René Pape, Bass From on High, Adept at Cameos and Star Turns

BERLIN – THE meeting place was a restaurant popular with performers, tucked away in a middle-class residential area handy to several theaters, unknown to the fashionable set. The German bass René Pape was reading reviews of a new production of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” at the Staatsoper. At the premiere, two nights before, he had made his debut in the title role of the conscience-stricken czar.

“In your hometown, you’re nothing, just nothing,” Mr. Pape said, looking up from Der Tagesspiegel.

“A brother of Putin, whose tortured conscience is written on his face from the beginning,” he read aloud in a thoughtful tone, free from apparent sarcasm. “Vocally, this czar is young (too young?), often almost lyrical in his attack, with magnificently virile mahogany tones in the middle register and somewhat pallid high notes. But in the deep register, in particular, Pape lacks the specific blackness of the role, those tarry deposits of greed, repentance, pride and lust that it takes to make this Boris a real character. Pape will probably never be a Chaliapin, a Ghiaurov, a Talvela. But maybe the 21st century simply isn’t producing Rasputin types anymore, basses like trees.”

Feodor Chaliapin, a Russian, died in 1938; Martti Talvela, a Finn, in 1989; Nicolai Ghiaurov, a Bulgarian, in 2004: each a Boris who went down in history. And while the Tagesspiegel critic was all but alone in objecting to Mr. Pape’s fearless high notes, otherwise her description of his voice pretty much checks out. But to judge by other reviews and by the mood in the house, Mr. Pape’s dejected bureaucrat triumphed on his own terms.

“I hate that comparison with Talvela,” Mr. Pape (pronounced PAH-puh) said. ” ‘Tarry deposits.’ I’m not a black, dark bass. They should know that by now. I’m a basso cantante, in the line of Ezio Pinza and Cesare Siepi and Sam Ramey and George London, who wasn’t really a bass but a bass-baritone.”

Then he ordered lunch. “Six snails, very hot.”

There’s home, and there’s home. In New York, Mr. Pape, 41, can do virtually no wrong. At the Metropolitan Opera, over the last few years, he has established himself as a favorite in roles including King Marke in “Tristan und Isolde,” Leporello in “Don Giovanni,” Escamillo in “Carmen” and Rocco in “Fidelio.”

Next door, at Avery Fisher Hall, he helped ring in the millennium with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Bartenders at Lincoln Center shake his hand. His face is recognized at galleries up and down Chelsea and SoHo.

“Artistically, the Met is my home now,” Mr. Pape said. “A second home. The Met and the Staatsoper. They’re the only ones.”

Unlike a prima donna, who guards her franchise jealously, Mr. Pape gladly alternates star turns with cameos. Last season at the Met, between performances in the showy role of Méphistophèles in a new staging of Gounod’s “Faust,” he appeared as the Speaker (one scene, no full-out singing) in the second run of Mozart’s “Zauberflöte” — this despite having sung Sarastro, the principal bass role, in three consecutive new productions of “Zauberflöte” at the Salzburg Festival.

This spring, the Met will welcome Mr. Pape back in two familiar Wagner roles: as the sonorous but ultimately ineffectual authority figure King Henry in the Robert Wilson production of “Lohengrin” (he joins the cast on Monday); and as Gurnemanz in the Otto Schenk production of “Parsifal” (beginning on May 12). Mr. Pape first sang Gurnemanz — a knight of the Grail and the narrator of the opera’s involved back story — at the Met three years ago, and he has set a new standard, moving from the periphery to the very heart of the drama. As enacted by Mr. Pape, the storytelling itself becomes a dramatic event, a path to spiritual restoration.

A former choirboy with the celebrated Kreuzchor in his native Dresden, Mr. Pape joined the Berlin Staatsoper in 1988, fresh from the Carl Maria von Weber Conservatory, also in Dresden. The fall of Communism lay in the future, and the civil-service model long typical of East German opera houses was still in force.

“Just out of school, I didn’t even know what a free career was,” Mr. Pape said. “The thing didn’t exist. There were 56 theaters in Germany. You sang for a national jury, and there was a rating system. Every young singer got a job, whether in a radio chorus or as a soloist somewhere.”

Mr. Pape received offers from all the best houses. But the Semper Opera in Dresden thought he should start with three years in its young artists program. The Berlin Staatsoper wanted him as a full member of the ensemble right away.

Though the old system has since mostly vanished elsewhere, vestiges remain at the Staatsoper. Under his current arrangement, Mr. Pape gives the company 20 performances a year.

“That’s why I’m still here,” he said. “We were like a big family. It’s still that way, though many of my colleagues have gone. I’ve become a sort of column of the company. And after 17 years, they can’t fire me. I can stay here until I retire. Retirement age is 65. So this is a place I can study and also maintain my repertoire.”

The company benefits, too. Often, as in “Boris Godunov,” Mr. Pape’s conductor is Daniel Barenboim, the Staatsoper’s general music director since 1992. “Being able to cast from the ensemble is not only a financial convenience,” Mr. Barenboim said in December, between performances. “It helps create homogeneity, as in a chamber music ensemble. It’s another way of working. You don’t rehearse for tonight but for years ahead.”

As for the advantages of the kind of state-sponsored education Mr. Pape received, Mr. Barenboim said: “A Mercedes is obviously better than a Trabant. But with respect to culture, the West has a lot to learn. Artists from the East were often taught to pay much more thorough attention. Probably because of their terrible living conditions, they acquired a certain modesty, a sense of the value of music as something important and powerful. It sounds corny and sentimental, but René still has this, and it pays dividends.”

That first Boris Godunov — a harder proposition than Mr. Pape had imagined — illustrates both his work ethic and his attachment to the Staatsoper. Set in the near future, in a Russia back in the grip of Soviet-style schemers and apparatchiks, the production was by the Russian designer and director Dmitri Cherniakov. The work was performed in the original version of 1869 and ran two hours, without intermission.

Traditionally, the newly crowned czar’s haunted opening soliloquy on the steps of the cathedral is played as an interior monologue. Mr. Cherniakov envisioned it instead as Boris’s inaugural address, televised from his bare Kremlin office: a shattering conceit, executed with painful honesty. The ending was equally unusual, with Boris wrapped in a baby-blue blanket, expiring like a sick child: a soul not evil but corroded by banal bureaucratic compliance.

After the intensity of a long rehearsal period, Mr. Pape likes to spend days off during the run at home, in peace. “It’s nice to sleep,” he said. “To go to galleries. To see friends. To try to organize my private life, which isn’t easy. If there’s time, I like sports, movies, theater, plays, other operas. Then there’s the problem of getting tickets for my friends squared away, which I hate.”

Mostly, friends attend dress rehearsals, but not this time. The dress rehearsal for “Boris” was called off when an unexploded bomb from World War II was discovered steps from the theater. As a result, the ticket ordeal was that much worse.

Mr. Pape didn’t get his wish about staying home, either. For an English-language film of “Die Zauberflöte” directed by Kenneth Branagh and conducted by James Conlon, Mr. Pape needed to fly to London for a touch-up recording session and riding lessons. Sarastro, it seems, will be appearing on horseback for a few seconds. “So they have to show me the gas pedal and the brakes and the gears,” Mr. Pape said, looking droll. “And where the air bags are.”

This will not be his last brush with the film world. The Los Angeles Opera and the Châtelet in Paris have signed Mr. Pape for the title role in “The Fly,” a new opera by Howard Shore, a two-time Oscar winner for scores to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. David Cronenberg, who oversaw the 1986 remake of the sci-fi horror classic of the same name, starring Jeff Goldblum, will direct. The production is set for the 2007-8 season.

“It’s interesting to have a little entree into that world,” Mr. Pape said. Yet despite such excursions, the operatic establishment maintains its hold on him. At the Met, his assignments next year are Sarastro, and King Philip II in Verdi’s “Don Carlo.” Already announced for 2009-10, the first season planned entirely by the incoming general manager, Peter Gelb, is a new production of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann.” Mr. Pape will sing the Four Villains alongside the glamorous Anna Netrebko’s Four Heroines (a first for her) and Rolando Villazón’s Hoffmann, a portrayal already acclaimed in London and Vienna.

In between, in the spring of 2008, there is more Wagner, in “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.” Long after wowing the cognoscenti in the walk-on of the Night Watchman, and after a run of many seasons in the eloquent supporting role of the goldsmith Veit Pogner, Mr. Pape will finally graduate to the lead of the cobbler Hans Sachs, the irascible, resourceful, warmly humane philosopher-poet many feel he was born to portray.

Unsurprisingly, that’s a challenge he’ll wrestle with first in Berlin, with his old friend Mr. Barenboim. “You have to feel at home where you’re performing, or it drives you crazy,” Mr. Pape once said, when he was still getting used to New York. “Even if your real home is elsewhere. Homesickness can be very hard.”


That first Boris Godunov -- a harder proposition than Mr. Pape had imagined -- illustrates both his work ethic and his attachment to the Staatsoper."

– Matthew Gurewitsch, The New York Times