Former BBC New Generation Artist and last private pupil of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Benjamin Appl has become a wonderful ambassador for the world of Lied. The German baritone also sings Opera, and we will probably have the chance to see him in several productions.
Benjamin Appl is about to publish a Bach album (with arias from Cantatas and Passions), where his warm voice perfectly marries the sound of the period instruments of Concerto Köln. Let’s meet with a wonderful artist, whom we would like to see more often in France !
Can you tell us about what made you decide to sing and about your debut ?
Actually it hasn’t been an easy decision at all. I started out completely differently as an apprentice in a bank, and then graduated in business administration. It was not obvious for many years that I would even become a musician. But in a way, I always felt that I was missing something in life. However, thinking back now, I really appreciate this unconventional pathway as not only did I gain insight into another world and learn a lot about business, but I can now fully appreciate how lucky I am to be a musician. So it wasn’t really a decision made on a certain day but it was a process for many months, which happened very smoothly.
My debut as a singer actually – while still studying business administration – was a recital in the town of my grandmother in a beautiful medieval castle. I programmed Schumann’s Dichterliebe, being very naive and not realizing all the challenges of this cycle.
You are now an established recitalist. How important is it for your voice, and as an artist, to sing Lieder ?
I think it is most important for me to sing recitals. In Lieder, the performer not only fills the role of the singer, but must also be his own conductor and stage director too. This can be frightening but also utterly wonderful. As a Lieder singer, you have complete autonomy when it comes to interpretation and musical expression. You have to create something very truthful without the need of costumes or make up. Vocally, I don’t see a big difference between opera and lieder : everyone has just one voice and has to use it properly. Also people sometimes underestimate the volume and power of an open grand piano – it is a percussion instrument. In former times, most of the singers – even the greatest recital AND opera singers – always sang in front of a closed or half-stick opened piano for that reason, exactly for this reason. When I hear sometimes the argument that song recitals are only for people with small voices, it really makes me feel that these people should stand there once and experience the power of sound coming out of the instrument.
You are about to publish a Bach recital with baroque ensemble Concerto Köln. Is it important foryou to sing this repertoire with period instruments ?
I always want to be versatile in my artistry and open for all kind of instrumentation and sound. I experienced that a Bach aria sounds often completely different when it is played in 415 Hz instead of 443 Hz. Period instruments create a very warm and special sound which I like a lot. Interestingly, a cellist recently told me that there was a viola player in the orchestra in the Bavarian State Opera who played on gut strings in 1985. So I think we should not absolutely separate period from modern instruments. In the end, it is in the hands and the brain of good players how to deal with an instrument and how to express themselves, despite if they play on a period or modern instruments.
Would you like to sing more opera in the future, and which roles ?
Yes, I am convinced I will do it again, as I have done quite a lot of opera productions after starting off as a singer. Next year I will sing Guglielmo in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte in London. However, for various reasons, I right now focus more on concert and orchestral work. It is always easier to expand than the opposite. I very often use the image of painting : singing song is like using a very small brush for watercolors, everything is very refined. Singing opera, you have to think bigger, in longer bows like a painter using a big brush on oil-based-paintings. There are definitely some opera roles, I would like to sing again or learn for the first time : Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Conte Almaviva, Debussy’s Pelléas, Wagner’s Wolfram and Britten’s Billy Budd to name just a few. And I am looking now even more forward to start with the big canvas soon!
What are your main projects today and which artists would you like to work with ?
My problem is that I have too many ideas for projects at the same time. These days, I am already putting together a programm for my next album, which is always exciting. I also try to expand the world of lieder, to make it accessible for many more listeners and to combine it with other art forms. I personally think that song recitals have a huge potential, more than most of other classical music genres. That is what I find also most fascinating with this art form. Together with a very famous German TV actor I am developing right now a new version of Schubert’s Winterreise with fascinating texts of an expedition in the 19th century. It doesn’t only widen my horizon but brings also a new dimension to listeners in the audience.
In terms of collaborations, there are many wonderful solo pianists I would like to work with as well as some of the greatest conductors like Simon Rattle, Kirill Petrenko and Riccardo Chailly.
Do you have any projects in France?
The last two were at the Opéra de Lille and Musée du Louvre in Paris, but unfortunately there aren’t any performances planned in France right now. I really do love performing in France and for French audiences are very educated and attentive. And having a wonderful meal in a French restaurant after a performance is an extra reason to love performing in France !
I had many conversations about this with label and colleagues. The times where artists (particularly singers) were hidden and untouchable are over now. As we have to connect in our performance with audiences, some of them also wish to connect with us outside the concert platform as well. Social media and internet gives us a great opportunity, and I see it actually as a chance to connect with many people but being still in charge how much you really give away from yourself in public. My accounts are also administrated by people from the label and a social media team, so they are mainly in charge of communication. But saying this, a few years ago, just when I started as a professional singer, I received some offers for concerts and recitals via my professional Facebook page, so in my case being present on social media didn’t do me any harm.
Apart from music, do you have any hobbies?
Apart from music there is unfortunately not too much time left, but there are many other things I am interested in. There are more sophisticated things like reading and going to see plays, shows and museums. Another hobby I have and started quite early but unfortunately haven’t done for a while is ballroom dancing. More than 13 years ago I was a one of the « debutants » at the famous Vienna Opera Ball !
More down-to-earth hobbies are chopping wood in the Bavarian forests, building and renovating houses and buildings, something which clears the head and where you actually can clearly see the outcome every evening after a full day of work in front of your eyes (which in my profession you don’t always do).
Photos : Minijas_Zugik / Sony Lars Borge