coming? ”I want really to be ready,” Mr. Pape said, adding:. ”On the opera stage, there’s always somewhere to hide. You can step into the wings. You can duck out of sight and drink a glass of water. It’s a big challenge to get up on an empty stage with no one but the pianist. You’re practically naked. Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’ or ‘Schwanengesang’ or Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe’ aren’t pieces you can toss off on the side. I’m taking things step by step.’

Meanwhile how about that solo CD? ”You can hire an orchestra on the cheap in the former Eastern bloc,” he said, ”get a conductor no one knows, and do a bunch of arias, and there’s your CD. But then there’s no money to promote it and no network to distribute it, and nobody knows it’s there.

Normally a mainstream audience doesn’t buy a CD of a bass. ”They buy the Three Tenors and Maria Callas. Tenors’ repertoire is a lot better known than what basses sing. But I’m working on it. Give me time.”

And with that he rose from the table, crossed the black ice of Broadway back to Mozart’s Seville in the sunless depths of the Metropolitan.


Visually he is a striking presence: tall and trim but commanding, with the full moon of a face, broad cheekbones and level gaze of a statesman in a Holbein portrait. But what counts most is a deep, noble sound that instantly engages the attention."

– Matthew Gurewitsch, The New York Times