Original Instrument

Tenor Klaus Florian Vogt brings his unconventional sound to the Met’s Parsifal.
By David Patrick Stearns 

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As Lohengrin at Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2012
© Lieberenz/ullstein bild via Getty Images
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IN ANY KLAUS FLORIAN VOGT PERFORMANCE, the first note from the tenor is arresting—and not because it’s conventionally beautiful, or imposing in the traditional heldentenormanner. Vogt gives that note an intensity and concentration that immediately encapsulate his character, be it Florestan in last season’s Met Fidelio or his latest Lohengrin recording on the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s label. “It’s a good thing for audiences to understand,” he says—“to get them with you in your story.” 

This month, the tenor takes on the title role in the Met’s François Girard production of Parsifal. “This voice really is unique,” says conductor Sebastian Weigle, who worked with Vogt on last season’s Fidelio. “It’s amazing how he can balance everything, sing so light, find so many colors....” Yet Vogt maintains the carrying power of his beefier-sounding colleagues.

His sound might be described as pre-Caruso, and certainly pre-Melchior. “If we go back almost 100 years ago, we could have this kind of white sound and nevertheless very focused and powerful,” says Met music-director designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who conducted Vogt in Lohengrin at the Vienna State Opera. “He knows exactly the roles he should or should not be singing. It’s a dream to work with him.”

Why, then, are American audiences still discovering a singer Europeans have known for years? Vogt has made Sony Classical aria albums that encompass Mozart and look forward to his possible future as Tristan. He is forty-seven, has four children (three of them grown), has been singing Wagner for at least fifteen years, has sung at Bayreuth for ten seasons and made his Met debut more than a decade ago, as Lohengrin in a 2006 revival of Robert Wilson’s staging—though not in the first cast. Backstage at the Met during his 2017 run as Florestan, Vogt says, “I was a success, but nobody knew.”

Meeting him, you half expectsome sort of otherworldly being, certainly not the tall, hale, shaggy-haired blonde who pilots his own plane and goes windsurfing on the North Sea near his home in Brunbüttel. Unlike some singers, who live in fear of air conditioners and germ-infested crowds, Vogt has a fairly ordinary life. “I like being a singer very much, but I don’t like to be a slave to my profession,” he says. “I want to live, also. I want to have a kind of normal life. With a family, it’s a problem if one of your children gets a cold and is sick. Of course, I don’t hug him for three hours. But everybody gets sick, and I don’t think you can avoid it by saying, ‘Don’t do this or that.’”

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As Walther von Stolzing to Michael Volle’s Hans Sachs, 2017
© Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

THIS IS A TENOR? Not through and through. Vogt didn’t start out being a singer at all; he was a French-horn player in the Hamburg Philharmonic for almost a decade (1988–97), also playing Wagner tuba in performances of the Ring cycle. Vogt had to be told he had vocal talent. When he and his wife, soprano Silvia Krüger, sang together at a party, a recording was made that was later heard by his mother-in-law, a former chorus singer at Bayreuth. 

“I was very focused on my career as an instrumentalist and was very, very happy to get into a good orchestra and have a good job,” he recalls. “It wasn’t necessary to think about other things. It wasn’t me who realized there was something to develop. Other people had to tell me, ‘Oh, you have a nice voice. You should do something with it.’”

Vogt’s vocal prelude to Wagner, however, was operetta, which was part of his repertory starting in 1997 at the Flensburg Landestheater in northern Germany. He believes that the training was good for his future in Wagner repertoire. “In operetta, they will do twenty-five to thirty performances in a season, and you have a lot of opportunity to try things,” he says. “Also, it’s close to a Wagnerian tessitura. Not too high, a lot of middle space, and it’s in German—with a text that’s very important.”

In his operetta days, he was inspired by the recordings of the late Fritz Wunderlich, one of Vogt’s few tenor idols, admired for his “natural style of singing. You need this natural quality to do operetta. The art is to make it sound easy. On Sunday, I went to a basketball game, and it looks easy to put the ball in the basket. But it isn’t easy. This is the kind of art I like.” 

A contract in Dresden led him to minor roles, and to his vocal mentor, Irm-gard Boas, with whom he still works when time allows. “She showed me my voice,” he says. “What she tells me, every time, is to sing with my voice. This is what is healthy in the end.” That’s one reason he mainly steers clear of listening to recordings: the temptation to imitate others is strong. 

Vogt sang minor Wagner roles and made a stealth appearance as an Officer in the Deutsche Grammophon recording of Ariadne auf Naxos that was finished in late 2000, only months before the death of its conductor, Giuseppe Sinopoli. Then came an offer that became his first Lohengrin, in 2002, at the 840-seat Theater Erfurt. “From the very first,” he says, “I realized this was what I wanted to do. My connection to Wagner’s music during my orchestral time was very close. I loved to play it. And it’s a big gift to be able to sing it onstage.”

His wife, known in Hamburg for singing Christine in Phantom of the Opera, says, “I married a horn player and got a tenor.” After spending many summers in Bayreuth when her mother was singing in the chorus there, she’s back again, this time with her husband. Vogt loves those summers. His children are out of school and can come with him. He reconnects with instrumentalist friends from his French-horn days. 

Vogt does venture outside of Wagner (sometimes less successfully, as in Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust, not to mention “Anything You Can Do,” from Annie Get Your Gun—sung in both English and German in a gala with Renée Fleming). One of his best roles is in the Richard Strauss version of Mozart’s Idomeneo (heard in a radio-broadcast concert version from Garmisch). He will sing a pair of high-profile, luxuriously cast concert performances of Die Zauberflöte in Baden-Baden this summer with Nézet-Séguin conducting. Still, Vogt is typecast as a Wagnerian and likes it that way.

“I can sing Wagner every day,” he says. “The music is so rich in opportunities. You can discover things every evening. The problem with Wagner is that some conductors feel Wagner is heavy, loud and noisy. The singing style is something like shouting and barking. I think that’s wrong, this singing style. I can’t find it in the music. Very often, it’s written piano or pianissimo. The text construction is very special—very long phrases, and not only musically. You have to be very clear. No other composer has text in this way.”

Such a musical anchor is needed amid the kind of radical production ideas that face Europe-based Wagnerians, such as the 2012 Berlin Lohengrin directed by Kasper Holten: Vogt was pressed into service at the last minute (interrupting a skiing vacation in Austria) and made to wear angel wings. They were heavier than they looked and sideswiped his onstage colleagues. He adjusted, backaches and all, and returned to the production three years later. But Vogt says he sometimes parts company with directors in matters concerning the character’s inner life. Vogt has ideas and instincts about what makes Wagnerian heroes the figures they are. One central characteristic of Lohengrin, says Vogt, is his honesty. Playing Lohengrin as a politician—which he was once asked to do—didn’t work for him.

“If a director tells me a thing I don’t agree with, I try to understand what he sees. But when I can’t get into it, I also say, ‘No, that doesn’t make sense to me,’” says Vogt. “There has to be a discussion about it, because you as a singer and actor are the one who has to show it, and if, in the end, you don’t feel it, the audience will not understand.”

There have also been meaningful discoveries. He loved working with choreographer John Neumeier in a staging of Das Lied von der Erde. In the Robert Wilson production of Lohengrin, he liked the stylized arm gestures: “I was told that it had some kind of sign language, but it’s not a language. It’s a kind of expression, and it was expressing things that were very interesting to me. It’s a new color that you can use.”

Parsifal lies a bit low for him vocally, but he loves the way the character changes over the course of the opera. “I love the music, and you can do it as an actor as well as a singer. If you start as a hero in the beginning, you have no opportunity to change in the end,” he says. The opera has some sinister baggage, including interpretations suggesting that the discussions of blood are really about ethnic cleansing. Vogt has a terse reply: “I don’t think so!” One thing he loved about the 2016 Bayreuth production by Uwe Eric Laufenberg was its conciliatory ending, in which diverse religious communities were united. 

Original Instrument Bayureth Lohengrin hdl 218 
Vogt at Bayreuth as Lohengrin to Edith Haller’s Elsa, 2015
© Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

SOMETIMES, THOUGH, Vogt is on his own. Last year, he took the title role in the Bavarian State Opera Tannhäuser, in Munich and Tokyo, directed by Romeo Castellucci. The production generated acclaim for its visual virtuosity but also puzzlement over the symbolism. Vogt frankly didn’t know what the director wanted him to express. In an e-mail from Tokyo, he wrote, “The challenge of Tannhäuser, for me, consisted mainly in finding my own approach to the character. Romeo Castellucci didn’t work with the singers on the roles. Neither did he explain the symbolism of his staging to us, or only in a very superficial way.”

Vogt senses that Verdi and Puccini aren’t for him—he knows those operas from the orchestra pit, having played them during his French-horn days. Not that he is overly cautious. He has already recorded Tristan excerpts. In the long term, he has his eye on the summit of Wagner tenor roles, Siegfried. “I know, it’s hard,” he says. Might he be the first Siegfried in modern history to play his own horn calls? Says Vogt, “I would certainly try.” spacer 

David Patrick Stearns is a classical-music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

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