Q & A: Benjamin Appl On His U.S. Debut, Recitals & Schubert Lieder

By Francisco Salazar

“The last of the old great masters of song” has been a term used to describe the German baritone Benjamin Appl.

Hailed for his “sensitive legato,” Appl has performed in both opera and recitals around the world in such stages as Ravinia, Rheingau, Schleswig Holstein, Edinburgh International, Life Victoria Barcelona, Leeds Lieder, Oxford Lieder festivals, and Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, among others.

Now he is bringing his great lieder interpretations to U.S. audiences for the first time, embarking on a five-city tour and performing a wide array of repertoire.

OperaWire had a chance to speak with the baritone on the U.S. tour and the keys to performing a great recital.

OperaWire: How did the tour come about and how did you choose the cities that you would be performing at?

Benjamin Appl: Pierre Audi heard me singing a song recital a few years ago in Amsterdam where he was running the opera house and from there the Armory offered me a recital and my management allowed me to start the tour in New York and go to other great American cities. That was the beginning of the tour.

Song recitals are not done so often in America and I am lucky that I have two and a half weeks touring within America. These are the first recitals I am doing in the States and it was a great way to introduce myself to these places.

OW: Tell me about your repertoire selection and how did you go about choosing it?

BA: In New York, I am doing all three Schubert cycles and I think that is a wonderful trilogy. It is exciting to do these three cycles in New York and it is great to focus on this composer. He is the master of German song and he has been potent in my life. I learned his songs as a young boy when I was a chorister and he always has a special place in every recital I do.

Working with the great Graham Johnson really made me learn a lot of Schubert. I learned something like 300 songs and since then his music has always been close to my heart. I want to share this with America.

OW: What are the challenges of singing Schubert?

BA: It’s interesting because Opera singers tell me that they struggle with Schubert. His music is very transparent and you always feel naked because there isn’t a lot happening in the piano. It’s very light and you need a certain way of dealing with it. It’s sometimes frightening because someone might wish for more support from the piano in terms of harmonies or sound. I think that Schubert is often so simple on the one hand, but on the other, it has to be alive and that is not very easy. But when it works it is magical.

OW: How different is his writing from other composers you sing?

BA: Well, Schubert very often comes from Folk music and easy tunes. Most of the songs you can hear where they come from. Schubert never left Vienna except for a few trips outside Vienna. He never really saw the world as a Mozart or Beethoven did and despite his inexperience of seeing other cultures and traveling, his music and songs have such imagination and beauty and are spot on.

In my opinion, he always creates the right atmosphere and that is something admirable about him. The music he writes is universal.

OW: You are doing this trilogy in New York. How do you approach doing these cycles?

BA: Well you have to prepare and you have to think emotionally about these cycles to get your own interpretation. But on the other hand, I always think we are human beings and every day looks different and you absorb a different room and atmosphere. And at the concert, you have so many influences that change the way you see the music. As a musician, you have to find a way to deal with it and every evening it looks different. Therefore every interpretation is different.

It also depends on the pianist who might give you a different input and you might have to respond in a different way and I find that very exciting. In song recitals, there is so much freedom because you have a pianist only and in the end, you don’t know how the journey will turn up.

OW: You are doing the “Winterreise” in New York. Do you have a specific interpretation or story you like to portray when performing this piece?

BA: It’s a difficult question to answer. I feel a song recital is like a walk through a garden or a park.  The parameters are always the same and some trees are always the same. But you always approach the walkthrough differently because sometimes you spend more time on a specific flower or discover a different bush.

And when you do this cycle there are many crossing points. Sometimes you decide to go left or right. The “Winterreise” is a story which is significant in our times if you think of immigration and people on the road and globalization. People are moving around and changing places and searching for spirituality and the meaning of their life and the “Winterreise” is extraordinary and extreme. But I think searching and finding a place in the world or place within us is something which I want to point out in my interpretation. Of course, it is sad and dramatic but in the end, it lies somewhere in all of us.

There is also an idea that the “Winterreise” has to be sung by an older person or someone with more experience, but I think there are a million ways to perform this piece. I think one who speaks to every individual is something that works as well. And I think that is the wonderful part of performing this masterpiece.

OW:  You do a lot of recital work around the world. What is the key to performing a recital?

BA: I know that many colleagues of mine struggle to do recitals because when you do opera the lights are so bright from the auditorium that you can’t communicate directly with the audience.

So now you suddenly stand in front of a piano and there is nothing around you and you are face to face with the audience and you have to start communication and dialogue. It’s a connection that you have to build up and while it is wonderful it is challenging and frightening. There are also no costumes to hide in and you have no one to tell you how to sing or how to interpret. There is a lot in your hands and that is a huge challenge. Very often I have learned more about performing in song recitals. But when you click with the audience it is really exciting.

OW: Do you find that text is more important in a recital than in opera or oratorio?

BA: Definitely. In Schubert, for example, the poetry is so beautiful and I think word and sound and music has the same importance in song recitals. And that is the beautiful thing about song recitals because you have the chance to point out words or color words in different ways. You can choose and go a different way each time and that is what makes it so great to perform the same piece over and over. There is something new to discover every time.

OW: Does the audience affect that way of performing?

BA: Yes very much so. Sometimes people in the audience don’t realize when they buy a ticket that they actually will be participating and become an active part of a performance. They are very much involved without knowing it.

OW: Is there a particular piece you are excited to perform throughout the tour?

BA: In New York, I am doing the Schubert pieces which are three masterpieces and in the other places I am performing very different pieces. One is called “Heimat,” translated to “Homeland identity” and it is a program I recorded for Sony two years ago and it’s very personal.

It tells my story growing up in Germany but then moving to the U.K. and this is a program where I talk between the songs and I explain what these songs mean to me. So it’s a program that is very close to my heart.

But there is so much great music and I tried to select the best repertoire for the song recitals. And it is really hard to point out one piece and that is why I chose so many different programs.


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