If ever there was a vocational singer, it was Matthias Goerne. Born in 1967 in Weimar, the German bass-baritone enjoys a reputation today as the finest Lieder singer of his generation, but he was sure of his life path at a remarkably early age. “I remember when I was asked by friends and family what I wanted to do, quite early on I said that I wanted to become a singer. I was maybe nine years old,” he confesses over the phone, admitting that it was an unusual ambition for a child. “Of course, what you say when you’re nine or ten doesn’t always come true,” he admits, “but I was in a choir organised by the theatre where my father was a director and for ten years I sang there in productions that needed a children’s choir, like La Bohème or Carmen.”

Firmly smitten with the music bug, a period of study followed where for two years his vocal teacher was Hans-Joachim Beyer, but his preternatural talent for German song was spotted pretty quickly and opportunities arose to work with two of the greatest Lieder singers of the previous generation: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. “They were totally different personalities,” he says, but each gave him something uniquely important for any singer. “Fischer-Dieskau was not really a singing teacher,” he admits, “but for interpretation, style, learning to be very precise with all the information you can find in a score, this is maybe the right description of the time I spent with him. At the same time, it was the opposite with Schwarzkopf. She was much more focused on precise knowledge about singing in general. And she was absolutely right, because what does it mean to talk about interpretation if you cannot make an easy switch from a forte in a very bright colour to a very dark pianissimo. This is something you need to learn. This is called technique.” However, according to Goerne, in the end his special teacher was his first. “Beyer was the most important,” he declares, “because he taught me singing itself.”

With his appealing, flexible voice, Matthias Goerne was spotted quite early and in 1997 the Salzburg Festival engaged him as Papageno in that year’s Magic Flute. Debuts at Covent Garden, the Vienna State Opera and the Met followed soon after, but Goerne has built his operatic repertoire with care and relatively slowly adding the lighter Wagner roles first like Wolfram in Tannhäuser and Kurwenal in Tristan, building up to Amfortas in Parsifal and Orest in Elektra while only now tackling his first Wotan in the Ring. A taste for the sober and the serious has added some rarities to his roster like Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler and Reimann’s Lear. Asked for his his top choice – the role that means the most to him – he doesn’t have to think hard. “You know, in the end I would say Wozzeck, for sure!” he declares. “Maybe as well the entire Ring des Nibelungen is next, but you have to look at the four operas together and to make a ranking is very difficult. There is a group of operas I have done that are totally different to each other but I would say are on the same level. All of the Mozart operas, but especially Magic Flute would be in this category, and Káťa Kabanová – also Bluebeard’s Castle. What is unique about these works is that they are going beyond just entertainment. They are absolutely timeless and the conflict is enormous, which is not the case in so many other operas.”

Goerne as a memorable Wozzeck at the Met

Whilst building his operatic portfolio in Europe, Goerne has also been keen to balance that very carefully with intensive Lieder work. Although he toured to Australia with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2011, it is thanks to a series of high profile recordings of German song that Australian audiences will most likely know him. “I think it’s very important to have the right balance,” he tells me when we discuss career choices. “You have to be extremely careful that you always are singing with the correct placement, and that you have the right projection. Otherwise you are getting more and more tired. It is important for everyone that you are not just singing opera, but also the opposite would not be right either. Otherwise you will lose this kind of dramatic voice. Compared to most of the other singers in the world, I do sing a lot of song recitals but that’s my choice.”

At this year’s Sydney Festival, Goerne will sing what has become his signature work by his signature composer – Winterreise, Franz Schubert’s exploration of loneliness, isolation and lost love. With pianist Marcus Hinterhäuser, Goerne’s interpretation of Schubert’s nocturnal journey will come face to face with the stormy line-work and charcoal animation of William Kentridge. The South African artist has built a physical instillation as an artwork that sits on stage and acts as a backdrop for video projections in the typical Kentridge animated graphical style. The creator even appears as a shadow puppet in some of his own videos in order to make the whole thing into an immersive artistic collaboration. “I think Schubert, for the Lieder repertoire, he is the centre: the heart,” Goerne enthuses. “Without Schubert, there would be no Wolf and no Schumann and no Brahms. It’s not just my personal opinion and taste – it’s just a fact that he’s the centre. Nobody composed that amount and with this kind of genius high quality. You have the entire palette, the entire range, from something that’s very philosophical to something that’s very theatrical. He is astonishing and just perfect!”

Goerne in Winterreise as designed by Kentridge

The singer has been bingeing on Schubert for a many years now. He recorded a series of Schubert songs on nine CDs for Harmonia Mundi from 2008 up until last year but he first recorded Winterreisse back in 1997 as part of the pianist Graham Johnson’s ground-breaking complete Schubert edition on the Hyperion label. Getting down to the nitty-gritty, with three recordings of the work over 20 years has his interpretation changed?

“In a way, yes,” he admits. “As you are getting older you are both losing and gaining possibilities for the voice, but you are also going deeper and deeper. But in general, my perspective of the piece hasn’t changed so tremendously. Something I do not like is that often singers or actors start with a work and it’s very slow or very fast. Then 30 years later they do the opposite. It’s not really right. With Schubert you just have to follow what is written in the score. In Winterreise, the tempi and the relationship of the songs to each other is quite clear. When I started, I really tried to find the direction – the main way – that everybody has to take. I think I did this with the first recording of Winterreise with Graham Johnson. Then of course, there is a change coming over the years, singing-wise, as you experience what else you can do, and what is possible to discover through sound with your voice. Also when you are taking risks and when you have a much bigger life experience.”

While naturally Goerne names his two teachers, Fischer-Dieskau and Schwarzkopf, as among the important voices for him from the past, it’s perhaps the “astonishing” Hans Hotter whose vocal footsteps Goerne himself is following in most closely. “It’s not just because he had this enormous voice,” he tells me, “but because of his flexibility and what he was able to do with it. He was a fantastic Wotan and he was a fantastic Lieder singer.” Of course in the 1940s and 50s there were different traditions, but for Goerne it’s what a singer like Hotter was able to project, and how personal he was able to make the music, that matters. “It was the evenness of his singing and the kind of natural dramatic sound that he had in his voice, without forcing anything, this was astonishing. It was the gift he received.”

Outside of Schubert, Goerne’s repertoire has been somewhat restricted to date – there’s been some Schumann and an outstanding Eisler disc – so which other song composers is he most interested in? “I keep discovering more and more,” he says. “There’s Schreker and Korngold, and I’m working on a programme to maybe have some Berg songs orchestrated for me. That’s for the future, but I just recently started a new set of Schumann CDs and there is a new Brahms recording coming out. A Wolf recording is something that I would love to do, but record companies are always a little bit afraid.”

And Schubert – is he finished with that particular journey? “I could have another look,” he admits. “I’ve only made ten CDs and that’s not even a half of Schubert’s repertoire. For the future, I don’t know.” And might those new life experiences add up to another crack at the Müller cycles? Another Winterreise isn’t out of the question. Of all the cycles, it’s the one that looks backwards even as it’s frozen wanderer trudges forwards. Reflecting on past cycles then actively becomes part of approaching a new interpretation. “You have put yourself also in a kind of retrospective,” is how Matthias Goerne puts it. “Because what is Winterreise? It is thinking about the past to try to find the right way to the future.”

Sydney Festival presents Matthias Goerne in Winterreise at City Recital Hall on January 7 and 8.