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Baritone Michael Volle returns to the Met this spring as Wotan.
By David J. Baker
Photographs by Nomi Baumgartl

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Photograph by Nomi Baumgartl
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Photographed at Bayreuth by Nomi Baumgartl 

ONE WEEK HE IS VERDI'S FALSTAFF and the next Golaud in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. He is Scarpia and John the Baptist and Hans Sachs; Mandryka in Arabella, Barak in Die Frau ohne Schatten and Orest in Elektra. German baritone Michael Volle incarnated those eight characters during 2018 alone. 

“Versatility” doesn’t quite do him justice, even though the repertoire goes on and on—to encompass, in the two previous years, works by Berg, Bizet, Mozart, Offenbach and more Verdi and Wagner. 

Volle disappears into a role. At the Metropolitan Opera, where he arrived in 2014, twenty-five years into his career, he has been a serial impersonator—a convincingly rustic Mandryka; a warm, complex Sachs in Die Meistersingerdownright poetic, mysterious Flying Dutchman; and a chillingly suave Scarpia in Tosca. This season, Europe will see his role debuts as Nabucco and Boris Godunov. Volle, now fifty-eight, is slated to return to the Met this spring in what may be his most ambitious role—the tripleheader as Wotan/the Wanderer in Wagner’s Ring. 

Volle’s ability to incarnate unique characters puts him at the top of his profession. In both opera and lieder, his singing is marked less by ringing “money notes” that stand out individually than by supple phrasing, heated or tender or conversational by turns, reflecting specifics of drama and character. The timbre itself is warm and bright, especially for a Wotan, with head voice coloring the tone even in medium-low range. Volle’s musical sensitivity and vocal mastery seem as natural to him as breathing.

“One of the biggest gifts, for me,” Volle tells me, “was growing up in an area of Germany where, fifty years ago, still in my childhood, church music was developed and practiced every day. And because my father was a Protestant minister, we grew up with all the daily music in services in the community. On Christmas, not one gift package was opened until we’d played several trio sonatas and, I don’t know, it seemed like fifty chorales. It was very boring when I was nine, but looking back—incredible luck!”

Young Michael played violin and later viola, performing in small local ensembles, religious and secular. Solo work in choral groups followed, then a program in voice at the University of Stuttgart, followed by private studies with Josef Metternich and Rudolf Piernay. 

In 1990, he became a full-time repertory singer with the opera company in Mannheim (pop. 300,000). “I sang, in fact, 137 performances in my first season”—everything from a few lines as the second prisoner in Fidelio to the entire role of Figaro in Mozart’s opera. “That was the ideal start for me.”

It was while standing onstage in Mannheim, costumed as Figaro, that he had the strong sensation that he had found his career. “It was the start, the real start, of my never-ending love to Mozart, and also to opera. Because I felt, really, this is what I want to do and where I want to be. A few bars of Mozart for me can outdo a whole opera by some other composers, and when I hear the Susanna aria in the last act, or the Countess singing the pardon, in the very first moment when I hear it, boom, I start to cry, and the sky opens up.” 

Work in other German theaters followed, each time in a larger city—Bonn, Düsseldorf, Cologne. After an especially rewarding engagement with Zurich Opera (1999–2007), he began to branch out as a guest performer. He went on to longstanding relationships with companies in Berlin, Munich and Vienna, as well as at Covent Garden and the Salzburg and Bayreuth Festivals.

When we spoke in June, by telephone, Volle was at home in Berlin, on the briefest break from what seemed a madcap summer schedule. He and his wife, Swiss soprano Gabriela Scherer, settled in Berlin to reduce travel distance for their work. He laughs at a question about hobbies. Just being at home with loved ones, he says, is enough of a break from performing. In addition to the couple’s young son and daughter, he has two daughters from a previous marriage.

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On the set for Meistersinger at Bayreuth, 2018
© Nomi Baumgartl

He seems relaxed about the upcoming Met assignment, although Wagner’s Wotan is the central character of the entire Ring and a major challenge for a baritone. The character appears in the first three operas in the cycle, and Volle has so far sung only the first two. The Metropolitan Opera is about to hear him take on the entire portrait, a blend of the human and the superhuman, who moves from arrogance and ambitious maneuvering to desperation and decline.

“It’s been surprising,” he says of the role. “In the beginning, when I knew nothing about the Ring, I thought, ‘Well, Wotan’s a god—what a god! There are a lot of gods, but he’s the boss, really great and impressive,’ you know? I started to do the role, and then I thought, ‘Wait—what a loser.’ A really mean guy, not at all glamorous. He grouses and misuses and does a lot of things that are really not good and is somehow responsible for everything, the bad things too. 

“He’s also tragic, of course. What’s very, very touching is the end of Die Walküre—for me, especially, as a father. I did it only once onstage—when I had to lay down Brünnhilde and cover her with her shield—wow, very moving. It’s so powerful when she begs her father not to throw her to any old suitor, but to reserve her for a hero—of course a tenor!”He can’t help a quick laugh here: for this baritone, the tenor always wins. 

Having spent many formative years singing Bach, Mozart and other early composers, Volle says he appreciates the subtle aspects of the big operatic roles by Verdi and even Wagner. “You know, if you think about the Dutchman’s first monologue or the farewell to Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, they’re pretty similar in some ways, almost like three-part arias. Each starts very big in sound and interpretation, and also ends that way, but in the middle comes a—I call it a Schubert lied, in both of these arias. You have to sing it differently, and there’s not one [single] truth in how to do it. I do it with my own vocal means and vocal skills. It’s so much more interesting if you try to find and use the [various] colors.”

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As Hans Sachs at Bayreuth, 2018
© Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

Continuing whenever possible to perform song recitals, as well as Mozart and Bach, Volle proudly refers to his recent recordings of Bach cantatas with the Academy of Ancient Music Berlin. In Wagner, he finds that conductors today excel at exploring all the nuances and subtleties of complex works. The Met Ring will reunite him with Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan, with whom he performed Hans Sachs for the past two summers at Bayreuth. “We worked hard, really hard,” he says, “on the conversational side of [Sachs’s] music. It’s a chamber-music piece—it is bel canto in the sense that it has to be as good or beautiful as possible, and you have to do bel canto with it, using the words. They weren’t chosen accidentally. I like this approach very much.”

Volle believes that his work as Wotan will benefit from experience in another important Wagner role. “To me, as well as to a lot of people, Die Meistersinger is really one of the biggest operas, if not the biggest—especially the role of Sachs. He’s so wise, but jealous too, some have said. Some wise men have studied the character of Sachs, and they prove that it’s a projection [of Wagner himself].”

In Barrie Kosky’s much discussed Bayreuth production, Sachs is costumed and made up to resemble the composer. Volle says the director didn’t by any means intend to lionize or deify Wagner; he insists that the question is more complex.

“If you look at his life, Richard Wagner was really a mean guy. A really bad man. Not only because of the incredible things he said about Jews. Now Kosky, the Jewish–Australian producer, one of his first words [to the cast] when he staged Die Meistersinger at Bayreuth was this: ‘Wagner is not responsible for Auschwitz.’ This is very wise—although everybody is asking you, and me especially as a Sachs, ‘How can you sing the end of Die Meistersinger?’” He’s referring to the character’s preachy solo calling for the defense of German art, which Volle agrees is embarrassing: “You know, Deutsch this and Deutsch that—the whole German thing.

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Photograph by Nomi Baumgartl

“This is not an excuse or something. You never can excuse something like [ultra-nationalism], even if some politicians today try to do just that. It is really terrible. Die Meistersinger is now 150 years old, since the time it was written. Nothing is to excuse what Wagner said about Jews. And so many Jewish people helped him, and he betrayed them. But the work is something else. Another director, Harry Kupfer, said it in a very simple and good way, when I did my first Hans Sachs. ‘It’s not a question of German art or French or Flemish art or of any nationality,’ he told me. It’s the art itself—you have to protect it and support it so that it survives and can encourage people and give them joy. And you have to do it with your work. Wagner is really important—aside from his human side.

“How often is something misused by mighty people?—including the Nazis, who did it also with the Ninth of Beethoven, for example. But you cannot abandon Beethoven’s Ninth because it’s been misused.”

Regarding controversial productions, he says, “As an opera singer, you have only two possibilities—to do it or not.” He has seen singers withdraw from productions that they thought went too far, such as Katharina Wagner’s provocative 2007 Meistersinger at Bayreuth. “Someplace else—no names, no towns—there was a Rigoletto I did, in a production looking something like Planet of the Apes. But that colleague canceled his participation five or six days before the opening. This was not correct. You must try to know and get into the production as early as possible. To be successful or not, it must work for you yourself.”

Volle says he is open to directors’ daring approaches. “I did so many different things in these twenty-nine years now onstage—very traditional things, very modern [stagings]. Sometimes with nothing but a chair on the stage, and it works. It can work, if you have not only a wonderful, intelligent stage director but also the colleagues who can also do it. And if it works, it doesn’t matter what you wear or what you look like, or whatever. But it must be with the music. And this is another thing—we have not a play, we have opera.

“I don’t know when—maybe twenty, thirty years ago—the focus [in opera production] got more on the scenic thing, on the ‘play’ thing. Look, we will never be a Marlon Brando or Meryl Streep or whoever. But still, if you try to act together, it’s full of suspense and joy and feeling. Not everybody can do it, I’m not blaming somebody. It’s really difficult to go onstage and present yourself. For me—I only can talk for myself—it’s a lot of fun. Some colleagues do the same thing every time, it doesn’t matter which part they play. Well, O.K. For me it is the challenge to change also, to be a fool, or a brutal guy, or whatever. Because this is such a—such a privilege, I feel more and more, to do what you are talented with or gifted with. You travel around, you meet interesting people, and it’s never the same. I feel the moment I begin to feel I’m bored, I should immediately stop. I hope it will come not very early.” spacer 

David J. Baker  is a writer and translator. 

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