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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 3, No. 9

Olaf Bär: The Art of Song

by Joseph So / July 1, 1998

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Olaf_Bar.jpg - 9827 BytesGerman baritone Olaf Bär is one of the great song recitalists of the post-Schreier/Prey/Fischer-Dieskau generation. His performances are characterised by elegant expressivity and faithfulness to the composer’s wishes. In anticipation of his July 23 recital at the Lanaudière Festival, La Scena Musicale met with Olaf Bär in New York.

Olaf Bär was born in 1957 in Dresden, East Germany. When he was three, his working class parents answered the Dresden Opera’s newspaper ad for a boy to play Trouble, Cio-Cio San’s child in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Bär played Trouble in 25 performances conducted by the late Klaus Tennstedt. He revelled in Puccini’s score, "It was very strong music for a child but I loved it — Madama Butterfly still gives me goose pimples." His parents bought him a piano and he soon learned to play every note of Puccini’s opera.

At 10, Bär began singing as a boy treble in the Dresden Children’s Choir. At eighteen, he joined the Carl Maria von Weber Academy as a lyric baritone, whence he graduated to the Dresden Opera. In 1983 he won the Walther Grüner Lieder Competition in London. Pianist Geoffrey Parsons was a juror and accompanied Bär at his Wigmore Hall debut, the first of many times Parsons would accompany Bär in recital and on disc. "As a young singer from East Germany with no experience, I was very lucky when Parsons took me under his wing," Bär recalls gratefully. "Geoffrey really loved the life of a musician and I learned a lot from him, on stage and off. He had the ability to bring out the best in every singer he accompanied. He had great stamina and concentration — I rarely heard him play a wrong note!"

During his years at the Dresden Opera Bär sang Gugliemo in Così fan tutte, Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, the Count in Le nozze di Figaro, Olivier in Capriccio, Marcello in La Bohème, Harlequin in Ariadne auf Naxos, Wolfram in Tannhäuser and Don Giovanni. He also sang at La Scala, Covent Garden, Chicago, Aix en Provence, Vienna, Amsterdam, and Rome. Bär loves to sing and act on stage, and opera attracts him as much as lieder these days. However, he finds it difficult to convince opera directors to cast him in opera because he is so well known as a singer of lieder. Bär longs to tackle Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger because "Beckmesser is so often portrayed as a fool, but I think he is just struggling for the right way to express himself." He would also like to sing the "small but nice" part of Sharpless. When he does, he will be one of the few singers ever to have played both Sharpless and Trouble.

Throughout his career Bär specialized in German repertoire and he believes that a singer should concentrate on singing in his/her native tongue. "A lieder recital is like a conversation with the audience. You have to be completely natural and free with the language, which is not possible if you don’t speak it fluently." Bär mentioned several celebrated American singers of lieder whose German diction could use some improvement, and he freely admits he is not really comfortable singing in Italian in Italy, though he regularly does. Bär has little affinity for contemporary music and he rarely wastes time learning modern music that he might sing only once.

Bär’s career has had its ups and downs. He had serious vocal trouble in 1990-1991. "Before the age of 30 or 35, one sings with a natural voice. In my thirties I noticed that my voice wasn’t doing what I wanted." Bär attributes his trouble to an improper technique that placed too much pressure on one part of his vocal cords. "When the problem first surfaced, I developed bad habits trying to compensate, which just made it worse." He went through a period of re-training that lasted almost two years. "I had to un-learn the bad habits I picked up along the way, and to re-learn how to sing properly," he explained. Once the physical problems had been corrected, the psychological scars remained. "I would get very nervous singing stuff that had given me trouble before. But with self-knowledge and proper advice, I regained confidence."

Bär was one of EMI’s most prolific recording artists, participating in 19 recital albums since 1983, but the label recently let Bär’s exclusive contract lapse, blaming the poor sales of his two recent albums of German Christmas songs and lieder by German opera composers. Bär attributes the poor sales to a complete absence of promotion by EMI, and the general downturn in classical music sales. He regrets the cancellation of a planned recording of lieder by Schreker and Marx. "I am not complaining. I had many good years with EMI. But companies should not expect lieder to sell like Bocelli or L’Elisir d’Amore with Alagna and Gheorghiu. Maybe some independent company will be interested in the new projects I have prepared." Bär laughs at the notion that he makes money from his many recordings. "EMI paid an initial fee for the studio session, but royalties so far have been minuscule. Maybe there will be some for my grandchildren!"

Today Bär lives in Dresden with his wife, a dancer. They have just moved into a new house and they love to spend as much time together as possible. "My wife is my hobby," he jokes. His other great passions are travel and nature - he has fond memories of his honeymoon in Australia. At 41, Bär has reached the apogee of his career as one of the most sensitive vocalists of our day and his upcoming Lanaudière recital should be well worth a visit.

Olaf Bär sings Schumann’s Dichterliebe Op. 48, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Strauss lieder at the Église de Sainte-Julienne, Sainte-Julienne, Quebec, on July 23 at 8 p.m. Info: 1-800-561-4343. Admission: 1-800-361-4595. La Scena Musicale thanks Mr. Bär and Caroline Woodfield at ICM Artist Management, New York.

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