The esteemed English baritone and exponent of art song, Stephen Varcoe is one of the guest artists at this year’s Melbourne International Festival of Lieder and Art Song, where he will perform with pianist Graham Johnson. Here he tells us why getting together to hear some lieder is a great thing, why communication is at the heart of this repertoire, and which lessons he’d impart to a young singer.

Stephen Varcoe, Melbourne, LiederStephen Varcoe

An art song festival is a wonderful thing. What do you think audiences gain from this particular atmosphere?

Many music-lovers find the song recital rather a daunting prospect. There is something intensely personal about a singer facing you and expressing deeply emotional things, and this may be something the listener would rather not engage with. I would like to feel that we can overcome that reluctance by explaining some of the processes behind the performance and by introducing the extraordinary diversity and richness of the repertoire. We can also emphasise the responsibility of the performers to help the listener to enter the world they are describing, and to involve the imagination at all times.

Schubert, Mahler and English art song are the focus of this Festival. What significance do they have for you?

Schubert is the touchstone by which we measure all other art song. All of life is there in his work: joy and pain; love and death; work and play. And there is the wonderful melodic richness of so much of his writing. Mahler too is a master of melody, and in his Wunderhorn songs there is a large helping of humour to go with it. I first heard Mahler when I was a teenager, and it was the wonderful Klemperer recording of Das Lied von der Erde with Fritz Wunderlich: I am still moved by the ecstatic quality of that music, those poems, and Wunderlich’s performance.

But in spite of the glories of lieder (and of French mélodies), I’m most drawn to songs in my own language, English. Meaning goes straight to the heart without the intermediary of translation, and every word is rich with remembered association. I strongly believe that in order to learn how to express themselves in song, young English-speaking singers should discover first how to do it in their own language.

Stephen Varcoe, Melbourne, LiederThe Melbourne International Festival of Lieder and Art Song. Photo © Stephen Heath

You are of course one of the most distinguished interpreters of lieder. How has your personal relationship to this art form evolved over time?

The more one works at individual songs, or at the whole repertoire of lieder, the more one’s understanding develops and deepens. I always loved the music of the great German and Austrian masters, but knowledge of the language and the resonance of the poetry took longer to achieve. It’s a process which won’t end until I no longer have need of music, language or anything else

Is there a particular rapport artists have with each other when performing at a festival?

When we spend time with other musicians we begin to understand that there are many ways to approach music, voice, text, performance and so on, and I would like to think that all of us will absorb something of what the others are doing and thereby enrich our abilities as interpreters.

What are you looking forward to most at the festival this year?

I’m not one who harks back to a Golden Age of performance which we can’t hope to better in our degenerate latter days. Far from it: I shall be hearing new voices, new players, new ideas, and with any luck catching glimpses of the Golden Age of the future.

You will be conducting masterclasses as part of the festival. What are the most significant lessons you can impart to a young singer in this kind of repertoire?

After all the usual things about what one might call the nuts and bolts of performing a song – musicianship, diction, ensemble, accuracy, style and so on, I would say this: develop a sense of partnership with your colleague; use your imagination; find something to say and believe in it; communicate all of that to your listeners; enjoy what you do, and realise that your listeners want to enjoy it too.

What should audiences expect from the festival as a whole?

I hope they will come away with a better understanding of what goes into creating a successful performance. And I trust that Graham and I will be able to enhance what the performers are already able to do by offering some of what we have learned over the years. If we succeed, the audience will then see and hear how our musicians are able to develop their talents.

The Melbourne International Festival of Lieder and Art Song is on at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music from July 7 – 13