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German article is here
DER SPIEGEL 52/1994 Kribbeln im Zwerchfell
Tickle in the Midriff*
Singing star Jochen Kowalski talks about castrati, sex in Wagner's music and GDR harassment
|Jochen Kowalski owes his world career to a productive vocal cord malfunction. The butcher's son from Wachow in Brandenburg who originally wanted to become a lyric tenor 1), kept his feminine high voice after the voice break, with which he interprets baroque castrato roles in addition to songs from the German classical and romantical period. Kowalski, 40, a star of the Komische Oper in Berlin, has already been known before the opening of the Wall through stage appearances and recordings. Major roles of the artist who also enjoys excursions to the light muse with chanson programs include Gluck's Orfeo and the title role in Händel's "Julius Caesar".|
SPIEGEL: Mr. Kowalski, you sing with a clear bell-like woman's voice. Are you missing something?
Kowalski:Absolutely no. I have everything on me. But I have not get used to my voice yet. For me, it is a psychological problem, which I have not worked out yet. Because I actually wanted to become a tenor, of course. When I listen to my lyric singing idol Fritz Wunderlich, I still get depressed once in a while.
SPIEGEL: How do you come to have a high pitch sound organ?
Kowalski: Quite simple: My alto voice was preserved beyond the voice break. In the Charité 2), they once shoved a mini camera into my cervical and discovered that my vocal cords swing only at the edges in contrast to other singers. 3) It is a type of defect. On the stage, therefore, the baroque castrato subject predominantly remains for me such as parts for Händel's Julius Caesar or Giustino.
SPIEGEL: You are a countertenor.
Kowalski: Not really. These colleagues achieve the high voice by the falsetto with an artificially pressed head voice. I, therefore, prefer to call myself altus.
SPIEGEL: How high can you sing?
Kowalski: Up to the f'' [F5], like a normal female alto does. Thus for example, I can sing the alto part in "St. Matthew's Passion" by Bach.
SPIEGEL: With the broken larynx, you carry it very far - to the Kammersänger 4) and now also to the star of the MET.
Kowalski: Amusing, isn't it? Even I am amazed at it. In the past, I used to be a voice miracle of the GDR and now I sing for the first time in New York, the "Fledermaus"-Orlofsky. For excitement, I couldn't sleep for days.
SPIEGEL: Do you still have fear of a new audience?
Kowalski: That is a struggle every time. Because I must convince people constantly of the fact that only this voice fits me. When I start singing, a feeling of astonishment often goes through the crowd. They look into the program and then onto the stage: Is that really a man out there on the stage?SPIEGEL: Have you ever got laughed at?
Kowalski: Once, at one song evening. There I got very red ears and a terrible adrenaline rush. But somehow I always get the people round. Sometimes I need one half the program. At the latest at Schumann's "Dichterliebe" [Poet's Love], a dead silence dominates and at the end they almost raved with enthusiasm.
SPIEGEL: Who heats up in such a way for you?
Kowalski: In Germany, particularly here in Berlin, it is an intensified lady audience, forces from 18 to 81, who travel after me, knit scarves and warm socks. Some believe even, they must marry me urgently. Those see a lust-object in me. In Spain, paradoxically men like me.
SPIEGEL: Perhaps as a lecher boy?
Kowalski: Nope, they are wild about my voice but only wanted to drink beer with me. The Spaniards love the German art songs. Yet, I have always thought that they only know Zarzuelas or their national Heroine Montserrat Caballé.
SPIEGEL: Italy, the motherland of the castrati, they certainly worship you, don't they?Kowalski: Not at all. In Rome, once an evening with Händel cantatas totally went wrong. The Italians are fixed on their "grandi tenori". With my alto voice, it's hopeless. In former times, it was quite different there. If a castrato like the famous Farinelli sang, women continuously fell in ecstasy and faint. Singing has always something to do with sexuality and eroticism. When I hear a terrific voice, I always notice immediately all below in the midriff. In the abdomen, chemical processes take place then.
SPIEGEL: Who brings you into hot flush?
Kowalski: The legendary Lotte Lehmann for example. What happens with Lotti is incredible. Technically she was not at all perfect. But when I hear her on a record as Sieglinde in the first act of the "Walküre" with Lauritz Melchior 5), then it is the erotic thunderstorm for me. Her colleague, Kirsten Flagstad, once said after a Lehmann entrance: "a decent wife does that only with her husband in bed."
SPIEGEL: With Händel and Gluck, one does not storm bedrooms.
Kowalski: Nope. Therefore, I still daydream, fantasize about the sensuous Wagner parts, Lohengrin or even Tristan, preferably in Bayreuth [Festival]. I already even offered in vain to sing an alto solo in the "Parsifal" to the festival director, Wolfgang Wagner. Herr. Wagner, please.
SPIEGEL: Emergency call to Bayreuth. Did you take your training lessons with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf 6) for the "Grüner Hügel" ?
Kowalski: Not directly. I took a quick look into a Masters course of the honoured Soprano. She greeted me instantly with a disgruntled manner: "I can not stand countertenors". I replied: "well, me neither." 7) Nevertheless, she still wanted to teach me some higher tones.
SPIEGEL: She did not want qualify herself for the lsolde yet? 8)
Kowalski: Good Heavens! The colleague [E.S.] pricked me only vigorously in the flank, held my temples and wanted make me appreciate the ideal singing technique for me. We separated in reciprocal lack of understanding.
SPIEGEL: Do you often experience such a disagreement?
Kowalski: Rarely. It was terrible with the British conductor John Eliot Gardiner, who is highly praised as a specialist for period instruments. We do not fit stylistically and he had a fatal inclination to ruin my individuality as a singer. And humour is given him not at all. In London, I should record Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo" with him and he completely took me quite apart in the studio. I should sing like a countertenor...
SPIEGEL: ..thus in the hated falsetto.
Kowalski: Yes, this asexual puffs. I blew up at Gardiner. "Take a look into the telephone book and choose yourself a singer". He brought me almost to howling. I cried otherwise only when Heinrich George in the film "Der Postmeister" comes to death. With Gardiner I will never work again. 9)
SPIEGEL: Are you in a competition with singing ladies for your high voice?
Kowalski: That's what they initially thought. When I sang Orlofsky in 1987 in Vienna, the assembly of Kammersänger ladies waited me to do a belly landing. Then, I was a sensation. And the most famous Orlofsky interpreter, Brigitte Fassbaender, said that she never wanted to sing this role again after my appearance.
SPIEGEL: Will you also do a feminine singing in other trousers roles, perhaps the beautiful young man Octavian in the "Rosenkavalier"?Kowalski: Absolutely not. Most of them are too high for me anyway. Additionally, Richard Strauss has written such parts expressly for women. It is concerned with a girl in boy's role as a special sexual attraction. Two women as a loving couple - that was fashionable at that time. If I would take that part, it would be only an embarrassing transvestites number. I, however, want to be taken seriously.
SPIEGEL: Obviously also as an entertainer. You allow yourself oftentimes avid excursion into the kitsch.
Kowalski: Yes. I love to do it as an addition to my lieder recital. I then assume a provocative stance at the piano, stand the dress coat collar and rise one eyebrow and mushily tremor "Roter Mohn"...
SPIEGEL: ...the immortal sentimental song of the Chilean nightingale Rosita Serrano. 10)
Kowalski: Then they all laugh. That is my torcadero piece. Since my young days, I have a inclination to hits and sentimental songs. With three actor colleagues, I even have a very successful entertainment program in the German Theatre in Berlin. It is called "Eine Sehnsucht, ganz egal wonach! (longing, no matter of all for what!)" and at the closing I sing with trill "Du hast Glück bei den Frau'n, Bel-ami (You Have a Luck with Women, Bel Ami)". 11)
SPIEGEL: What do you like to pursuit in your spare time?
Kowalski: Also something easy to digest. Here in the Komische Oper when I had six, seven hours of hard rehearsal with my favourite director Harry Kupfer, I am so wrecked that I try to surround myself with "the woman of my dream" Marika Rökk or any other video schmaltzies. And oftentimes when I watch the melodrama "Heimat (Homeland)" and Zarah Leander resonates, I ask myself: In which pitch does the lass actually sing? It is wonderful. I am crazy about the German UFA 12) film and its songs with all my heart. I collect them all since I was 14 and got my first gramophone and many old shellac disks.
SPIEGEL: Did the family show understanding of your inclinations?
Kowalski: Yes. I come from a butchery in Wachow, a rural town in Brandenburg and there we sang constantly. My mother was a serious protestant and every Sunday ten o'clock she led the divine service. She had a high dramatic soprano with beautiful warm loftiness. In the slaughter house, my father loudly sang his favourite "Es steht ein Soldat am Wolgastrand (There stands a soldier at the bank of Volga)" 13).
SPIEGEL: A traditional childhood.
Kowalski: Well, and how [traditional]! At home, there was always high life, when Henry Vahl and Heidi Kabel were presented in the Western broadcasting on Saturday, "Tratsch im Treppenhaus (Gossip in the staircase)" and similar droll stories. It was wonderful. In the meanwhile, I've had everything on video. Then in 1985, I was finally allowed to admire the wonderful Ohnsorg [Theatre] comedians live.
SPIEGEL: As a travel cadre, you gave guest performances in the west already for a long time before the end of the wall. How was the first FRG contact?
Kowalski: Exciting. On January 27, 1985 I arrived at Hamburg's Dammtor station. I should be play the role of the prophet Daniel in Händel's "Belsazar", but my first thought was: Get up to the Reeperbahn! 14) Ultimately, I wanted to see a sex shop. After a few drinks of beer, I dared. I went again every evening. One had to catch up so much after all.
SPIEGEL: And the contact to the advanced culture?
Kowalski: That was volatile. I had a ticket for Neumeier's "Swan Lake" ballet and I poor Ossi [GDR citizen] came into the opera and was ashamed terribly. There all these nifty people from the Elbchaussee strolling around, they were so tanned, so posh and smelt so good. During the break, I enclosed myself in the toilet and after the break, I sneaked out.
SPIEGEL: The aroma of capitalism rose unpleasantly into your nose?Kowalski: Not at all. I immediately bought something for dressing and for pleasant smell. Later I could afford a true car, a rapid black BMW by my western salary.
SPIEGEL: Didn't the car create bad blood at home?
Kowalski: They didn't want to allow me to enter [the GDR] with it. Three and a half hours, the half-witted border guard telephoned around even although I could present the import licence from Genossin Adler of the Ministry of Foreign Trade. Finally, I played a desperate hoax and threatened with the Politbüro, with Kurt Hager. Suddenly, I was allowed to bring in the FRG vehicle. Then at the Berlin customs, they dismantled it took for three days. The result: The BMW did not meet the road traffic regulations of the GDR. "Pardon me?" I screamed. But, said the custom officer, it is missing the splash guards over the rear tires. Sheer harassment.
SPIEGEL: How did the dirt drama end?
Kowalski: I asked: "Comrades, how long will you be open? Ok, let me drive over to KaDeWe 15) now and fetch that car mad flap thing." 16) They hated me for that! By the way, today all BMWs run on my street.
SPIEGEL: Do you feel comfortable in new Germany?
Kowalski: Surely. But it's a matter of fact that my artistic roots are in the GDR. Here in my beloved Komische Oper, Harry Kupfer discovered me, here I started out as Benjamin 17), and for the colleagues I am still [Benjamin], although I am already rather old.
SPIEGEL: When will your dear throat rest?
Kowalski: I probably still want to sing for another ten years.
SPIEGEL: Which parting song do you dream of?
Kowalski: The alto part in the "St. Matthew's Passion". I would like to sing it very beautifully: There cannot be more climax than this.
SPIEGEL: And the last act in the torcadero part?
Kowalski: Naturally the red-light cantata, "Roter Mohn".
SPIEGEL: To mark the occasion, accompanied by the head-pressing fanatic John Eliot Gardiner on period instruments.
Kowalski: Ingenious. In this way, an altus goes out of the world.
SPIEGEL: Herr Kammersänger, we thank you for this interview.
1) Tenor with a light voice and a melodic style. Other two styles of tenor are dramatic tenor who has a powerful voice and a declamatory style and heldentenor (heroic tenor) with a powerful dramatic voice well suited to heroic (as Wagnerian) roles.
2) Humboldt University Clinic in Berlin http://www.charite.de/index/deutsch.html. It was featured in a video "The Reluctant Angels --- The World of Castrati with Jochen Kowalski".
3) Some critics claim that it should also be categorized as falsetto.
4) A title awarded to singer of outstanding merit. Originally, it means the status of the personnel who is allowed to enter the private room (Kammer) ofaristocrats.
5) Acclaimed heldentenor (heroic tenor) (1890-1973).
6) 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.
7) His original comment was "Na, ick ooch nich." It is Berlin dialect for "Na, ich auch nicht."
9) The record is released with Michael Chance instead of JK from Deutsche Grammphon http://www.deutschegrammophon.com (419 250-2 ARCHIV PRODUKTION).
10) You can listen to a sample clip of her Roter Mohn in jpc http://www.jpc.de/index_en.shtml.
11) Deutsches Theater site http://www.deutsches-theater.berlin.net
12) "Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft". The government-subsidized conglomerate of main German production, distribution, and exhibition companies. Later transferred to private control, UFA became the single largest studio in Europe and produced most of the films associated with the "golden age" of German cinema during the Weimar Republic (1919-33).
13) The most popular aria from Franz Lehar's operetta "Der Zarewitsch".
14) The world-famous red-light district of Hamburg where prostitution is legally permitted and kept under control by the police.
15) "Kaufhaus des Westens", a large and famous department store in the former Western part of Berlin. At that time, the KaDeWe was the symbol for western capitalism in the GDR.
16) The original German was "Jut, ick fahr' mal eben rüber ins KaDeWe und hol' diese Abspritz-Ottos." Here, again JK is speaking with a strong Berliner accent.17) A beloved youngest son of Jacob [Gen 35: 16-18, 42:4]. Here, it means the favourite youngest member of the group.
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