He’s staged Schubert’s Winterreise in a replica lunatic asylum and now he’s headed to Perth to do it Weimar cabaret style.

Two things in Schubert’s life intersect around the time he found the Winterreise poems in 1827. He’d been diagnosed with syphilis, probably in 1823, so there’s a feeling of being excluded and living outside the mainstream – always having to withdraw to be treated for this illness and feeling he couldn’t really join in. But then I think too it was a purely aesthetic project. It’s a very strong Romantic narrative, a very strong Romantic idea of the wanderer, wandering in a blank landscape and then unpeeling his personality to discover if there is a centre or if there is not a centre.

Winterreise, photo by Hugo Glendinning

According to his great friend Josef von Spaun, when Schubert performed it to his circle they didn’t like it. His friend Franz von Schober – the one everybody disapproved of because he was a bit naughty – said, “Oh, I only like Lindenbaum,” which is the song that has become most famous. I think we have to remember that, when we perform it. We shouldn’t make it a cosy piece of music. It’s definitely something that should make people feel uncomfortable.

I first sang Winterreise in January 1985 at my college in Oxford to an audience of about 30 people. I’m glad that I learned it then, because I don’t have to worry about remembering the words (until I start losing it!). I’m sure my performance has changed over time, but sort of seamlessly. It’s like ageing, or like looking at your face in the mirror. If you shave every day you don’t really notice that you’re becoming old, and then suddenly you turn around and you are. 

I think my interpretation has shifted, but it’s also zig-zagged because every performance is different. The space is different, the audience is different, what’s happened to you that day is different, and the pianist – above all – is different. You play off the pianist so much and they give you so many different things. I’ve had many pianists in the past – Julius Drake, who I’ve been working on it with for so many years, with Mitsuko Uchida, with Leif Ove Andsnes and recently with Thomas Adès – wonderful musicians who’ve really given me a lot.

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to stage it for video in the Schubert bicentenary year with David Alden. Originally we were going to film it on location in a recently decommissioned mental hospital that had the longest corridor in Europe. We went to look at it derelict, but in the end we couldn’t do it because there was too much pigeon shit and broken glass. Instead, they actually built a replica of one of the rooms in a studio and then we built a great white void. It was a wonderful opportunity to
create a world to go with the songs.

At the time I was asked I had huge doubts. But I think Julius Drake and I both felt in the end that it was a big influence on the way we did the piece. I’m incredibly grateful for having met David who had a wonderful vision of the piece.

This new staging uses Hans Zender’s musical interpretation of Schubert. Zender orchestrates the piece, but it’s not simply an orchestration. The orchestrations of the songs that I’ve done, by Webern and by Max Reger, they tend to be rather ‘respectful’, whereas Zender really understands and loves the piece and he sort of pulls it apart and reconstructs it. Which isn’t to say that most of the music isn’t still there, but sometimes it’s layered, it’s put into montage, there are sound effects. He calls it a composed interpretation and as that I think it works very, very well.

Just listening to the Zender, there’s a lot of musical history of the past 200 years embedded in there. It reflects the fact that Winterreise was written in 1828, at a certain point in history, and it’s also a piece that was played by soldiers on the Russian front in the Second World War. We have to cope with all those historical layers and that’s something the Weimar cabaret feel reflects, I think.

Presenting the work, at times I’m outside and at times I’m inside the drama. For part of it I’m commentating, and for part of it I’m actually experiencing it. The different acting style has so much to do with this interpretation, but it might well influence my interpretation when next I sing it with piano.

Ian Bostridge sings Winterreise at Perth International Arts Festival, February 10 and 11