Everything was ready and prepared for the DEBUT 2020 anniversary season. The five-day masterclass with Brigitte Fassbaender, the world-famous Kammersängerin, was due to begin on Easter Monday, with the concert in the Manfred Wittenstein Room of the TauberPhilharmonie Weikersheim on April 17 as the crowning highlight. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has failed to show any consideration either for this ambitious project in cooperation with Ms. Fassbaender – mezzo-soprano, stage director, vocal coach, author and theater manager – or for our intensive preparations. For the past 25 years since the end of her incomparable singing career, Ms. Fassbaender has been highly active as a vocal coach and stage director and is still very much in demand today. She kindly agreed to give an interview to DEBUT Concerts instead, which is reproduced below. Many of the questions were inspired by her memoirs, published last year under the title “Komm’ aus dem Staunen nicht heraus” (I can’t believe my eyes).
The coronavirus has the world in its grip. How is it impacting on you personally?
Brigitte Fassbaender: I’m doing fine. I live in the country and I’m well-practiced in patience and discipline. I’ve got more time on my hands than ever before. “Slowdown” will probably be chosen as the “word of the year”. This global crisis shows no mercy for anyone. My sympathy goes out to all those who are suffering hardest. There’s nothing worse than dying alone.
The masterclass you were planning to hold for DEBUT in April has unfortunately been canceled, but what aspects were you intending to focus on had it gone ahead as planned?
Fassbaender: It always ends up being a mixture of technical and interpretative stimuli. It’s important to me that we work as individually as possible and that we’re not afraid to take risks. A mastery of the techniques is vital if the crucial personal expression in interpretations is to develop freely and in a controlled way.
In your highly informative memoirs you describe how you dropped out of school without taking your Abitur leaving exams, in order to train as a singer with your father Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender, the famous Kammersänger and Director of the Nuremberg School of Opera. When you took that decision, were you convinced that to study for a degree at university would be a waste of time?
Fassbaender: My father was on the staff of the Nuremberg Conservatory. He taught a vocal class there. I wanted to study under him as soon as I possibly could! I didn’t need to go to university for that. I hated school – and so dropping out came as a liberation and a step in the right direction.
You made your debut at the Bavarian State Opera at the age of 21 while still a student at the Nuremberg Conservatory. Was that the moment when you finally realized your exceptional talent?
Fassbaender: No – that was never really an issue. The engagement happened more by chance; I had yet to take my opera exam. But I must have sung well at the audition in Munich – and was accepted on that basis.
As a young girl, did you ever want to follow in the footsteps of your mother Sabine Peters, who appeared in movies alongside Ingrid Bergman and Gustaf Gründgens? Could you also have imagined a career as an actress?
Fassbaender: Yes, I wanted to be an actress originally – until my voice finally revealed itself, that is. I consoled myself by saying that acting ambition is also a very useful, and necessary, quality on the opera stage.
You talk about a meeting with Hans Knappertsbusch, the acclaimed conductor, at which you were introduced to him as “the great Fassbaender’s little daughter”. You later wrote that you were considering changing your name, to avoid the pressure of expectations from the outset.
Fassbaender: The story goes that as a young child, whenever anyone remarked “Oh, your father is the great singer”, I always used to reply “No, he’s a small, fat one…”. It was as if the “great singer” was breathing down my neck even then. I wanted people to “assess” my talent without any knowledge of who I was…
Was your father’s reputation as one of the leading lyrical baritones of his time a blessing for your career or a curse?
Fassbaender: It was both! All of the doors were open and people were curious to see what his “little kid” was like. But it was my talent that made those doors stay open. For me, the curiosity and the expectations were always a curse.
In the early days of your career you were full of admiration for great voices, but you soon came to the realization that many of them had already passed their peak. Was your perception as a talented newcomer different to that of an established singer who can look back on appearances on all of the world’s opera stages?
Fassbaender: Yes, of course! I’ve got a better appreciation of cause and effect now; I’m more understanding of others and I’m sure I’ve mellowed compared to what I used to be. I’ve experienced so much first-hand meanwhile; I know exactly how difficult this job is and the dangers you’re exposed to as a singer.
At the beginning of your career, when you devoted a good part of your time and energy to lieder, you frequently changed your accompanist, no matter how fruitful the collaboration so far. In your memoirs you’re short and succinct on that: “We gradually got to know each other too well”. Did you long for fresh inspiration?
Fassbaender: Yes! After a while in such an “exclusive” relationship, I felt trapped. I was looking for new experiences, new inspiration and new people to share them with; you never stop learning and interaction – in my case, with the accompanist – is indispensable.
You occasionally took advantage of concert appearances to exhibit some of the pictures you’ve painted. Can we ever look forward to a comprehensive retrospective of your paintings and drawings?
Fassbaender: If someone approaches me and they’re willing to do the work for me, why not? I think I’d even sell some of them now – for a good cause. That’s something I’ve never done in the past, and I don’t know what to do with them all in the meantime…
You also demonstrated your amazing artistic range during your period as Managing Director of the Tyrolean State Theatre in Innsbruck, which looking back you summed up as follows: “It was never an easy process – a kind of balancing act between my own artistic ambition and the audience’s expectations”. Is that an insight that theater managers everywhere should take to heart?
Fassbaender: Probably. I certainly did, and I hope it always showed.
The interview was conducted by Felix Röttger; it appeared in the Fränkische Nachrichten on 20.04.2020.