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Many thanks to Andreas Kopp for patiently answering my German related questions and took the trouble of final proof-reading.
The original German article is here
FonoForum 4/1987 Rarität aus Ost-Berlin

Rarity from East Berlin*
The career of Jochen Kowalski almost seems like a fairy tale - from the property man to the popular countertenor - a career, that itself is astonishing to take place out there in the GDR, where the Baroque voice had been turned into the contemporary one by the principle of the "realistic music theatre" for many decades.

Since his sensational success with the title role from Händel's "Giustino" in 1984 at the Komische Oper, the young singer (born in 1954) counts among international popular representatives of his register. A countertenor from the European continent is rare, even rarer from the GDR. So far this voice type has been maintained almost exclusively by Englishmen. "Until about six years ago, I did not know there was such a thing", Kowalski confessed me when I met him for a conservation between his Hamburg performance and his return to East Berlin.

He had his first contact with his register through a record. He obtained Purcell's "Ode for Saint Cecilia's day" under Charles Mackerras and he heard Paul Esswood for the first time. "My God, that would surely be something for you!" thought he who had been struggling for years to study lyric tenor. "But I could speak about it with nobody because that was a completely new ground for us and people only laughed at it first." Thus, he studied tenor further at the Hanns Eisler college and strove for a heroic tenor carrier.

The opera had been his dream since he was young. "I come from a village in the March 1) of Brandenburg and as a teen-ager I always rode secretly on my motorcycle to the Staatsoper (state opera) Unter den Linden. Once I saw "Lohengrin" and he fascinated me so much and I thought that I had to manage it somehow [to sing that role].." Where there's a will, there's also a way. Kowalski came by at the Staatsoper - and he was employed as a property man. For five years, he thoroughly familiarized himself with the opera business. "I saw fabulous performances at that time. That was actually my training. I had the great luck of being always at the rehearsals."

In addition, he studied singing at Volksmusikschule (People's school of music) and took several attempts for an entrance examination for the Musikhochschule (college of music). Six long years he struggled there in a register, which was not his. "Even after the voice break, I could sing parts in the boy alto voice - but I did not give very much attention to it because I thought that I couldn't use it anyway." Encouraged by the record experience with Paul Esswood, he sang for the singing teacher, Marianne Fischer-Kupfer, - but this time alto arias in the original pitch. "She screamed and rushed to her husband and said. Harry, you must come here now: Here is something totally fabulous!"

By many coincidences at that time, a letter of the Landestheater (national theatre) in Halle came with an invitation to an audition as a countertenor out of the blue. The result: Kowalski was engaged immediately for the Händel festival 1982 and sang the third act, composed by Händel, of the opera pasticcio "Il Muzio Scevola". "That was a sensation. The people raved with enthusiasm! I did not know what happened to me at all. That was something totally new for the Halle." Almost like an apology he adds: "And I enjoyed it very much!"

This performance should not remain without consequences. The director of the Komische Oper was present and engaged Kowalski practically on the spot. Kowalski's first stage role was Feodor in "Boris Godunow". The second production "Giustino" gave him the opportunity to bring into bearing his whole masculine, juvenile charms, of which not only Berliners but also people in Munich, Amsterdam and Vienna could convince themselves. Belonging to the fixed cast of the Komische Oper and feeling artistically at home there, he has guest contracts with the Hamburg Staatsoper (Daniel in Händel's "Belsazar", Annio in Mozart's "La clemenza di Tito"), the Amsterdam opera (Feodor in "Boris Godunow") and the Viennese Volksoper ("Giustino" in an adoption of the Berlin production).

How do the western stages differ from the eastern ones? "At the Komische Oper they are working on a production for three months. That is ideal for the singer. One can work there without getting hectic, without pressure. On western stages, the artist shows up to the rehearsal finished with practice. Here one must be more self-reliant. There's no one there to hold your hands." In this summer he will go to Paris where he will sing Tolomeo in Händel's "Giulio Caesare" under Jean Claude Malgoire for the Grand Opéra. For the part of the Caesar, which he would rather sing, he still has time. "I must still leave the part for myself later when I'm over 40." Perhaps this production will be recorded. 2)


Speaking about records: the modern media world does not fail to see a singer like Kowalski. He has been already through different television recordings in both west and east. Exposing bare voice on disk without a visual appearance: the authoritative critic claims that it is a challenge for him. But he spoils this [criticism] frequently. "One had to have a man like Walter Legge 3) in the background. One that stands behind with a whip. This I wished for myself."

Now his first recital, a disk of Baroque arias of Prussian masters complied on the occasion of the 750th birthday of Berlin was released through a co-production with Capriccio label. 4) The second solo disk is half finished: one side is Mozart and the other side is Händel. 5) Further projects with the VEB Deutsche Schallplatten planned are the complete recording of Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice" 6) and Händel's oratorio "L'allegro, il pensieroso ed il moderato", 7) as well as a disk of Händel solo cantatas 8) among others. Finally a production of Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo" under John Eliot Gardiner, now for the Archiv Produktion of the Deutsche Grammophon. Here, he sang the role of the Speranza. 9) He indeed felt somewhat misplaced among his English colleagues.

Kowalski admits that he didn't know what to do with the emotional reduction of the vibrato as it is maintained by the English historical singing school. For him, Baroque music is erotic music, with which vocal sex appeal is just as important as an theatrically effective aura. When his colleagues of the same register sing, he feels that this aspect is neglected frequently. "To me it is sung too much without abdomen [i.e. support from the midriff], even by ladies" But how does he arrange the male aspect of his voice, which nevertheless has a very female timbre? "By pulling down the voice into the tips of the toe. Whether I always succeed, I do not know." Well dosed vibrato is a basic requirement for erotic singing for him. He is supported in this point by from his instructor, Marianne Fischer-Kupfer, who still cares for him today. She told him. "We do it differently from the Englishmen".


Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, 10) with whom he worked together in the last summer, remarked right at the beginning that she did not like countertenors. When he auditioned for her nevertheless, she stated that he was the rare case of a male alto. They separated in the best artistic agreement from each other. "I do not deem of anything as highly as the early Mozart recording by Mrs. Schwarzkopf. That is perfect for me", said the record collector Kowalski who is an enthusiastic lover of shellac records. "My ideal voice example would be a mixture of Sutherland, Callas, Wunderlich and Schwarzkopf. Thus, I like to be able to sing, something from each one of them. The expressive intensity of Callas with the perfect technique of Sutherland and Schwarzkopf with the beauty of Wunderlich."

Certainly, he repeatedly stumbles into unawareness and ignorance of musicians as well as listeners who often think that castrato and countertenor were two expressions of the same thing. "I always say to myself, those who is allowed to sing such music must be grateful over it from the morning to the night. This is how I am and those who talk behind my back do not disturb me." Doesn't he feel like being restricted because of the stylistically rather limited repertoire? "I do not think my repertoire is small at all. I am slowly widening it, at present towards Rossini from Tancredi's cavatina 11) 'Di tanti palpiti' which I just tried out for the first time at my Hamburg song evening."

Unfortunately the boss, as he affectionately and full of respect at the same time calls Harry Kupfer has no interest in Rossini. He also looks at Bellini and Donizetti for something suitable for his voice. An offer came from Amsterdam recently to sing Oberon in Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" a part composed for Alfred Deller. 12) In October, good looking slim Kowalski will sing at the Wiener Volksoper as Orlofsky in a new production of the "Fledermaus" - probably the first role-satisfying cast in the history of this operetta! Then follows at the end of December, Gluck's "Orpheus" at the Komische Oper. As long as it are trouser roles and the part is within his vocal range, he is open minded towards new things. "I also get attracted to Niklaus in "Hoffmanns Erzählungen" or Puck in Weber's "Oberon"... I am ready for every outrage!" Also contemporary music is on his programs. He recently performed a song cycle of the GDR composer Ruth Zechlin in Hamburg. "After all, modern music challenges you and it is a fun. I have to face up this Music, that's surely clear."

A certainly not everyday statement of a countertenor, but certainly typical for Jochen Kowalski. One does not have to be a prophet to forecast the sympathetic singer a career which will be unusual in a pleasant manner.

Translator's Note

1) It means margravate, the territory of a margrave (member of the German nobility corresponding in rank to a British marquess).

2) The Gulio Cesare under J.-C. Malgoire was recorded with James Bowman and Dominique Visse on Astree, i.e. without JK (Astree 8558).

3) A director and a husband of E. Schwarzkopf (below).

4) Arien aus der Berliner Operngeschichte" (Berlin Classic BC 1050-2). Most of the titles in this CD are also duplicated in the best CD released later (Berlin Classic 0093822BC).

5) "Haedel & Mozart Arien" (Capriccio 10 213).

6) "Orfeo ed Euridice" (Capriccio 60 008-2).

7) "L'allegro, il pensieroso ed il moderato" (Berlin Classic 1147-2).

8) "Italienische Solokantaten" (Capriccio 10 323)

9) The record is released with Michael Chance instead of JK from Deutche Grammphon (419 250-2 ARCHIV PRODUKTION) http://www.deutschegrammophon.com

10) DAME OLGA MARIA ELISABETH FRIEDERIKE SCHWARZKOPF (b. Dec. 9, 1915, Jarotschin, near Posen, Ger. [now Poznan, Pol.]), German soprano who performed in the major opera houses of the Western world and is remembered especially for her mastery of German songs known as lieder.

11) Cavatina: Italian possibly from "cavata" in 18th c. a song in an opera less elaborated than an aria. Now normally used of a short, sustained piece or air.

12) The part was also sang by the legendary American countertenor Russell Oberlin. For more detail, see Oberlin's interview at Lylicord site.

©1999 by Cleofide
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