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A half-hour ride through the rolling, verdant landscape of the Rhine Valley from Frankfurt Airport is all it takes to reach Andreas Scholl’s home in Kiedrich. Here, in a house built the year Bach was born, the German countertenor lives with his recording equipment, his harpischordist partner Tamar Halperin, his Swiss coffee machine and his complex reflections.
Until two and a half years ago, Scholl still lived in Basel, the city he had moved to as a student two decades earlier. It was the untimely death of a lutenist friend that prompted Scholl to return to the town of his birth.
“Life as a musician means packing suitcases, leaving for concerts, singing, coming back home, unpacking, washing, learning new repertoire, packing the suitcase and so on. After a while you simply forget that it’s nice to meet friends, that there is family, that it’s actually possible to come back home.
“When my friend died, I realised just how small my social circle in Basel really was. Here in Kiedrich, even if I have only two or three days off, if I drive into this courtyard and the gate closes behind me, I’ve arrived. I can exhale. The neighbours here all know me from the time I could walk. The bakery is 50 metres away, but sometimes it takes me half an hour to get there, because I bump into old friends on the way. I relax much more quickly here than I ever could in Basel.”
It’s a radical train of thought that makes Scholl remember an East German recording producer he once worked with. “He always said, ‘If you have never experienced it, how can you sing about it?’ That’s something that musicians too easily forget. Art draws food from life. The second you live only for your art, you lose that source.
“I’ve known wonderful musicians who have lost part of their humanity, because they were surrounded exclusively by people who told them how great they were. After a while you start believing it, and then you start assuming special privileges, and you think that you can treat people badly because you have achieved certain things.”
A chance visit to his family in Kiedrich planted the seed of an idea. The seed grew. Scholl met a farmer, bought a property, and now lives back in the Rhine Valley. “There’s vineyards, old castles, a river, there’s legends – it’s a fabulous place,” he enthuses.
From his solid new home base, Scholl rails against the corrupting influence of the industry, yet pleads convincingly in favour of popularism. The two views seem somewhat anomalous, but at their core lies both a vehement sincerity and a commitment to music as a vehicle for emotion.
“I think the audience always feels whether there is a motivation behind what we do,” he says. “Any classical audience which likes music will make up its own mind.” Scholl cites “soft” popular musician Karl Jenkins, whose pseudo-Latin crossover music has produced passionate statements of support from listeners. “I don’t like it, but if people say, ‘It’s fantastic, it gives my life meaning, it’s so wonderful and spiritual’, who am I to judge and say, ‘You idiots, you don’t know!’? It’s not up to me. We should be careful not to patronise people.
“For example, Andrea Bocelli sold more than a million copies of his Verdi album. And rather than saying, ‘Oh my God, this guy can’t sing!’, shouldn’t we ask, ‘Why am I not selling as many CDs?’ These people strike something in the listener. There’s a vulnerability in the timbre. There’s a humanity in the voice, and people are touched by it. Perhaps in the classical world we are too focused on perfection.
“I’m an artist. We believe that music is something that’s good for human beings. Yet there’s this fallacy that if you become too popular, it’s not really good. If I didn’t care about being commercial, why should I care whether the hall is full or not?
“If the primary idea was getting rich, I probably would have gone into investment banking. But I do want to live from my singing. I think that what I do as a musician needs to expand. I want to find as many people as possible who are interested in music, because I think it’s good for human beings.”
In the course of a long conversation, Scholl returns again and again to fundamental philosophical questions. “Why am I a singer? What is my function in society, in life, in the universe, in relation to God and art? The answer to that question will probably change throughout your life,” he says.
To an extent, he has found his own answer. “Being a musician, I can help people to become themselves. Music bypasses the brain and talks directly to the soul, and the human being becomes, for a moment, softer. Music can open the heart and take down the defences of the human soul. I’m a communicator. In a sense I’m privileged that I can sing, but it’s not my wisdom that I spread. We are channels. I communicate the wisdom of the composer.”
The entire thought process is reflected in the programs that Scholl assembles, and in the way he chooses to present music to his public. In Australia, he will perform with his partner Tamar Halperin and a small ensemble of Australian musicians – “just as you have fusion food, there will be a fusion group of musicians”. The program includes Italian cantatas by Handel as well as English songs by Henry Purcell. Of these, undoubtedly the most startling is Dido’s lament from Dido and Aeneas, not a work you would ever associate with a male voice. Deciding to include the aria in his Australian program was, Scholl says, at least in part an answer to the trend to cast male operatic roles like Handel’s Giulio Cesare with female singers.
“If we can live with a female Caesar,” he says, “why not a male Dido?
“In the aria, Dido says, ‘I hope that remembering me will not cause you too much grief.’ It’s a human message. I want to sing it.
“Of course I know it’s a bit provocative. But I’d like to do it, and the audience can judge whether or not they think it’s good.”
Scholl has sung Carmen’s famous Habanera in the past, and weathered some flak for his gender-bending musical inclinations. These are cultural questions, he says, and should be viewed critically. “We are born not primarily as women or men but as human beings. And then society divides us, putting certain aspects of behaviour on one side or the other. In some countries a father can avenge the reputation of his family by killing his daughter. In Medieval times we had knights who needed to write poetry and play an instrument. That is not what we associate with machismo today. We think of six-packs, of muscles. Men crying in public – in some countries that’s unacceptable, in other countries it’s normal. Maybe we should think more about how we are human.
“The fascination with the high male voice is about transcending these primitive principles that we have come to accept as realities.”
If there’s a touch of missionary zeal in some of Scholl’s utterances, it’s hardly surprising. The erstwhile Kiedrich choirboy has done more than anybody else of his generation to bring both the counter-tenor voice and the repertoire with which it can be associated to wider attention. Back in his home town, he dreams of expanding his multimedia work, of using his studio and his international connections to achieve lasting change through music education, of challenging preconceptions about the role of the arts in everyday life.
You might almost think he was here to stay. Wrong. “I want to go round the world in a trawler,” Scholl declares.
Not just any trawler. He has a 40-foot boat that he sailed on in Alaska four years ago in mind. “Wonderful, manageable by two people, a 3,500 nautical mile range. It’s not a fast boat. Just six, seven knots. And the world changes slowly around you. I could go to London by boat. You could still give 10 or 15 concerts a year and see the world from the water. It’s a beautiful house here, but who knows...?”
Andreas Scholl tours Australia, singing a program of Purcell and Handel, from March 8-25 as part of the Musica Viva 2011 concert season. This interview appeared in the February issue of Limelight.