Rene Pape dropped his orb. He was onstage at the Metropolitan Opera last week, richly costumed and rehearsing Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, an early scene in which the title character, anxious and ill at ease, prepares to become tsar.
Mr. Pape, holding the scepter and orb, delivered his short monologue to the crowd with a haunted look on his face. Then, as he turned to enter the cathedral, he faltered and the orb tumbled out of his hand. A terrifying split-second followed, and it was only when one of Boris’ handlers dove to catch it that it was clear that the accident was intentional. Mr. Pape, through the emotional honesty of the preceding monologue and the clarity of his gestures, had made a potentially silly moment startlingly vivid. It would have been a difficult effect to achieve in a performance; to do it in a busy rehearsal was extraordinary.
“If you have a good director, you have this feeling that you can work really, really intensely,” Mr. Pape, 46, imposingly built and with a deep, elegantly accented voice, told The Observer recently over dinner (he had risotto) near Lincoln Center. “It’s amazing. Every single rehearsal day is a performance.”
Since 1995, Mr. Pape has appeared at the Met every season, clocking in more than 160 performances. He has had the kind of career with the company–working his way up from smaller comprimario roles–that’s all too rare these days, and he’s been a favorite of audiences and critics. But this Boris is a special moment: the pinnacle of the bass repertoire; his first new Met production as a star; and a role that the company gives to its most beloved basses (James Morris and Samuel Ramey in its last two runs). He’s finally the one in the full-color newspaper ads, and if all goes well, Boris will cement Mr. Pape’s reputation as one of the great singers of his generation.
The production, which opens on Monday, has taken some unexpected turns. The German director Peter Stein apparently bristled at difficulties securing his U.S. work visa and withdrew only two months ago. He was replaced by Stephen Wadsworth, known for his intricately detailed character work.
“It’s a new situation now with this new director,” Mr. Pape said. “Today we spent longer time on the rehearsal than the union allows us. I was late tonight because we had to talk a bit more, and it’s fantastic. … I had a discussion today with Stephen Wadsworth, and I was saying, ‘How can I play that,’ and I saw him, and I corrected it: ‘How can I think that.’”
Mr. Pape doesn’t immediately come to mind as an “intellectual” artist, perhaps because his voice is so overwhelmingly sensuous, an instrument of steady richness. The sheer beauty of the voice can make you forget how thoughtful the portrayals really are, how carefully each word is considered. He does the thing that great operatic voices do so well, particularly in his repertoire of conflicted gods and wounded kings: combining authority with vulnerability and tenderness. There are no broad effects, no yelling or sobbing, just a truthfulness that makes his characters’ emotions seem, in the way opera makes possible, simultaneously individualized and archetypal–his King Marke, in performances of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Met, was an icon of sadness and resignation. On a new Mariinsky Theater recording of Wagner’s Parsifal, conducted by Valery Gergiev, Mr. Pape’s Good Friday Spell begins with an offhand, almost conversational intimacy, and rises effortlessly to great waves of sound.
“I think about everything and at the same time nothing,” he said. “It sounds stupid, no? You could think about, ‘I’m a 46-year-old East German guy dealing with working on 1600s Russian history, singing in New York, having this career,’ but I just want to make the audience who comes to the performance happy, and to tell the story as much as I can. I’m not studying Dostoyevsky and Pushkin every night. It’s not possible. You just make the music happen.”
MR. PAPE WAS born in Dresden in 1964. His mother is a hairdresser and his father is a chef; his parents divorced when he was very young, and he grew up largely with his grandmother. He sang in the city’s famed boys’ choir (“I had a very good soprano,” he said) and even appeared as one of the Three Boys in The Magic Flute (surely one of the few Boys who has gone on to sing Sarastro).
He was cast in the East German premiere of Cabaret in 1976, in which he played the young Nazi who sings “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” and was only really introduced to opera when he began his studies at the Dresden Conservatory in the early ’80s, joining the Berlin State Opera in 1988.
Over dinner, he at first denied that living in East Germany had influenced his work in Boris, an opera about political upheaval. (He admitted that it might have benefited him to work harder when he was forced to study Russian in school.) But when talking about the fall of the Berlin Wall, his voice nearly cracked.
“I was in Dresden,” he said, “and we called each other–’Did you hear that? What happened in Berlin? Let’s go!’ And we jumped in our Trabant and drove to Berlin. … If you had asked me the question ‘What was your greatest moment in life?’ I would say that. To have this opportunity, to have this feeling. We were crying, all of us, because of love and happiness, not of sadness. And if you can cry an hour or longer because of luck, it’s the greatest thing you can have. … Growing up in East Germany, you don’t expect anything. So everything that came after 1989, every single moment, every day, every travel is a gift.”
It’s been almost 35 years since that “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” debut, but basses develop late, and Mr. Pape may be now hitting his stride, just in time to capture the New York audience for good.
“You have to wait until you’re about 40,” he said, “then a bass voice is really settled. … You get some life experiences, technical experiences, working experiences, then you come to a certain point [at which] you just are able to give the music, you don’t have to think about the issues. You just think how you make people cry, laugh, go out of the opera house having their five hours–coming and listening and watching–and you want them to go home and be happy. I’m delivering–I’m the deliveryman.”